PRAGUE (Reuters) - Thousands protested in the Czech capital Prague for a third week running on Monday against a new justice minister who they fear could meddle in a criminal case against the prime minister.
Protesters complain of Marie Benesova’s past comments supportive of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has been charged with illegally tapping 2 million euros in European Union funds a decade ago when he was in business. He denies the charges.
Benesova’s predecessor resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial. Prosecutors have yet to decide on the case.
Babis has called the case a political ploy and said the demonstrations amounted to theater before European Parliament elections this month.
Benesova has denied planning to push for personnel changes, such as that of the chief prosecutor, to alter the course of the investigation, which has worried protesters.
“We are demonstrating against (the fact) that a woman with such a history as her own becomes justice minister a day after the police proposed the prime minister be indicted,” a protest organizer, Mikulas Minar, said on Monday on a Czech Radio debate show. “That is an unacceptable coincidence for us.”
Benesova was part of a caretaker government in 2013, appointed by President Milos Zeman, a Babis ally. As a member of parliament in 2017, she was among a small minority who did not back lifting Babis’s parliamentary immunity in the subsidy case.
Monday’s protest turnout matched last week’s when at least 20,000 protested in Prague’s Old Town Square, CTK news agency estimated. Police do not give estimates. CTK also estimated 2,000 marched in Brno, the country’s second largest city.
The demonstrations come after politically-charged overhauls to justice systems in fellow central European countries Hungary and Poland led to protests and disputes with the European Union, which said the changes threatened the rule of law.
Czech chief prosecutor Lenka Bradacova said in a newspaper interview on Monday the protests might be expressing concern about a repeat of what happened in Hungary and Poland.
“The Czech justice (system) is in a way concerned about the situation that has arisen in neighboring countries,” she told daily Hospodarske Noviny, adding there was no guarantee a similar development could not transpire in the Czech Republic.
“I don’t want to speculate but I think the public is making it known that it is sensitive to these issues,” she said.
Babis, the country’s second richest person, has long fought conflict of interest allegations and put his Agrofert empire of chemicals, farming, media and other firms into trusts in 2017 to comply with new legislation.
Despite the allegations and conflict of interest accusations against Babis, his ANO party, which was a runaway winner in the 2017 election, remains the country’s clear leader in the polls.
Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Jan Lopatka and Mark Heinrich