PRAGUE – Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis went on trial on Monday in a $2 million fraud case involving European Union subsidies.
The case involves a farm known as the Stork’s Nest that received EU subsidies after its ownership was transferred from the Babis-owned Agrofert conglomerate of around 250 companies to Babis’ family members. Later, Agrofert again took ownership of the farm.
The subsidies were meant for medium- and small-sized businesses, and Agrofert wouldn’t have been eligible for them.
Agrofert later returned the subsidy.
Lawmakers have had to lift Babis’ immunity from prosecution three times in the course of the years in the case that dates to 2007.
Prague’s public prosecution office completed the review of the case in March and went ahead with Babis’ indictment. It was repeatedly recommended by police investigators.
Babis, a populist billionaire, denies any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said the allegations against him were politically motivated.
He was present at Prague’s Municipal Court on Monday. His former associate, Jana Nagyova, who signed the subsidy request, stood trial with him.
“I don't feel guilty,” Babis said in his opening statement. “I'm innocent. I'm standing here only because I’m in politics. If I wasn't in politics, nobody would ever hear about the Stork's Nest."
Babis’ centrist ANO movement stormed Czech politics in 2013, finishing a surprise second in the parliamentary election with an anti-corruption message to become a junior partner in the government with Babis as finance minister. Four years later he won the election and became premier.
A quarter of a million people took to the streets — the biggest such demonstrations since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution — twice in 2019 to demand that Babis step down due to his scandals, including the conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.
The prosecution asked for suspended sentences and fines for Babis and Nagyova, though they might face up to 10 years in prison. It's not immediately clear when a verdict might be issued.
Babis’ movement lost the parliamentary election in October. A coalition of five parties formed a new government, and ANO ended up in opposition.
He's currently considering running for the largely ceremonial post of the country's president.