Former finance minister sentenced to five years for embezzlement

Ivo Svoboda and Barbora Snopkova, photo: CTK

The Central Bohemian Regional Court was swarming with reporters on Wednesday in anticipation of a ruling on the case against the former Czech finance minister Ivo Svododa and his close aide Barbora Snopkova. Both were found guilty of fraud and sentenced to five and five and a half years in jail respectively. Svoboda is the first former cabinet minister to be served a prison sentence since the fall of communism in 1989.

Ivo Svoboda and Barbora Snopkova, photo: CTK
It was a long and winding court case in which the defendants held up the proceedings as often as possible. Both looked tired and broken as they stood to hear the judge's sentence: five and five and a half years in prison respectively for having unlawfully transferred 6.5 million crowns to two of their own private companies from the now bankrupt pram manufacturer Liberta, while they were members of its board. In addition to that -a million crown fine. The court ruling ended speculation that the former finance minister was beyond the reach of justice. Paradoxically, he was a member of Cabinet at the time when the ruling Social Democrats launched their Clean Hands Operation against corruption at all levels. Unlike other former ministers whose activities the police sought to investigate, Svoboda was not protected by Parliamentary immunity. So will his actions damage the reputation of the ruling Social Democratic party today? Professor Vladimira Dvorakova of the Prague School of Economics thinks not:

"It is a paradox but I do think it can actually help the party's image because it is sending a very important message to the public. First that there are independent courts in this country which decide according to the evidence presented and are not under political pressure. This is very important. And secondly, that even former high placed members of the governing party can be punished for breaking the law."

So, basically, more damage has been done by Parliament which refused to strip other former ministers of their immunity...

"Yes, that is damaging and we have seen it happen before. Even the former Cabinet of ex-prime minister Vaclav Klaus tried to prevent the investigation of high ranking officials of the party and the government."

Both the former finance minister Ivo Svoboda and his one time aide Barbora Snopkova maintain that they are innocent and have appealed the verdict. The case will now go to the High Court in Prague.