In the wake of justice minister Taťána Malá’s sudden resignation over allegations of plagiarism – coming just two days ahead of a scheduled confidence vote in the new government – Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has nominated constitutional law professor Jan Kněžínek to fill her shoes, following an outcry after he first suggested he would take over the post himself.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s suggestion that he could temporarily take on the role of justice minister was met with outrage and derision by opposition leaders on Monday. It would be farcical for Mr Babiš, who could be facing a lengthy prison sentence over his alleged role in an EU subsidy fraud, to lead the justice ministry, they argued.
With his nomination of Charles University professor Kněžínek, a member of the Legislative Council of the Czech Government who has investigated illegal conduct by high-ranking government members, Mr Babiš no doubt hopes to take political heat off ahead of the Wednesday’s confidence vote, his second attempt to form a viable government.
But the prime minister insisted that he had withdrawn his own name not in response to questions of judicial independence but to put an end to at least one “campaign” against him, a reference to the EU subsidiary fraud charges against Mr Babiš he claims are baseless and politically motivated:
“Everyone knows what led me to do this: So I would not have to listen to this stupid crap from the opposition and on Twitter. Everyone knows perfectly well that today we have independent state prosecutors and police – which have ordered an investigation into my pseudo-affair that is absolutely independent. So I do not need another campaign. That’s why I decided to suggest to the president someone other than myself and who is not a minister.”
The outgoing justice minister, who denies plagiarising sections of her theses, stepped down on Monday saying she wished to spare Mr Babiš’s ANO movement further harm brought about by what she called a “disgusting smear campaign” against her.
The irony is that long before evidence came to light of her alleged academic transgressions, it was Ms Malá’s ethical judgement – even more than her professional qualifications – that had come into question, due to her position on the criminal case against Mr Babiš.
Whilst still a candidate for the post of justice minister – which in the end, Ms Malá will have held less than two weeks – she had argued her fellow MPs should hold off on stripping Mr Babiš of parliamentary immunity so he could face prosecution at least until after the next elections. That drew ridicule from opposition figures and media commentators, who charged Ms Malá either had put her loyalty to the ANO party leader above the principle of equality before the law – or didn’t believe in it. Whatever the case, Prime Minister Babiš’s cabinet – cobbled together nine months after his ANO party won the election, following the Social Democrats’ reluctant decision to enter a coalition government with him – is still short one minister.
Mr Babiš’s Social Democrat counterpart, Jan Hamáček, is now both interior minister and acting foreign minister. This is because President Miloš Zeman had refused to appoint the party’s nominee to the post, Miroslav Poche, despite being bound to do so by law. That may be a question for the Constitutional Court and perhaps one that Prof. Jan Kněžínek, the justice minister-nominee, would be wise not to comment on before seeking the president’s approval.
Meanwhile, one of Ms. Malá’s theses – on microclimatic conditions in breeding rabbits, a dozen pages of which were lifted from another student’s thesis without citation – will be scrutinised over the coming week by the Ethics Committee of her alma mater, Mendel University in Brno.