Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was acquitted of fraud charges just days before the country’s presidential election in which he is a candidate.
The municipal court in Prague ruled on Monday that 68-year-old Babiš had not unlawfully obtained 50 million koruna (€2.2 million) in EU subsidies for the construction of a hotel and conference complex in Central Bohemia.
Both Babiš and his former aide, Jana Nagyová, had been indicted on subsidy fraud charges for which they both pleaded not guilty; the former Czech prime minister insisted the charges brought against him were politically motivated.
At the trial’s conclusion, which had dragged on since September of last year, Judge Jan Šott ruled the evidence provided by the public prosecutor had been insufficient to prove a crime had been committed.
“It is clear that the law enforcement authorities dealt with the case repeatedly with great care; however, the court disagrees with them in some aspects, for example, in the legal classification of the crime,” Šott said.
Babiš did not attend court to hear the verdict on Monday but was represented by his legal team; however, in a tweet published on Tuesday morning, the former Czech prime minister expressed his relief and satisfaction with the verdict.
“Not guilty! I am very happy that we have an independent judiciary and the court has confirmed what I have argued from the beginning. That I am innocent and I have not done anything illegal,” he wrote.
Commenting on the news, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala insisted “the judgment of the independent court must be respected.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán offered his support to Babiš in a tweet on Monday which read: “Glad to see that facts still matter! My best wishes to Andrej Babiš. Keep on fighting!”
The ruling could still be appealed to the high court should prosecutors wish to contest the judgment.
The vindication may go some way to improving the fortunes of the populist billionaire in the election being held Jan. 13-14, as his campaign has been overshadowed by the long-running drama.
Babiš is seeking to replace incumbent Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has served his two-term limit; he is running against retired army General Peter Pavel and economist and university professor Danuše Nerudová.