Fresh rally against Czech government draws thousands

Prague (AFP) –


Thousands of people rallied in Prague on Monday in fresh protests against the new justice minister over concerns she could clear the prime minister of fraud allegations.

Some 20,000 people gathered in the capital's historic Old Town Square for a third week in a row, according to Czech media, and thousands of others protested in the second city of Brno.

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

The protesters are concerned that Justice Minister Marie Benesova, named last month, might try to clear Babis of the accusations.

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

He has repeatedly rejected the allegations against him as a plot and politically inspired.

Protesters blew whistles, rang bells and jangled keys, chanting "step down" and "shame".

"You lie, you steal, and you are called Bures," read one banner referring to a nickname Babis was given when allegedly serving as a Communist secret police agent in the 1980s.

Babis is the Czech Republic's second wealthiest man, according to Forbes.

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

Babis is 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.

"This goes beyond any ethical boundaries," said Filip Chmel, a young civil engineer on a bike, clutching a sign reading "justice".

"I disagree with people like Benesova holding a public post. And I don't like the prime minister's conflict of interest and his arrogance," he said.

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.

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

ANO boasts 30-percent support, according to opinion polls.