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Czech protesters gather to demand PM Babis's fall

Czech protesters gather to demand PM Babis's fall
Demonstrators are seen during a protest rally demanding resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague, Czech Republic, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Bundas Engler -
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PRAGUE (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Czechs hit the streets on Tuesday to demand the resignation of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis over alleged conflicts of interest and an investigation over a decade-old EU subsidy for his businesses.

Organisers estimated at the start of the protest on Prague’s central Wenceslas Square that 120,000 had turned out, making it one of the largest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in 1989.

“We are asking for the resignation of Andrej Babis,” organiser Mikulas Minar told protesters from a stage just below the imposing 19th-century National Museum.

The outpouring of anger against Babis, the second richest Czech with $3.7 billion (2.9 billion pounds) in assets according to Forbes magazine, continues a spate of protests in central Europe over fears about democratic backsliding in the formerly Communist region.

Babis has clashed with western European Union leaders over his tough anti-immigration policy but has been more pro-EU than nationalist counterparts in Poland or Hungary.

Protests against Babis began in April just as police concluded investigations into whether he illegally received a 2 million euro EU subsidy for a farm and convention centre a decade ago and recommended he face trial.

Protesters fear a newly appointed justice minister could interfere in the case, now in prosecutors’ hands. Babis has denied wrongdoing and calls the investigation a political manoeuvre to oust him.

The anti-Babis movement received further impetus from a leak of preliminary audit findings by the European Commission which determined that Agrofert, a business empire built by Babis and spanning chemicals, food processing, farming and media firms, should not have had any access to EU development funds in recent years because Babis had conflicts of interest.

Babis shifted Agrofert into trust funds in 2017, before becoming prime minister, to meet new Czech legislation.

But the preliminary audit report – subject to comments by the Czech authorities before finalisation – said Babis’s move was an insufficient separation from his executive powers as he was both the founder and beneficiary of the trust funds.

If confirmed, the audit will be trouble for Babis politically and for Agrofert financially.

Babis has rejected the findings. He told parliament on Tuesday: “(It is) a doubtful audit, an attack on the Czech Republic, and I again repeat, (no money) will be returned.”

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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