PRAGUE (AP) — A Prague court on Monday acquitted former Prime Minister Andrej Babis of fraud charges in a $2 million case involving European Union subsidies.
A prosecutor requested a three-year suspended sentence and a fine of 10 million Czech koruna ($440,000) for the populist billionaire. The prosecution still can appeal.
Babis pleaded not guilty and repeatedly said the charges against him were politically motivated.
He wasn’t present at Prague’s Municipal Court on Monday. His former associate, Jana Nagyova, who signed the subsidy request, was also acquitted.
Judge Jan Sott said what they did “is not a crime.” At the same time, Sott dismissed the notion that Babis was persecuted because of his political activities.
“INNOCENT!” Babis tweeted after the verdict. “I’m really glad that we have an independent judiciary and the court confirmed what I kept saying from the beginning. That I am innocent and haven’t done anything illegal.”
“I’m glad that the court recognized the arguments of my defense,” he said later Monday.
The ruling is a boost for Babis just days before the first round of the Czech presidential election.
“I’m running to help the people,” Babis said.
Babis is considered a front-runner in the two-day election starting Friday, along with retired army Gen. Petr Pavel, former chairman of NATO’s military committee, and former university rector Danuse Nerudova.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala said it’s necessary to accept the verdict of an independent court.
“What’s crucial: The real political battles in democracies take place at elections, and not in court rooms,” Fiala tweeted and asked Czechs to go to the ballot box in the forthcoming election.
Both Pavel and Nerudova are backed by the current coalition government.
The Babis case involved a farm known as the Stork’s Nest, which 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 over the years in the case, which dates back 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’ centrist ANO movement finished a surprise second in the 2013 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.
Babis has become a divisive figure in Czech politics.
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 over scandals, including the conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.
Babis’ movement lost the parliamentary election in October. A coalition of five parties formed a new government, and ANO ended up in opposition.