Czech parliament strips billionaire premier of his immunity

Andrej Babis denounces fraud charges as an organised attempt to torpedo his political career

Prague: Czech lawmakers stripped Prime Minister Andrej Babis of his immunity to let prosecutors renew fraud charges in a case that has hamstrung the billionaire’s efforts to create a government after his Euro-sceptic party ANO dominated last year’s elections.

Babis, who rejects allegations of wrongdoing in the case of suspected misuse of European Union funds by a company he once owned, denounced the charges on Friday as an organised attempt to torpedo his political career. Still, he and one of his executives who is also a senior member of his ANO party asked parliament to lift their protection from prosecution before a parliamentary vote made it official.

As other leaders in the EU’s eastern wing also struggle to consolidate power amid corruption and other criminal investigations, the Czech probe has blocked Babis’s attempt to form a cabinet. After ANO won October elections but fell short of a majority, Babis’s preferred partners have rejected working with anyone who may face prosecution. The case — which has been investigated by the EU’s OLAF anti-fraud office — hasn’t dented the popularity of the second-richest Czech, who’s the most popular politician in the country of 10.6 million.

“It’s an order by the mafia that has stolen billions here,” Babis told lawmakers before the vote. “We live in a country where you can order prosecution and probably get someone into prison.”

Babis’s comments drew a rebuke from Chief Prosecutor Pavel Zeman, who said that unfounded claims of the manipulation of legal procedures were damaging the reputation of the judiciary system. Zeman’s complaint follows accusations from EU leaders that other eastern member governments — particularly in Poland and Hungary — are eroding democracy and the rule of law.

“It’s sad that politicians are undermining the credibility of the judiciary, which has no means to defend itself,” the CTK news service quoted Zeman as saying. “They’re also undermining the trust in justice as one of the main values forming the foundation of our society.”

Without immunity, police can renew the charges that they filed last year but that were rendered invalid when Babis’s immunity was renewed when he was elected. The case, which includes charges against more people, including the premier’s wife, is centred around the suspected misuse of a 50 million-koruna (Dh8.8 million) EU subsidy at the Stork Nest recreation Centre. The site once belonged to Babis’s business empire, which includes chemical and food firms as well as the country’s two largest newspapers.

Lawmakers forced Babis’s first government — a single-party minority cabinet — to resign this week by defeating it in a confidence motion, leaving him to pursue another round of negotiations. President Milos Zeman has promised to again name Babis as premier.


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