Leading Czech opposition figure charged with bribery

PRAGUE Wed May 16, 2012 5:01pm BST

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech police have charged a leading opposition politician with bribery, a high-profile case at a time of rising public anger at the level of political corruption and an economic recession deepened by budget cuts and tax increases.

David Rath, a former health minister and outspoken Social Democrat deputy, was arrested late on Monday, and a district judge ordered his detention on Wednesday to prevent him from fleeing or influencing witnesses.

Czech lower house deputies have parliamentary immunity and can be arrested and detained only if caught at the time a crime is committed or immediately afterwards. The lower house decides whether the deputy's prosecution can go ahead.

State attorney Lenka Bradacova, who is overseeing the case, said on Tuesday, "He is charged with accepting a bribe. There was seven million crowns (219,014.75 pounds) with (Rath) when he left the place where the crime occurred."

Rath, 46, is the first lower house deputy to be held in prison since 1998.

Rath, who was also governor of the central region of Bohemia surrounding Prague before resigning on Wednesday, has denied the charges, and said in a public statement that the case gave the impression of being the "well-prepared and well-performed social execution of a politician".

Czech media said Rath was suspected of taking a bribe connected with public construction contracts and the distribution of EU funds.

In April, 90,000 people marched through Prague to protest against spending cuts, tax rises and political graft - the biggest anti-government protest since the end of communism.

The leftist Social Democrats lead Prime Minister Petr Necas's Civic Democrat party in opinion polls by 20 percentage points.

Last month, Necas expelled a junior coalition member, the Public Affairs party, after its caucus chief Vit Barta was given a suspended sentence for bribing party members to secure their loyalty.

Leaked wiretaps of phone conversations between former Prague mayor Pavel Bem, forced out of Necas's party earlier this year, and a lobbyist, in which they discussed filling top positions in companies controlled by the city, added to public anger over political graft.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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