Thousands of Czechs join in street protests for independent judiciary

Photo: ČTK/Václav Šálek

Thousands of people took to the streets of Prague and other big cities on Monday to protest against the appointment of a new justice minister shortly after the police proposed pressing charges of EU subsidy fraud against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. The change-of-guard is seen as an attempt to sweep the results of the investigation under the carpet.

Photo: ČTK/Václav Šálek

Protesters filled Prague’s Old Town Square on Monday night, chanting “Shame on the prime minister” and holding up banners reading "We want an independent judiciary” and “Away with Babiš”.

The protest, called by the NGO A Million Moments for Democracy, came on the eve of a planned cabinet reshuffle which includes one originally unannounced change –the appointment of a new justice minister. The resignation of Justice Minister Jan Knežínek and the immediate naming of his successor in office, former justice minister Marie Benešová, coming just one day after the police proposed filing charges against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, has sparked widespread concern for the independence of the judiciary. The head of Transparency International Czech Republic, David Ondračka, said vigilance is needed to protect the legal order in the Czech Republic.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
“The situation is serious. Babiš is drowning in scandal into which he has dragged his family; his right hand man Faltýnek is manipulating million-crown public tenders and also people around the president such as Mynář and Nejedlý are deep in hot water and so Prague Castle has sought to find a justice minister who would prevent their prosecution and who would tame the judiciary.”

The organizer of the protest Mikuláš Minář said he feared the Czech Republic could see similar attempts to undermine the judiciary as in Poland and Hungary adding that the protests would continue if Benešová was appointed as planned. Next time politicians would be present as well, he said.

Centre-right opposition parties were vocal in their protest of a change of guard at the justice ministry, accusing 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, saying this was a time when he should have stood up in defense of state attorneys.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
Even the prime minister’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are wary of what the change may bring. Amid speculation that Benešová was planning to replace the chief state attorney Pavel Zeman, the head of the Social Democratic Party Jan Hamáček said that, if that happened, his party would walk out of the coalition government.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who was asked to share his feelings as he was shown live footage of the protests on a Czech Television news show on Monday night seemed unfazed; saying he respected freedom of speech and a packed Old Town square was a sign that all was right in the country. He maintains that he is innocent of any wrong doing and the police investigation is a plot to remove him from politics.