Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was acquitted of subsidy fraud just four days before the presidential election in which he is running.
The ruling, handed down in a municipal court in Prague, is a major vindication for Babis – a billionaire tycoon and one of the Czech Republic’s richest men – and could boost his chances of winning next weekend’s poll, which has been partly overshadowed by his long-standing legal woes.
The former prime minister, 68, is accused, along with former aide Jana Nagyova, of illegally receiving €2m (£1.7m) in EU small business funds to develop the Stork’s Nest, a luxury hotel and conference center in rural Bohemia. about 40 miles south of Prague, disguising itself as part of Babiš’s vast multi-sector conglomerate Agrofert, making it ineligible for such subsidies.
However, after a 15-day trial, which originally began last September, Judge Jan Schott ruled that the evidence did not support the prosecution’s allegation that a crime had been committed.
Neither Babis nor his co-defendant were in the courtroom to hear Schott read his verdict, which the judge followed with a lengthy explanation.
But the former prime minister hit back on Twitter, writing: “Innocent! I am very glad that we have an independent judiciary and the court has confirmed what I have been saying from the beginning. That I am innocent and that I have not done anything illegal.”
Babiš – who founded Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (Ano) in 2011 on an explicit anti-corruption platform – has long dismissed the accusations as “politically motivated”. As a result of a seven-year police investigation, they were brought to court after defeat in the 2021 general election saw him lose his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
A verdict does not necessarily mean the end of the case. Prosecutors, who sought a three-year suspended sentence plus a fine, could appeal the ruling to the High Court.
However, the immediate effect is to allow Babis to participate in the presidential elections, in which voters voted on Friday and Saturday, without a legal shadow hanging over him.
Babiš is competing with seven other candidates to replace the current populist president Miloš Zeman, who is prohibited by the constitution from running for a third term.
Surveys show that the former prime minister is running strongly, but in a tight race with two other candidates, Petr Pavel, a retired military general and former military commander of NATO, and Danus Nerudova, an economist and academic who is trying to become the first female head of the Czech state.
The first two candidates will go to the second round of elections at the end of January. Public opinion polls have previously shown that Babis is likely to lose to both Pavel and Nerudova in the second round of the election.