In the Czech Republic, thousands of demonstrators have protested for the third week against the appointment of new Justice Minister Marie Benešová. Protesters – and the opposition – fear that Benešová could block ongoing legal proceedings against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for alleged fraud against European subsidies.
Mr Babiš, 63, the second richest man in the Czech Republic, stands accused of fraud concerning the construction of a hotel complex and conference centre called the “Stork’s Nest”, located some 60 km south of Prague.
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has alleged that Babiš intentionally separated the “Stork’s Nest” from the rest of the Agrofert conglomerate that he controls in order to benefit from two million euros of European funds intended for small and medium-sized companies.
Marie Benešová, who was an adviser to President Milos Zeman, Babiš ’ close ally, was appointed minister after the resignation of her predecessor, Jan Knezinek, who left office the day after the police recommended opening an investigation into Babis.
As an MP, Benešová voted against a police request to strip Babiš of parliamentary immunity to face investigation, leading to questions over how independent she will be in the position of justice minister which comes with significant control over prosecutors.
The protests, called by the civic organization “One million moments for democracy” were attended by around 20,000 people in the Old Town Square in Prague on Monday. Demonstrators, who demanded the resignations of both Babiš and Benešová carried banners calling “For an Independent Justice” and chanted “Shame” and “We are not blind.”
Demonstrations also took place in the cities of Brno, Liberec, Ostrava, Olomouc, České Budějovice, and Hradec Králové.
“At this moment (Czechs) are looking for a minister who is capable of protecting them, who is willing to domesticate justice, and that is why we must defend ourselves, be alert and protest,” Director of Transparency International in the Czech Republic, David Ondráčka said.
“Because a state of law can not bend your back indefinitely, because then it can break and maybe later it can not be repaired. ”
Babiš, who faces a five-to-ten-year prison sentence, rejects the charges and denounces what he says is a “plot” and a “political campaign”.