Tens of thousands rally to demand Czech premier resign

International

A woman shoots a selfie picture as protesters gather at the Venceslas Square in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Thousands Czechs are rallying in Prague again to demand the resignation of justice minister, Marie Benesova, saying the new minister might compromise the legal system at a time when prosecutors have to decide whether to indict Prime Minister Andrej Babis over alleged fraud involving European Union funds. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

PRAGUE (AP) — Tens of thousands rallied in the Czech capital on Tuesday to demand the resignation of embattled Prime Minister Andrej Babis amid accusations he’s in a conflict of interests over his former business empire.

Babis, a populist billionaire, has already been under pressure after Czechs have rallied in great numbers in Prague and elsewhere in recent weeks. They are protesting the appointment of his new justice minister who they say might compromise the legal system at a time when prosecutors have to decide whether to indict Babis over alleged fraud involving European Union funds in a separate case.

The protesters in downtown Wenceslas Square turned against Babis in one of the biggest anti-government protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, days after a preliminary confidential EU report said Babis was still the beneficiary of his Agrofert conglomerate of more than 200 companies.

“We demand the resignation of Andrej Babis,” rally organizer Mikulas Minar told the crowd.

“Resign, resign,” and “We had enough,” the protesters chanted.

Babis, who denies wrongdoing, called the report an attack on his country.

Babis was required to transfer ownership of his businesses to two trust funds in February 2017.

The preliminary report leaked to multiple Czech media outlets in recent days concluded he still formally controls the businesses and is in a position to influence the EU subsidies they receive.

“I would never do anything like that,” Babis told lawmakers in the lower house of parliament during a session on this issue earlier in the day. “I’m not a fool.”

Babis called the EU findings untrue and called the report “an attack on the Czech Republic, an attack on Czech interests, a destabilization of the Czech Republic.”

The report suggests the country should return about 17.5 million euros (about $19.7 million) that Agrofert received in EU funds.

It said it presents preliminary findings, conclusions and recommendations that still can be modified after the EU receives comments from the Czech side.

The protesters again demanded the resignation of Justice Minister Marie Benesova, who has significant control over prosecutors. The protesters are angry that Marie Benesova was appointed shortly after police recommended Babis’ indictment in April.

As a lawmaker, Benesova voted against a police request to strip Babis of parliamentary immunity to face investigation.

Babis is a controversial figure because of a power-sharing deal with the Communist Party and the fraud charges. His position is also complicated by allegations he collaborated with the former communist-era secret police and his conflict of interest.

The protesters announced a major protest to take place in a Prague park on June 23 if their demands aren’t met.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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