The Prague City Court on Thursday ruled on the biggest case of fraud in the country's history. The judge sent the founder of the bankrupt construction company H-system Petr Smetka to 12 years in prison for defrauding some 1,200 clients of 1.2 billion crowns - leaving them penniless and without a roof over their heads.
The Prague courtroom was packed for the verdict. Several dozen people who had entrusted their lives savings to the bankrupt company came to see justice being done. It took the judge over eight hours to read the verdict containing the names of all the defrauded clients. The court sentenced the founder of the company Petr Smetka to twelve years in jail and three of his managers to nine and a half years each. All were found guilty of fraud, embezzlement and harming creditors. State attorney Boris Havel said that the manner in which the money had been siphoned off -periodically from the outset and used for non-construction purposes suggested that this was a case of carefully planned fraud.
The evidence presented also revealed that the H-system construction company failed to inform its clients and shareholders about its outstanding credits at Komercni Banka - to the tune of several million crowns. Right from the outset people were thus investing their money into a heavily indebted company. Throughout the trial the company's founder Petr Smetka maintained that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and described the verdict as absurd:
"There was not a scrap of evidence presented in this court to suggest that we had knowingly planned fraud. And many of the things said here were simply not true. We do feel bad about not delivering on our promises and constructing the housing estates. You could even say that we were a bit irresponsible in how we handled funds but we certainly did not plan fraud from the outset."
All four men have appealed the verdict with the High Court and say they are prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg if necessary - to defend their innocence. However legal experts predict that they don't stand much chance, given the weight of the evidence against them. If the High Court confirms this verdict -then apart from their jail sentences the four culprits will have to spend the rest of their lives paying back the embezzled funds. However none of those who crowded the courtroom really expect to see their money back. As one of them said - "the least I can hope for is to see them rot in jail".