Czech MPs Bárta, Škárka sentenced in bribery case

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK

A Prague court on Friday delivered a verdict in one of the most high-profile cases in recent years. The court found the unofficial leader of the coalition Public Affairs party guilty of bribery, and fellow MP and former Public Affairs chair of fraud. The case also highlighted the shady practices within the Public Affairs party which has been behind a series of government crises.

Vít Bárta, photo: CTK
Justice Jan Šott reading a breakthrough verdict which found MP and Public Affairs de-facto leader Vít Bárta guilty of bribery, and fellow MP and former Public Affairs chair Jaroslav Škárka of fraud.

Vít Bárta, the former transport minister and the current head of the coalition Public Affairs party’s deputy club, was sentenced to 18 months in jail with a probation period of 30 months.

According to the court, Mr Bárta last year provided interest-free loans to fellow MPs Jaroslav Škárka and Kristýna Kočí, who have since left the party. He did so to make sure the deputies would not voice their complaints about a cut in their salaries which would have shown the party in a bad light.

Jaroslav Škárka, photo: CTK
Interestingly, Justice Šott said the court accepted Mr Bárta’s line of defence and rejected claims by the prosecution he was deliberately trying to bribe the deputies. However, the judge argued that regardless of his motive Mr Bárta’s actions did constitute bribery. In light of Mr Bárta’s clean record, the court opted for a suspended sentence.

One of the reasons for delivering a sentence at the lower end of the scale, the court said, was the fact that Vít Bárta was framed by the two MPs, Jaroslav Škárka and Kristýna Kočí, who had by that time become his rivals within the party. That’s also why the other defendant in the case, MP Jaroslav Škárka, was sentenced to three years in prison.

The courtroom, packed with reporters and TV crews, listened for over an hour as Justice Šott delivered overwhelming evidence showing that Mr Škárka set up Vit Barta and produced counterfeit evidence to the court to implicate him.

“It was proven beyond doubt that Jaroslav Škárka, acting under the false pretence of asking for a loan, conned Vít Bárta of 170,000 crowns with the true of intention of using the transaction to discredit him.”

Jan Šott, photo: CTK
The verdict bans Jaroslav Škárka from holding a seat in the lower house of Parliament for the period of 10 years, although most experts claim the court has no right to do so under the Czech Constitution. Judge Šott also suggested the police investigate MP Kristýna Kočí’s role in the plot.

Both MPs appealed the verdict on the spot, and the case will be heard at a court of appeals.

Immediately after the ruling was delivered, Vít Bárta announced he was stepping down as the head of his party’s deputies’club in the lower house, and would put his party membership on hold. According to media reports both Vít Bárta and Jaroslav Škárka said they would not give up their seats in the lower house.

Kristýna Kočí
Reacting to the verdict, President Václav Klaus said in a statement he was saddened by the practices that have taken root in Czech politics. For his part, Prime Minister Petr Nečas said he expected both convicted officials to quit politics, adding that the verdict did not threaten the coalition government.

However, the case is likely to have serious political implications. It puts the coalition Public Affairs party under pressure to reform which might lead to a split within the group. Public Affairs’ voter support has already plummeted, and it is now difficult to foresee how the party will react to the situation.