Czech committee recommends letting police charge PM candidate Babis

PRAGUE (Reuters) - A Czech parliamentary committee recommended on Wednesday that lawmakers should lift the immunity of Andrej Babis, the leader of the most popular party and candidate for prime minister, and allow police to charge him with subsidy fraud.

FILE PHOTO: Andrej Babis attends a parliamentary session in Prague, Czech Republic, May 10, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Babis, a billionaire businessman and founder and chief of ANO movement, denies any wrongdoing. He has repeatedly called the police actions against him a political ploy meant to hurt him in the Czech Republic’s Oct. 20-21 election..

Police have been investigating Babis over accusations his companies illegally received a 2 million-euro European Union subsidy in 2008 for a farm and conference center near Prague.

The committee’s chairwoman, Miroslava Nemcova of the opposition Civic Democratic Party, said there were no grounds to believe the investigation was biased.

“I have no impression whatsoever from what we have been shown that ... the investigation bodies are playing any improper game with us,” she told reporters.

ANO, which has run on promises to clean up graft in the government, has kept a double-digit lead ahead of rivals in opinion polls which have not shown any significant deterioration in support since the police requested immunity be lifted on Aug. 10.

Babis reiterated on Wednesday after speaking to the committee that he saw the investigation as politically charged.

“This whole affair is about the future of this country, it is meant to discredit me, to lower our support, to form the next government without Babis,” he told reporters.

The lower house of parliament is expected to vote on lifting Babis’s immunity at a session starting on Sept. 5, but the investigation is expected to last well beyond the October vote.

Babis will win immunity again if reelected to parliament, as expected, which would force the police to ask again for permission to charge him.

It could lead a situation in which the group forming next government could be led by a person wanted by police.

President Milos Zeman, who appoints prime ministers, has backed Babis but Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, whose Social Democrats rule with ANO and another party in he current center-left coalition, said Babis should not be in any government if charged.

About half a dozen or more parties are likely to win seats in parliament in the election, making an ANO-led coalition the most likely outcome.

Babis served as finance minister from 2014 until May 2017 when Sobotka dismissed him due to allegations he may have dodged taxes and influenced content at a newspaper he owned, issues unrelated to the subsidy investigation. Babis denied any wrongdoing in those cases as well.

Babis has built a business of over 200 firms in chemicals, farming and media. He transferred the group to trust funds this year to meet new conflict of interest legislation but remains the beneficiary of the funds.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt