Czech Court Clears Ex-Prime Minister of Fraud in E.U. Funds Case
A Czech court on Monday cleared Andrej Babis, the billionaire former prime minister of the Czech Republic who became a symbol of how the E.U. farm subsidy program enriched the well-connected and powerful, of fraud charges in a case regarding one of his properties.
The court on Monday cleared Mr. Babis of fraudulently obtaining E.U. subsidies for the property, citing lack of evidence, just days before the first round of a presidential election in the Czech Republic in which Mr. Babis is considered a front-runner.
“NOT GUILTY!” Mr. Babis said on Twitter on Monday. “I am very happy that we have an independent judiciary and the court has confirmed what I have argued from the beginning. That I am innocent and have done nothing illegal.”
The case revolved around Mr. Babis’s use of the E.U. farm subsidy program, a pot of money worth dozens of billions that is handed out every year.
A 2019 New York Times investigation found that politicians used the money to enrich themselves and their political patrons. That did not necessarily mean they broke the law. The investigation found that Mr. Babis’s companies received $79 million in subsidies.
In the case resolved on Monday, Mr. Babis was accused of fraudulently transferring a company to his wife and children as a way of receiving subsidies.
The case is separate from an audit by the European Commission that found that as prime minister, Mr. Babis breached conflict of interest rules and influenced the allocation of E.U. subsidies to the business conglomerate he built. Mr. Babis has said that the audit was flawed.
For a decade, Mr. Babis was dogged by scandals related to Agrofert, the conglomerate he built out of companies in a range of sectors including food and agriculture. It is one of the country’s largest employers.
The case resolved Monday involved a farm in the Czech Republic known as the Stork’s Nest, which received about $2.2 million in E.U. subsidies after its ownership was transferred from Agrofert to Mr. Babis’s wife and children.
The prosecutor had said that in 2007 and 2008 Mr. Babis removed the Stork’s Nest from Agrofert to allow it to qualify for E.U. funding as a small- to medium-size business, and accused him of fraud. In 2018 the funds the company received were returned to the European Union.
The judge, Jan Sott, said on Monday that the prosecutor did not provide relevant evidence proving that Mr. Babis held shares of the Stork’s Nest. He also said “it was not proved that the acts as described by the prosecutor were criminal.” The decision can still be appealed.
In 2017, Mr. Babis placed his businesses into a trust amid accusations of conflicts of interest. The farm is now part of that trust, according to Agrofert’s website.
Mr. Babis has also been accused of purchasing a villa and other properties on the French Riviera worth more than $20 million through offshore shell companies. According to French media, he is facing an investigation in France into money laundering. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. Babis, who was the finance minister between 2014 and 2017 and prime minister between 2017 and 2021, had not entered politics when he bought the French properties.
In 2019, Czechs organized large demonstrations calling for Mr. Babis’s resignation. In 2021, he was defeated in parliamentary elections.
In the presidential election set to take place on Friday and Saturday, Mr. Babis is running against Gen. Petr Pavel, a former NATO official, and Danuse Nerudova, a university professor and economist, both of whom are supported by the political coalition of Prime Minister Petr Fiala.
On Monday, Mr. Fiala said on Facebook that the court’s verdict needed to be respected.
“The actual political fights in democracy take place during elections,” he added. “Let’s come to the polls and let’s solve our future.”