Bárta trial adjourns after an ugly week

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK

The first round of the trial of leading Public Affairs member and former transport minister Vít Bárta comes to a close on Friday. Over the course of the week no less than six past and present government ministers have taken the stand to give testimony in the biggest corruption case in recent memory, which will be adjourned on Friday while the court goes over the evidence.

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK
The week began with testimony from the main actors in the affair. Krystina Kočí, formerly a leading party member, repeated her allegation that she was given half a million crowns by Vít Bárta in an envelope in an upscale restaurant last March, and that she was told to be more loyal and not work against him. She said that their personal relations at that point were highly strained and that her loyalty to the party had suffered from Mr Bárta’s undemocratic practices. She also testified that all of the in-party referendums that the “direct democracy” party held were rigged. Other party members have testified that she admitted to them that she had received the money as a loan but would be able to present it in the media as a bribe.

Jaroslav Škárka, who is also being tried for taking a bribe from Mr Bárta, repeated that he had long received extra money from Mr Bárta for “loyalty” and later received a sum of 170,000 in an envelope, which the prosecutor accuses him of having partially spent, and reporting only out of fear of the media. Mr Škárka claimed in court to have a recording of the visit with Mr Bárta during which he was given the money, but said the part containing the actual handover was incomprehensible due to anti-recording jammers in Mr Bárta’s office. This revelation brought out a surge of emotion from Mr Bárta, who said he felt betrayed.

Jaroslav Škárka, photo: CTK
High-profile members of Public Affairs have come to Mr Bárta’s defence. Key members denied ever having given Mr Škárka money while others testified that Škárka was frequently in need of finances and often borrowed from others. The party’s chairman, Radek John, who was forced out of his position as Interior Minister as an indirect result of the scandal, repeated this, and painted Vít Bárta as someone generous enough to loan money to anyone, saying that half a million crowns for Bárta was like 500 for him. Many of the ranking Public Affairs members also testified that Krystina Kočí was acting in concert with leading figures in the Civic Democratic Party to split the party.

President Klaus poured scorn on the situation this week, calling it an absurd reality show that was destructive of the political system in the Czech Republic. His take was echoed by Prime Minister Petr Nečas, who said that looking into the bowels of a political party is never a pretty sight. Political leaders are anxious to stress that it is people, rather than parties, that are on trial. That will be a hard sell here, given the level of in-party and cross-party intrigue that virtually all sides have employed. In the court of public opinion at least, none of the litigants can win at this stage.

Kristýna Kočí, photo: CTK
The whole affair has focused a great many shady political practices onto one stage. The unbridled use of secret recording of meetings has been particularly stunning – after hearing the secret recording of Krystina Kočí seemingly admitting participation in an in-party coup and Mr Škárka’s unveiling of a new recording, at least two more secret recordings were admitted on Friday, and the courtroom actually burst out laughing when one of the witnesses backed up his testimony by saying he had it all on tape.

A lot of the testimony has also revolved around hearsay, actually leading the judge at one point to say that no one from Public Affairs remembers anything.

The judge himself though was baffled by the president’s complaint, saying he didn’t understand whether Mr Klaus objected to the trial itself or to the fact that it is open to the media, and added that the witnesses and defendants had been discussing the case in the media for a year already and therefore there was no point in closing the courtroom.

Radek John, photo: CTK
Mr Bárta has always denied any connection between the detective agency he founded, ABL, and the party he commands, but that has been hard to maintain over the week of the trial. A number of the witnesses have been detectives from the company who handled various tasks for Mr Bárta or the party, admitting to following politicians at their behest, and on Friday Mr Bárta himself seemed to imply, that an acting detective of ABL worked closely with the party. This may be one aspect of the case that will cement itself in public opinion, regardless of the outcome of the trial – that the junior coalition party is inexorably linked to the detective agency ABL, even by Mr Bárta’s admission.

The other fact that is here to stay is Mr Bárta’s inherently flimsy defence, whereby he admits to having given money, but says they were loans for which there is no evidence. Even if the court finds that to be true, legally, for public figures to give such large sums of money to other politicians in envelopes is at the very least a violation of money laundering legislation. That may only be a misdemeanour offence legally, but the public, which is vociferously fed up with corruption scandals, is unlikely to see it that way. In any case, the trial will continue in April after the court has examined new evidence, and a verdict may be reached at that time.