Former finance minister sentenced to five years for embezzlement

02-02-2005

The Prague High Court on Tuesday upheld a five year jail sentence imposed on the former finance minister Ivo Svoboda and his close aide Barbora Snopkova. Svoboda is the first former Cabinet minister to be served a prison sentence since the fall of communism in 1989.

Ivo Svoboda and Barbora Snopkova, photo: CTKIvo Svoboda and Barbora Snopkova, photo: CTK When the former prime minister Milos Zeman launched his Clean Hands anti-corruption drive he could not have dreamed that one of the biggest fish who would get caught in the net would be the man whom he had handpicked for the post of finance minister.

Ivo Svoboda and his close aide Barbora Snopkova were both found guilty of having unlawfully transferred 6.5 million crowns, almost 300 000 US dollars, to their own private company from the now bankrupt baby carriage manufacturer Liberta, while they were on its board of directors. Both looked tired and broken as they stood to hear the judge's sentence. And as they left the courtroom both maintained that they were innocent of the charges against them.

However neither are in a position to appeal the verdict, and barring health reasons, both will have to serve their prison sentences. Another former minister who must have watched the proceedings with some trepidation is the former health minister Marie Souckova. She too faces charges in connection with a dubious contract she signed while in office that cost taxpayers millions of crowns. If found guilty, the former health minister could face up to ten years in prison. The news that even former top officials are not beyond the reach of justice has gone down well with the Czech public, but will it really help to improve the Czech Republic's image as a country with a very high corruption rate.

A question I put to Michal Sticka of the Czech branch of Transparency International:

"If the public abroad reads in the newspapers that an ex finance minister has been jailed for fraud then the first thing that comes to mind is that a country whose ministers commit fraud cannot be good. So in the short run it may damage the reputation of the Czech Republic but in the long run, for us, this case is beneficial because we know that we can rely on our judicial system, that it is able to imprison even high ranking officials who commit fraud and bribery."

02-02-2005