Communist-era policeman becomes Czech police watchdog in new parliament

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PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czech lawmakers on Tuesday entrusted oversight of the police force to a former member of a Communist-era special unit which tried to crush the peaceful 1989 uprising that helped to bring down Communist rule.

The unprecedented appointment of a Communist lawmaker – Zdenek Ondracek – as chairman of parliament’s General Inspection of Security Forces commission appeared to be part of complex manoeuvring by billionaire businessman Andrej Babis and his ANO party to get backing for a minority government.

The ANO has 78 seats in the new 200-seat lower house. New Prime Minister Babis is seeking support or at least acquiescence from among lawmakers of the other eight parties in parliament.

The far-left Communists with 15 seats, and far-right, anti-European Union SPD party with 22, have lent support in initial parliamentary votes in return for committee posts, but no deal has been announced on their backing for an ANO cabinet.

The secret ballot vote on Tuesday to appoint Ondracek was the first time the Communist party has gained such a post in the nearly three decades since the fall of communism.

In 1989 his police unit used water cannon, clubs and dogs to disperse anti-regime protests. The demonstrations eventually led to the peaceful overthrow of Communist dictatorship in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

A video from 1989, posted on YouTube, shows Ondracek defending police actions in an interview with state television.

His appointment drew criticism from some political leaders on Tuesday.

“It is sad that it happened only one day after we remembered the anniversary of (late president and leading anti-Communist dissident) Vaclav Havel’s passing. The times have changed,” said Vit Rakusan, deputy chairman of the Mayors and Independents party.

Communist party deputy chairman Jiri Dolejs, however, defended the appointment.

“Police work should be scrutinised by those who understand it,” he told reporters.

The Communist party, which suffered the worst election result in its nearly 100-year history in October, is the only faction so far to say it could back the ANO government.

Direct or indirect support might also come from the SPD party of Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura.

Other parties have shunned Babis, mainly due to pending police charges against him over allegations he concealed his company’s ownership of a farm and conference centre a decade ago to illegally obtain a 2 million-euro European Union subsidy.

Babis denies wrongdoing.

Babis, who was appointed prime minister this month and whose cabinet took power last week, has until mid-January to win a confidence vote. President Milos Zeman has said Babis will get a second try if his first attempt to form a government fails.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jason Hovet and Andrew Roche)

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