Prosecutor Reopens Probe Into Billionaire Czech Premier’s Fraud Case

Peter Laca and Krystof Chamonikolas

(Bloomberg) -- The top Czech prosecutor renewed fraud charges against Prime Minister Andrej Babis, ordering further investigation and raising the prospect that the billionaire politician may be tried in court.

The decision increase pressure on the chemical, agriculture and media magnate, who is also under European Union’s scrutiny over alleged conflict of interest and facing public calls for his resignation. Babis denies any wrongdoing, rejecting the allegations as unfounded, and refused to step down.

Chief Prosecutor Pavel Zeman overturned a move by his subordinate, who in September cleared the premier and five other people of allegations that they had illegally obtained European Union funds for one of Babis’s businesses. Zeman said that dropping those charges was “unlawful and premature” in the case of the prime minister and one other person. He’s sending the case back to the same prosecutor with specific guidance for investigators.

“My decision is not a statement on whether a crime took place or not,” the chief prosecutor told reporters in the Czech city of Brno on Wednesday, adding defendants should be seen as innocent until potentially proven guilty. “At the moment there is not enough evidence to either indict or drop the charges.”

Popular for his increases in pensions and anti-immigrant stance, Babis is a divisive figure in the nation of 10.7 million. While the fraud and conflict-of-interest allegations sparked the largest anti-government protests since the fall of communism 30 years ago, he remains the nation’s most popular politician and his party leads all polls.

The prime minister on Wednesday rejected an offer from President Milos Zeman, who isn’t related to the chief prosecutor, to issue a pardon for him. He calls the fraud accusations a fabrication by his rivals.

“I’ve gotten used to the fact that they’re going after me, that they want to drive me out of politics at any costs,” Babis said on his Facebook page. “I am happy and relieved that the prosecution of my family, my wife and my daughter, has been definitively stopped.”

Babis, one of the richest Czechs with a net worth estimated at $2.2 billion, is also under pressure from the EU.

The bloc’s executive arm found him in conflict of interest because he has maintained influence over his businesses while helping to decide on the distribution of funds that they may receive from the bloc, according to a report on the audit leaked by Czech media this week. The government has pledged to challenge the findings.

The legal complications have been one of the biggest political challenges for Babis. After winning elections two years ago, he was forced into a minority government with the Social Democrats, and the coalition is now ruling with tacit support from the hard-line leftist Communist Party.

The opposition is considering initiating a no-confidence motion against the government. The Social Democrats said they’re not planning to leave the coalition.

(Updates with Babis’s comments in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net;Krystof Chamonikolas in Prague at kchamonikola@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Michael Winfrey, Andrea Dudik

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