PRAGUE — Czech lawmakers agreed Wednesday to lift the immunity from prosecution of a former finance minister, billionaire Andrej Babis, over an alleged fraud involving EU subsidies.
The 123-4 vote in the lower house of parliament allows police to investigate Babis’ possible involvement in the $2 million fraud and charge him if necessary. Lawmakers also lifted immunity for Babis’ deputy in his political group, Jaroslav Faltynek.
The move comes ahead of the Oct. 20-21 parliamentary election in which Babis’ centrist ANO movement is widely expected to win, paving the way for him to become the country’s next prime minister.
Neither man has been charged. Both deny wrongdoing, saying the case is politically motivated to hurt ANO in the ballot.
“It’s a political case whose goal is to influence the elections,” Babis said during a heated debate in the house. “I didn’t commit any crime.”
EU authorities have been also investigating.
Earlier this year, Babis was fired as finance minister over unexplained business dealings.
This case involves a farm known as the Stork Nest that received an EU subsidy after its ownership was transferred from the Agrofert conglomerate of some 250 companies that belonged to Babis to Babis’ family members. The EU farm subsidy was meant for medium and small businesses and Agrofert would not have been eligible for it.
Agrofert later took over ownership of the farm again.
Babis is sometimes dubbed the “Czech Berlusconi,” a comparison to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon who until recent years dominated his nation’s politics. He used to own two major newspapers and a radio station but was forced to transfer his ownership to a fund due to a recently approved law.
Babis’ movement came in a surprise second in the Czech Republic’s 2013 parliamentary election with an anti-corruption message.
Recent polls suggest the subsidy scandal is unlikely to harm Babis’ public support.