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News > Press Releases 2010 > Otakar Motejl – justice, democracy and serving the people

Otakar Motejl – justice, democracy and serving the people

12. 05. 2010

In Otakar Motejl we have lost a man whose wisdom and untiring service to others made him a role model to all. In his youth he was a scout, and right up to the very last moments of his life he was a shining example of one who upheld the scout oath  – to be prepared to help one's country and fellow men with all one's soul and body. Such people are rare in Czech public life.

Dr. Otakar Motejl, Public Defender of Citizens' Rights of the Czech Republic, passed  away on Sunday, May 9, 2010 after a short illness. The ombudsman was a former chairman of the Supreme Court of the Czech Republic, a former justice minister, but most of all, throughout his life, he was a dedicated lawyer, a  defender of justice and democratic principles, and an advocate of ordinary and simple humanity.

He died at the age of 77 and his death is a great loss to society, a loss of one of the country's most respected personalities and public figures.

Although public opinion polls regularly showed that his popularity among Czech politicians was very high, in reality, he never was one. He did not understand politics and took no interest in it. It was with great care that he guarded his position of being a politically impartial person and he never became a member of any political party.

He was born on September 10, 1932 into a Prague family of lawyers, and it was thus only natural that he continued in the family tradition. After graduating from the Faculty of Law at Charles University in Prague, he worked as a defence lawyer until 1990.  Among others, he defended a number of dissidents and activists of independent organisations. He held the posts of chairman of the Supreme Court of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and, subsequently, chairman of the Supreme Court of the Czech Republic, from 1990 until 1998.

In 1998 he accepted the post of justice minister. However, as his efforts to reform the Czech judiciary proved futile, he left the post and the political scene after less than two years of service.

On December 18, 2000 he was elected by the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament of The Czech Republic as the country's first public defender of citizens' rights, otherwise known as ombudsman. And on December 19, 2006 he was confirmed in this office for a further electoral term of six years.

As public defender of rights he built up his office from what could be called ground zero, moreover, in an atmosphere of open lack of trust in his newly established office. Thanks to his experience, his attitude, and a certain amount of informality, he managed in a less than a decade to build an institution which is now respected by citizens, politicians, public institutions, and even by foreign ombudsmen. He proved that citizens can be effectively defended against the public administration, and that an ombudsman needs neither coercive nor decision making power in order to be able to carry through its work, even an amendment to an Act.  

In the office of ombudsman, Dr. Motejl was a wise arbitrator who resolved disputes among citizens and public bodies on daily basis. He frequently expressed frank exasperation over abuses and negligence on the part of public offices. However, he did not interpret his office as being that of a strict supervisor, nor as that of prosecutor or judge. He largely interpreted it as an office in which one acted as a mediator between the citizen and the state authority. In a very sober and yet very effective manner, within the scope of his authority he provided protection for those who turned to him. He maintained a certain distance from both public offices and citizens, and it  was exactly that which enabled him to make fair and considered judgements.

He was aware of the fact that both citizens and public offices need to have their eyes opened, that they need to be taught to mutually respect each other, and that such respect cannot be achieved though punishment, but through patient enlightenment, and through dialogue and guidance.

Whenever he strongly rebuked a public body, it was clear to everyone that the matter had to be taken seriously and that the body by its actions must have overstepped all reasonable boundaries.

And he was not afraid of becoming unpopular. He not only independently inquired into matters of interest to the majority of society (for example, the case of the national library, access to medical files, invalidity benefits and allowances, arbitration clauses in consumer agreements, and undue delays in court proceedings), but, also, he took  on cases which the masses failed to applaud. His inquiries into the evictions of members of the Romany minority from the town of Vsetín, the removal of minors pursuant to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, and the seizing of social benefits in the town of Chomutov were among those where he resolutely stood by his opinion, despite being widely opposed by the media, and in spite of the consequent hate-mail that he received on daily basis.

He knew that law and justice is not and cannot be limited to something that is only enjoyed and applied by some people. He maintained that a society which is inconsistent in the application of law can never be prefaced by the word 'democratic'.

He was a great fighter for justice and the thing he cared about most was the future of the Czech judiciary. Although as ombudsman he protected the rights of citizens, he  was well aware of how significant an independent and well-functioning judiciary is for democracy. He thus found any instance of the judiciary having been discredited very hard to bear. He used to say: “This must be taken seriously, this matter concerns dealings with justice.”

His work meant everything to him and as ombudsman he managed to re- awaken the young, passionately-committed attorney in himself. He worked late nights and would stay up reading letters of complainants, and signing replies and reports on inquiries until he was completely exhausted. He even occasionally used to joke about it, saying that it would be a great death, to die at work.

In Otakar Motejl we have lost a man whose wisdom and untiring service to others made him a role model to all. In his youth he was a scout, and right up to the very last moments of his life he was a shining example of one who upheld the scout oath  – to be prepared to help one's country and fellow men with all one's soul and body. Such people are rare in Czech public life.

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