Former defence minister to be charged in corruption case

Martin Barták, photo: archive of the Czech Army

One of the most blatant corruption cases in recent years will end up in court. Prosecutors in the north-eastern city of Ostrava have announced that two people will be charged in the case of the 2006 purchase of Tatra trucks for the Czech army. Although no details about the charges and the people involved have been officially disclosed, a number of Czech media have reported that former defence minister Martin Barták is one the two men facing prosecution.

In the latest edition of the corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, which came out on Thursday, the Czech Republic sank to 57th place out of 138 countries, and is now en par with Namibia and Saudi Arabia.

The country has grave issues with transparent public procurement and partial interests; some Czech political parties are run like business organizations, with unelected power figures pulling the strings behind the scenes. One of the areas most plagued by corruption has been defence and army contracting. Billions were lost in suspicious deals such as the purchases of Pandur armoured vehicles and CASA transports planes, or the lease of Gripen fighter jets. But now it seems that one such case – the 2006 purchase of nearly 600 Tatra trucks for the Czech military – might eventually end up in court.

Photo: Barbora Němcová
On Wednesday, prosecutor Dušan Táborský closed the investigation of alleged bribery related to the 2.7 billion crown contract with Tatra, and said charges would be raised against two people.

“In this stage of the investigation, we have gained evidence which enables, and even obliges us to launch criminal proceedings against two perpetrators of serious crime.”

The prosecution has not specified the charges or disclosed the names of the people in question. But according to wide-spread media speculation, the two people to be charged with bribery are former defence minister Martin Barták and arms dealer Michal Smrž.

One of the major leads in the case came from the chair of Tatra’s supervisory board, and former US ambassador to the Czech Republic, William Cabaniss. A year after the contract was awarded, Tatra was having problems with one of its sub-suppliers, a company called Praga, which could jeopardize the whole deal.

William Cabaniss
In February 2008, Mr Cabaniss met with then deputy defence minister Martin Barták who offered to help – for a bribe. The police began investigating the Tatra deal soon after Mr Cabaniss’ testimony came out in the daily Mladá fronta Dnes. This is the crucial part of a phone conversation between the daily’s reporter and Mr Cabaniss.

“At some point in the conversation, he said: ‘For a certain amount of money’ – I don’t remember the exact amount – ‘the problems between Tatra and Praga can be solved. I didn’t respond, I thought it was very unusual and out-of-order conversation for someone at the Defence Ministry, and I walked away and had no further conversation with him.”

MFD: Can you name the deputy?

“It was Martin Barták.”

Mr Barták has vigorously denied all corruption allegations; he says he was not involved in the deal in any way, and considers himself a victim of ‘judicial and media witch-hunt’. The good news is that he will likely be able to prove this in court.

The Czechs might yet have to wait and see whether the Tatra case will be a breakthrough in fighting corruption in their country. But the lack of transparency has become a nationwide concern; the head of Transparency International’s Czech branch, David Ondráčka, is carefully optimistic.

“On a number of levels – national, regional and local – I see many brave and courageous people who try to introduce anti-corruption measures and promote integrity. So I’m not totally sceptical and I believe that the civil society is not passive, and you can see a boom in new initiatives and approaches against corruption.”