Justice minister‘s resignation raises concerns about possible political pressure on judiciary

Jan Kněžínek, photo: Czech Television

The unexpected resignation of Justice Minister Jan Kněžínek late last week, coming just one day after police investigators proposed charging the prime minister with EU subsidy fraud has raised an outcry from opposition politicians, who say the move gives serious cause for concern about the independence of the Czech judiciary.

Jan Kněžínek,  photo: Czech Television
Justice Minister Kněžínek announced his resignation just days after an announced cabinet reshuffle in which he was not named and failed to give any specific reason for his decision to quit. Almost immediately Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced his successor in the post, former justice minister and former chief state attorney, Marie Benešová, currently an advisor to President Miloš Zeman on matters of the judiciary.

Both the justice minister’s resignation and the choice of his successor sparked an immediate outcry, with the opposition linking the move to the fact that the police file on the prime minister has now been handed to a state attorney who is to decide on whether to press charges or close the case. There was immediate speculation that Marie Benešová would cleanse the State Attorney’s Office, starting with the Chief State Attorney Pavel Zeman. Over Easter Benešová dismissed the speculation as nonsensical.

“This speculation about how I will remove selected state attorneys from office is pure nonsense. I plan to do nothing of the kind.”

Jan Hamáček, head of the Social Democrats who are in coalition with the prime minister’s ANO party, said he was surprised by the development, adding that he did not expect any changes at the State Attorney’s Office.

Meanwhile opposition parties have accused the prime minister of putting pressure on the outgoing justice minister and selecting a replacement who would be loyal in doing his bidding. Civic Democratic Party leader Petr Fiala said the latest development in Czech politics was “unbelievable” while the head of the Christian Democrats’ deputies group in the lower house Jan Bartošek blamed the justice minister for allegedly chickening-out in a difficult situation.

Marie Benešová,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“This is a time when the justice minister should have shown courage and defended the independence of state attorneys and the judiciary. I personally view his resignation as an act of cowardice.”

The president of the Union of Judges Daniela Zemanová said that the timing of the minister’s resignation and the way it had been announced was unfortunate, given the circumstances.

“It was a political decision and we fully respect that. However when such a decision is made it should be clearly justified and explained so as to prevent speculation that politicians are intervening in the independence of the judiciary. Because in our system the justice minister does have the means to do that, considerable means I would say.”

The new justice minister will be appointed on April 30th and there is no doubt at all that she will be under close scrutiny from all sides.