Thousands rally in Prague against PM, justice minister

Prague (AFP) –


Thousands of Czechs rallied in central Prague on Monday in a fresh protest against the appointment of a new justice minister and billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has been charged with EU subsidy fraud.

Protesters fear that Minister Marie Benesova, named last week by Babis's ally President Milos Zeman, might try to clear Babis of the allegations.

Police charged Babis in connection with a two-million-euro EU subsidy scam last year and called on prosecutors to indict him last month.

If found guilty, Babis could be jailed for up to 10 years.

"Our prime minister is a thief who steals money from EU subsidies and the Czech state budget," confectioner Dana Brunova told AFP in the capital's historic Old Town Square.

"He bends the law at will to avoid going to court, which would in fact be the easiest thing to do -- if he's clean, why doesn't he go to court," she added.

Protesters blew whistles and chanted "we're not blind" while carrying Czech flags and banners calling on Babis and Benesova to resign.

"You won't escape hell," read one banner, while another displayed portraits of the politicians with Babis saying "Marie Benesova will cover up my crimes".

Thousands of other protesters gathered in the cities of Brno and Ostrava.

The demonstrations came after nationwide protests against Benesova last week.

Benesova, 71, was the Czech justice minister in 2013-2014 and the country's chief prosecutor in 1999-2005.

Babis is the Czech Republic's second wealthiest man, according to Forbes, having built his fortune in agro-chemicals.

He is now facing an EU probe into his ownership of the Agrofert chemicals, food and media group, which he has technically transferred to a trust to avoid a conflict of interest.

Babis has consistently rejected the accusations against him as a plot and politically inspired.

"A man charged with embezzling EU subsidies cannot work as the prime minister who decides where the subsidies will go," young university teacher Milan Lipovsky told AFP at the Prague rally.

Babis's populist ANO emerged as the biggest party in October 2017 legislative elections with 78 of 200 seats in the lower house of parliament.

It joined forces with the CSSD Social Democratic party to form a minority government, supported by the communists.

ANO boasts the highest support of all parties with 34-percent backing, according to an April poll of 1,074 people conducted by the STEM agency.