PHOTO: Tens of thousands of people gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague to support judicial independence on Jun. 4, 2019, Czech Republic. (Courtesy of Tomáš Kozel)
PHOTO: Tens of thousands of people gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague to support judicial independence on Jun. 4, 2019, Czech Republic. (Courtesy of Tomáš Kozel)

PRAGUE – 120 thousand people gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague on Jun. 4, 2019, as part of the A Million Moments for Democracy campaign. Today's protest was caused by the resignation of Jan Kněžínek, the Minister of Justice, and the appointment of the new Justice Minister, Marie Benešová.

On Apr. 19, 2019, the Judicial Union called on government officials to "better explain the departure of Justice Minister Jan Kněžínek," said television channel ČT24. František Kučera, the first vice-president of the Czech Republic's Union of Judges, said on Apr. 24, 2019 that there was still confusion about the resignation of the Minister of Justice.

The only official explanation is available in a press release dated Apr. 18, 2019, in which Minister Kněžínek states that he had already informed the Prime Minister of his resignation on Apr. 15, 2019 and handed it over in writing the following day.

“My ten-month career as Minister of Justice has been a valuable personal and professional experience for me, which I greatly appreciate. At the same time, I am convinced that I have done nothing to be ashamed of during my term, and that the Ministry of Justice has made positive moves in a number of directions and that a lot of work has been done. I am give the Ministry of Justice to my successor in good shape and after the reorganization. At the same time, I am fully prepared to provide assistance in dealing with the large number of tasks that have been elaborated during my term as minister,” wrote outgoing minister Kněžínek.

Concerns about the sudden departure of the minister were deepened by the fact that the police had just submitted a motion for the prosecution of the prime minister to the prosecutor's office regarding the use of subsidies from EU funds for the company Farma Čapí hnízdo, a.s. (The Stork's Nest Farm)

On Apr. 17, 2019, a spokesman for the Prague Public Prosecutor Aleš Cimbala told Czech Press Agency (ČTK) that "the file was, along with the accused, presented to the prosecutor. Upon reading the file, it was decided to file the indictment. Such a step would only be taken if, according to him, the results of the police investigation sufficiently justify the trial of the accused person. He can also stop or interrupt the prosecution.“

According to the Czech Radio report of Apr. 17, 2019, the accusation includes five other people, including close members of the prime minister’s family – his wife and children.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said the prosecution brought by the police is a purpose-built conspiracy organized by the prime minister's unspecified opposition. “I do not understand how it is possible that journalists have information about an ongoing case before the people involved do. It is politicized and I have considered it as an organized conspiracy from the very beginning”, he said according to ČTK agency on Apr. 17, 2019.

The Ministry of Justice is the superior body of state prosecutors, including the state prosecutor Jaroslav Šaroch, who will decide on the motion for prosecution of the prime minister and five other people. The appointment of the new Minister of the Interior on Apr. 30, 2019 raises the question of the Minister's position on the prosecution of the Prime Minister.

“I do not rule out that a number of cases can be purposeful, so I am careful about this. (...) I cannot judge Mr. Babiš's case, I have not read it,” responded Marie Benešová to the indignation of the prime minister, according to a report of the daily I-dnes from Apr. 17, 2019.

"If somebody makes me feel that I'm going to sweep something under the rug, that's crazy," Benesova said in an interview with Czech Television and denied the news that she was going to make changes to the prosecutor's office. She said that the chief prosecutor, Pavel Zeman, has her trust.

The Million Moments (for Democracy) association called on the Prime Minister to defend the appointment of a new minister in a television debate. The activists also insisted on an ultimatum: if the prime minister does not appear in the debate, they will organize a mass protest that will demand the resignation of the Ministry of Justice and the prime minister, which is what happened in the end on Jun. 4, 2019 on Wenceslas Square in Prague.

The motion to charge the prime minister in connection with the case “The Stork's Nest” was commented on Apr. 24, 2019 by František Kučera, First Vice-President of the Czech Judicial Union, in an interview with TV channel ČT24. "The prosecutor who receives this on their table will immediately be in a rather difficult situation, because no matter what happens,  one of the parties will always be attacking them and criticizing them either for being part of a campaign against the prime minister or, on the contrary, for succumbing to pressure if they return the motion to the police for more investigation. They may not be able to avoid it, they must professionally be able to endure it.”

Benešová is the fourth Minister of Justice in the last four years. "This very frequent rotation of justice ministers is weakening and destabilizing the judiciary," said Apr. 19, 2019 Daniela Zemanová, president of the Union of Judges.

Details of the police proposal for prosecution of the prime minister

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is also an important businessman and leader of the strongest Czech political party - ANO. His family owns the concern Agrofert, which currently has more than 250 companies, including a large Czech media company.

Čapí hnízdo (The Stork's Nest), for which the police filed an indictment, is the reconstructed area of the Court Semtín near the town of Olbramovice in Czech Republic. Today it is a modern hinterland for deluxe accommodation, corporate events and leisure activities. The Stork's Nest is now owned by the concern Agrofert. EU-funded subsidies amounting to 50 million CZK (2,2 mil USD) were used for its construction. The way in which these subsidies were used has been investigated by the police for more than three years.

When investigating the alleged subsidy fraud, it was found that The Stork's Nest Farm, then still called ZZN AGRO Pelhřimov, belonged to the concern Agrofert. In December 2007, the company was transformed into a joint stock company with bearer shares. In the summer of 2008, it received a European grant in the SME program, which it would not be entitled to as part of Agrofert. After several years, the company was bought by Imoba, which belongs to the Agrofert concern.

Police, in connection with drawing subsidies, are prosecuting Prime Minister Andrei Babiš, his brother-in-law Martin Herodes, his wife Monika and daughter Adriana Bobekova. Also accused are former members of the The Stork's Nest Farm, Jana Mayerová and Josef Nenadál, said Czech Press Agency on 17 April 2019.

The farm is now owned by Imoba, which in 2018 returned the disputed subsidy of 50 million CZK back to the state, according to the daily I-dnes.

Even after returning the subsidy, the police continue to prosecute the persons linked to the subsidy. On April 17, 2019, police handed over the prosecution's motion to the prosecutor.