Prague, Czech Republic – Czechs are taking to the street to voice their support to the independence of the judiciary after the surprise replacement of the country’s Justice minister sparked concerns of political meddling.
Czech Justice Minister announces decision to step down
Two weeks ago, Czech Justice Minister Jan Kněžínek announced his decision to resign from his post without giving any convincing reason why.
His announcement came a few days after a cabinet reshuffle, which saw the replacement of two other government officials: Transport Minister Dan Tok, who faced growing criticism for his handling of several hot topic, and Industry and Trade Minister Marta Nováková, who came under fire for her mishandling of a diplomatic incident involving the Chinese ambassador and Taiwan’s envoy in Prague.
But more tellingly, his surprise resignation came only one day after Czech police recommended to charge Prime Minister Andrej Babis, as well as several other people, for EU subsidy fraud and damaging the financial interest of the European Union in the ongoing so-called ‘Stork’s Nest’ affair.
The opposition and civil society were quick to cry foul, raising concerns the Czech Prime Minister would try to influence and meddle in the ongoing judicial affair, handed by police prosecutors to the state attorney’s office. Jan Bartošek of the Christian Democratic party labelled M. Kněžínek’s resignation “as an act of cowardice”.
Close advisor to President Zeman becomes Justice Minister
The choice of his replacement added more fuel to the fire: Marie Benešová, a Social Democratic lawmaker, experienced lawyer, former top state attorney and Justice Minister in 2013-2014, was more recently serving as personal advisor for judicial affairs to Czech President Milos Zeman.
Critics fear she will try to exert influence over the case targeting Andrej Babis by replacing the current top state prosecutor Pavel Zeman, who’ll decide whether or not to prosecute or close the case. As a lawmaker, she in the past voted against a police request to strip Andrej Babis of his immunity, as Associated Press points out. But Ms. Benešová stroke a reassuring tone as soon as she was appointed, saying “This speculation about how I will remove selected state attorneys from office is pure nonsense”.
Although some analysts don’t believe Ms. Benešová would go so far as to fire the current state attorney, most observers see this move as yet-another example of the tacit and mutual protection alliance between Czech PM Babis and President Zeman.
Czechs protest in support of independent judiciary
Last week, thousands of Czechs took to the streets to protest against the replacement of the Justice minister and express their support to the independence of the Czech judiciary. According to the organizers, civil organization Milion chvilek pro demokracii (A million little moments for democracy), 15.000 people took part to the demonstration in the Czech capital, while 3.000 are estimated to have participated to the protest held in Brno, the country’s second-largest city.
Another protest is planned for today at 6.30 pm on Prague’s Old Town square, as well as in other Czech cities including Brno and Ostrava.