Prosecutor drops fraud case against Czech PM – but story not over yet

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Slavomír Kubeš

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš can let out a sigh of relief, albeit a temporary one. On Monday morning, Deník N broke the story that the state attorney had halted the prosecution of Mr. Babiš for his alleged involvement in the so-called Stork’s Nest affair. However, the story is far from over as the decision is yet to be approved by the prosecutor’s superiors and other legal moves are possible.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Slavomír Kubeš
For four years now, Andrej Babiš has been facing an investigation into allegations that he was involved in the wrongful acquisition of CZK 50 million in EU subsidies for the Stork’s Nest recreation complex near Prague.

In March the police concluded the investigation and proposed that the prime minister as well as a number of his family members and former colleagues face trial.

However, on Monday, the daily Deník N reported that Jaroslav Šaroch, the public prosecutor in charge of the investigation, had sent a letter to his superiors at the Prague Public Prosecutor's Office asking to halt the prosecution of the prime minister and other suspects.

The news was subsequently confirmed by the spokesman of the Prague Public Prosecutor's Office, Aleš Cimbala.

“The supervising prosecutor has put forward his final decision in regards to the case referred to in the media as the ‘Storks Nest affair’. In this he changed his original legal opinion on the matter. The chief public prosecutor of the Prague Public Prosecutor's Office is now reviewing this decision. He will also consider whether this change in opinion is legal and reasonable.”

The case file contains more than 20,000 pages but still officials say the review process should be completed within around a month.

Some people have drawn attention to the fact that Mr. Šaroch evidently made a u-turn in his view of the matter.

Storks Nest | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
The spokesman of the Public Prosecutors Union, Ondřej Šťastný, told Czech Radio that an explanation for this is required.

“If Prague’s Public Prosecution Office said that the supervising prosecutor has changed his legal opinion, one can expect that such a decision will be explained convincingly, in part because of the length of the ongoing criminal proceedings.”

Meanwhile, some opposition politicians have taken the opportunity to accuse the prime minister of influencing the judicial system. Among them the leader of the Pirate Party Ivan Bartoš, who told Deník N that “if Mr. Babiš were not prime minister, he would have been in jail already for a long time”.

For years, Mr. Babiš has been proclaiming his innocence, describing the affair as a “campaign” against him.

Street protests were held when during the spring the PM decided to appoint a new justice minister shortly after the police recommended that criminal charges to be pressed against him.

Journalist and commentator Jan Moláček from Deník N says that even if the current process ends with the prime minister’s exoneration, some will still suspect him of exerting undue influence.

“First of all I need to stress that I do not criticise the state attorney. We have been given no reasons for his decisions and it is of course possible that the decision was made in a professional and fair way.

Jan Moláček,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio
"Whom I do criticise however, is Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, because he did not make the only possible and right decision for a politician who finds themselves under a police investigation. That decision is of course to step down and stay away from the position that gives you a chance to influence the investigation.”

Even if those in charge of the Prague state attorney’s office uphold Mr. Šaroch’s opinion, the Supreme Public Prosecutor, Pavel Zeman, would then be able to cancel the extraordinary approval process. The latter refused to comment on the case, but did not exclude the possibility that his office may still get involved.