Friday 19 July 2019

Huge crowd turns out for rally against Czech leader

Facing probe: Andrej Babis is accused of fraud over EU subsidies. Photo: Reuters
Facing probe: Andrej Babis is accused of fraud over EU subsidies. Photo: Reuters

Michael Kahn

Hundreds of thousands of Czechs turned out in Prague yesterday to call for the ousting of Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the biggest show of public discontent since the 1989 Velvet Revolution which overthrew Communism.

The rally in Letna Park was the culmination of a series of demonstrations in recent weeks against Mr Babis, who has faced investigations over alleged fraud and conflicts of interest.

Organisers said they believed about 250,000 people had attended the rally, from all around the country, but this figure could not be verified.

Some carried banners saying "Resign", "We've had enough", and others waved Czech or EU flags.

Many families brought children to the protest, which was peaceful, as were other recent protests against both Mr Babis and his justice minister.

Police proposed in April that Mr Babis, a billionaire businessman-turned politician sometimes likened to Donald Trump, should be formally charged for fraud in tapping an EU subsidy a decade ago to build a hotel and conference centre outside Prague. He denies any wrongdoing.

The appointment of a new justice minister just after the police announcement prompted rallies by demonstrators suspicious that Mr Babis was trying to influence proceedings. Mr Babis has also vigorously denied that claim.

Filip Rubas, who joined protests in 1989 against the then communist regime, said he turned out yesterday to send a message to politicians that they would be held accountable.

"We think that our leaders need to be reminded very strongly that they do not own our country, that they are not above the law or constitution and that there are still enough caring people who are not brainwashed by hateful propaganda," said Mr Rubas (50).

He travelled to the rally with his wife and a group of friends from Brno, the country's second city, 200km from Prague.

Yesterday's protest was organised by civic group Million Moments for Democracy, founded by students. Politicians were not invited.

Mr Babis suffered another setback from leaked preliminary results of an audit by the European Commission, which determined he is in conflict of interest as the beneficiary of trust funds, where he had transferred his business, valued at €3.2bn by Forbes.

Mr Babis insists the audit is wrong and this would be proved in the final conclusions, expected late this year or early in 2020.

Mr Babis has said people have the right to protest but has firmly refused to step down.

His populist ANO movement remains the most popular party, although its support has dipped slightly in the past two months.

Irish Independent

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