Czech billionaire politician Babis cleared in communist secret police case

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis did not collaborate with Communist secret police in the 1980s, a court ruled on Tuesday, clearing him of accusations that can still resonate in what was once a totalitarian country.

The Bratislava Regional Court said it turned down an appeal by the Slovak Nation’s Memory Institute, an agency overseeing former secret police files, which has insisted the billionaire and possible next Czech prime minister knowingly collaborated with the secret police, known as the StB.

Babis is a member of the Czech cabinet but the case was heard in Slovakia where he used to live. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The court’s spokesman said the ruling confirmed a lower court’s decision that Babis was wrongly registered as an agent.

Under “Lustration” laws adopted to protect the young Czechoslovak democracy in the early 1990s, being listed as a collaborator bars people from holding certain public posts. Former agents are also despised by many people.

Babis has said that, as an employee of a foreign trade firm, he had met secret policemen but never pledged to cooperate.

“I expected this (ruling), I had not signed anything, I did not collaborate with the StB,” Babis told news website

Babis was part of the Communist-era professional class as a Communist Party member and an employee of a state firm which sent him on foreign assignments.

He used his experience to set up Agrofert, a chemicals trading firm in the 1990s which he has since grown into the country’s biggest employer with 34,000 workers. His net worth was put at $2.8 billion by Forbes.

Holdings in the chemicals, farming, forestry and media businesses make Babis a constant target of criticism from political opponents that he has conflicts of interests as finance minister. He denies any abuses.

Babis’s centrist party ANO leads opinion polls, making the 60-year-old a favorite to win the next election due in 2017.

The Slovak remembrance institute objected to the ruling, saying evidence by former agents was given preference over original written documents on Babis, code-named Bures.

“We submitted 12 files which document the activities of an agent code-named Bures in the structures of the secret police,” it said in a statement.

“History is being overwritten by people who operated under communism in a criminal organization that the StB certainly was.”

Tuesday’s ruling can be appealed against only through extraordinary procedures which the institute said will be considered.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Ruth Pitchford