World News

Slovak court keeps billionaire in custody over graft case

PRAGUE (Reuters) - A Slovak court on Friday ordered Slovakia’s second-richest man, Jaroslav Hascak, to remain in police custody following his arrest on Tuesday, the most high-profile detention since an anti-graft party took power this year.

Hascak, a founding partner of Czech-Slovak Penta Investments, a private-equity group with assets in central Europe valued at 11.3 billion euros in 2019, is charged with money-laundering and other crimes, the court said.

“The reason for custody is a concern of tampering with witnesses,” said Katarina Kudjakova, spokeswoman for the special criminal court in an emailed statement.

Hascak denies wrongdoing and his lawyers said in an emailed statement on Thursday custody was unfounded. The lawyers have appealed against the ruling, local media reported.

His detention, with media showing videos of Hascak being escorted out of his office, comes following the February election of Prime Minister Igor Matovic, who now leads a coalition government promising to stamp out graft.

Hascak’s case stems from wiretaps from 2005 in which he and other businessmen allegedly discussed bribes with government officials.

Penta has said Hascak, whose net worth Forbes puts at $1.2 billion, would take all legal steps to clear himself. The group operated in accordance with the law, Penta said. Hascak has resigned as managing partner.

Prague-based Penta, founded in the 1990s, has investments in real estate, healthcare, media and the financial sector. Its companies employ 46,000 people and the group earned a profit of 265 million euros in 2019 on revenue of 6.9 billion euros.

The arrest is the latest high-profile detention in the country of 5.5 million. A former police chief was also arrested this week.

The murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak shook Slovakia in 2018, sparking rising anger over perceived public corruption and prompting the largest street demonstrations since communism fell in 1989.

Former prime minister Robert Fico stepped down amid the protests and his political party Smer lost elections this year to Matovic.

Reporting by Robert Muller; writing by Jason Hovet; editing by Michael Kahn and Toby Chopra