Czechs protest justice appointee, fear meddling in PM's case

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Thousands protested around the Czech Republic on Monday against a justice minister nominee they fear might meddle with a criminal case involving the prime minister.

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President Milos Zeman will appoint Marie Benesova on Tuesday after the resignation of her predecessor, bringing opposition accusations of pressure on courts as Andrej Babis faces a potential fraud trial over European Union subsidies more than a decade ago.

Babis, a billionaire media and chemicals businessman before entering politics, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has called the investigation a plot to force him out of politics.

Czech police said on April 17 that Babis and others should stand trial for the alleged fraud involving the handling of a 2 million euro EU subsidy - charges that could see the prime minister jailed for up to 10 years.

Justice Minister Jan Knezinek resigned the day after the police wrapped up their investigation. Babis said Knezinek’s position had only been intended to be temporary. His departure came amid a wider cabinet shuffle.

On Monday, protesters marched from the Prague Castle, the seat of the Czech president, through the capital’s medieval center to the Old Town Square. Marchers chanted “We have had enough” and organizers carried banners saying “Justice”.

The website of daily Mlada Fronta Dnes reported 10,000 demonstrated in the capital.

In the country’s second largest city, Brno, around 3,000 marched, according to estimates of news website

Czech Television reported protesters turned out in 105 spots in the country of 10.6 million.

Benesova had previously served in a caretaker cabinet in 2013, appointed by President Zeman - who has backed Babis.

She was the top state attorney, appointed by a Zeman-led government in 1999.

She supported Babis in 2017 when she abstained in a lower house vote on lifting his parliamentary immunity.

Despite the investigation, Babis’s ANO party maintains a firm poll lead after sweeping to power in a 2017 election when it won three times the votes of its nearest competitor with pledges to end politics as usual and bring a businessman’s touch to governance.

Babis, the country’s second richest person, has long fought accusations of conflicts of interest because of his vast business interests. He put his Agrofert business empire into trusts in 2017 to meet new Czech legislation.

Writing by Robert Muller; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne