Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš on trial in $2m EU grant fraud case | Czech Republic
The trial of former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, accused of subsidy fraud, has opened, in a case that could profoundly affect the politics of the central European country.
Babiš, a billionaire tycoon, is accused of illegally obtaining €2m (£1.7m) in EU small business funds for the development of Stork’s Nest, a hotel and conference center in the Bohemian countryside , while he was not eligible for such financial aid because he was part of his multi-industrial Agrofert business empire, which controls large swaths of the Czech economy.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt, Babiš, 68, looked solemn as he entered the largest courtroom of the Habsburg-era Prague City Court on Monday in 8:52 a.m., his arrival recorded by a massive bank of press photographers and television cameramen, reflecting intense public interest in hearings that have been delayed for years, in part because of his political stance.
Onlookers crammed into public benches, with entry granted only on a ticket basis, while opponents of the former prime minister set up a fake prison cell opposite the courthouse in the one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Czech capital.
Babiš is on trial alongside a former aide, Jana Nagyová, who is running in the upcoming Czech senatorial elections as a candidate for the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party, which Babiš founded in 2011 on an anti-corruption platform .
The trial is the outcome of a seven-year police investigation into events dating back to 2007 which were the subject of a report by the EU’s anti-fraud unit, Olaf, which concluded in 2018 that many laws were broken to obtain the funds.
Babiš, who denies the charges and says they are politically motivated, dismissed the case as ‘a 15-year-old case’ and called the indictment, filed by prosecutor Jaroslav Šaroch, a ‘lie’ , in remarks on Czech television moments before. the procedure has started. “I’m glad people know how it is,” he added.
Thirteen days were set aside for the trial, with testimony expected from at least a dozen witnesses, including Babiš’s son, Andrej Babiš Jnr.
After years of court adjournments and delays, Babiš was finally charged in March when MPs lifted his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, five months after he lost power in a general election. Babiš had previously been able to avoid a trial by maintaining immunity thanks to parliamentary support for his coalition government.
The indictment alleges that Babiš used his power and influence to create the conditions for Stork’s Nest to appear as if he qualified for a grant from the European Regional Development Fund. Sitting next to his lawyer Eduard Bruna, Babiš put on glasses and took turns taking notes and checking his phone as Šaroch read the indictment after court president Jan Šott initiated the proceedings .
Šott leads a five-judge panel that will ultimately decide the case. The conviction carries a prison sentence, but the prosecution is calling for less severe penalties, including fines.
More important for Babiš might be the impact on his political career. A guilty verdict could dash his hopes of winning the Czech presidency, with elections scheduled for January.
Although he did not declare his candidacy, Babiš left the door open as he toured the country in a motorhome, delivering what analysts consider to be de facto campaign speeches expressing populist positions, including criticism of the military support from the Czech Republic to Ukraine and the acceptance of approximately 400,000 refugees.
Million Moments for Democracy, a campaign group that staged mass rallies demanding Babiš’s resignation when he was prime minister, ridiculed his presidential ambitions by setting up the fake cell on a trailer outside the courthouse, with gold-plated toilets and a gold duvet on a prison bed meant the specter of a sitting president who had been convicted and imprisoned.
“It’s a hyperbolic vision of the future,” said Kristina Jochmannová, the group’s public relations manager. “We are not trying to influence the court’s verdict. It’s a message to people to think twice about who they want to run for president.
The trailer was to visit Lány, the Czech presidential retreat in the countryside, before continuing to the Slovak capital, Bratislava, the traditional first stopover for Czech presidents after elections.
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