Friday, June 14, 2013

 

Czech leader clings on after close aide charged with graft


Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas
Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas was clinging on to office on Friday after prosecutors accused his personal assistant of being at the center of a corrupt web of political favors and secret surveillance.

Police raids on government offices on Thursday signaled the most significant swoop on corruption in two decades in a country that has been mired in sleaze since its "Velvet Revolution" overthrew Communism in 1989.

The main Czech opposition party said it would initiate a parliamentary vote of no confidence unless Necas quits, but in a defiant speech to lawmakers, the conservative prime minister said he would stay on, and dismissed the allegations.

His fate now depends on whether the smaller parties in his coalition stand by him, and on whether President Milos Zeman, a political opponent, tries to use his limited constitutional powers to push Necas out.

Jeronym Tejc, an official of the opposition Social Democrat party, said: "(We) expect the speedy resignation of Prime Minister Petr Necas and the entire government. If that does not happen, the Social Democrats will initiate a vote of no confidence."

A day earlier hundreds of police with the organized crime unit, some in balaclavas to conceal their identity, swept through the government headquarters, the defense ministry, a bank and private homes, detaining several Necas associates.

He was drawn even deeper into the affair on Friday when prosecutors, giving details of their investigation for the first time, alleged the existence of corrupt dealings that intersected with Necas's personal and political life.

Tomas Sokol, a lawyer for one of the people charged, the former head of military intelligence, said prosecutors had accused his client of instructing agents to run surveillance on Necas's wife, Radka. Necas and his wife, his college sweetheart, announced this week they were divorcing.

END TO IMPUNITY?

Corruption was rife under communism but it has grown exponentially in many eastern European countries since they made the transition to a market economy. Graft is a part of everyday life in much of the region, but convictions are rare.

The Czech investigation was unusual because of its scale, and the ambition of taking on a political establishment which previously seemed to be immune from prosecution.

Prosecutors have charged seven people, including the head of Necas's office, two military intelligence service members, and two former members of parliament, high state attorney Ivo Istvan told a news conference.

They said their suspicions focused on two areas: allegations that officials used the intelligence services for inappropriate purposes, and that corrupt favors were given to politicians.

The prosecutors said the common factor in both sets of allegations was Jana Nagyova, who heads Necas's office. She has worked for Necas since 2006. Elegantly dressed and with blonde, shoulder-length hair, she has often appeared in Czech tabloids.

"In both of these two criminal cases, one person appears," said Pavel Komar, one of the prosecutors handling the case. "The case of Ms Nagyova has to do with organizing criminal activity through the abuse of power and bribery."

Jana Nagyova


A government spokesman refused to comment on the charges against Nagyova, who was born in 1965, and it was not immediately possibly to identify a lawyer who is representing her. Necas said on Thursday he did not believe she did anything dishonest.

The charges of political favors related to a case in October last year when three lawmakers with his ODS party threatened to not support the government on a no-confidence vote. But after an agreement with party leadership, they resigned from parliament, and two were later given jobs on the boards of state-controlled firms.

DEFIANT PM

In an appearance in parliament, 48-year-old Necas hit back at the prosecutor's investigations.

He said that as far as the allegations of favors to politicians were concerned, this was normal political activity and not a criminal act. On the allegations of misusing intelligence services, he said they may stem from misunderstandings about instructions regarding his security.

"This is my opinion that I have no reason to back off from, and it is an opinion that leads me not to heed calls ... to resign," Necas said.

Necas is the longest-serving prime minister in the past decade in the country of 10.5 million, which since the fall of the Iron Curtain has had a history of political upheavals.

His difficulties may, in part, be the result of a reform Necas himself set in motion. He tried to break with past habits of sweeping corruption under the carpet by appointing prosecutors with a free hand to go after sleaze.

One of the prime minister's coalition partners, TOP09, threw him a potential lifeline on Friday. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, who is also deputy head of the party, said that if Necas fires all government employees who have been charged, "We have no reason not to believe that he did not do anything dishonest."

But the mood on the streets of Prague was impatient. Czechs are confronted daily with evidence of what they believe is pervasive corruption, including well-connected businessmen living in plush villas, and a steady stream of media reports about kickbacks and padded government procurement deals.

"I think he should (resign), it is high time," said Nina Bechynova, 67, a teacher at a university in Prague, when asked about the prime minister. "But I'm worried that everyone is friends with everyone and that they will brush it under the rug."

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