PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech parliament lifted immunity from prosecution for one of its most prominent members on Tuesday, a step aimed at tackling political corruption that has angered the public and halted vital cash payments from the European Union.
The lower house voted 183 to 2 to allow police to continue investigating David Rath, a former health minister and one of the opposition's most vocal members, who was arrested last month leaving a friend's house with 7 million crowns ($340,300) stuffed in a wine box.
In custody since then, Rath's arrest was the most dramatic event in a series of graft scandals that have cost several ministers their jobs and turned the public against the main political parties in government as well as opposition.
The Czech Republic stopped drawing EU subsidies in March after suspicions of widespread mismanagement and abuse. The government says if that situation continues it could double this year's budget deficit to 6 percent of gross domestic product.
The EU is expected to evaluate progress in tackling corruption the coming weeks.
In a scene unprecedented in the post-communist Czech Republic, Rath was brought to parliament by armed police.
"This is a political vendetta, a removal of an opposition politician, a tough critic ... the custody is a new-era torture," Rath told parliament before it voted to lift his immunity.
Rath resigned as governor of the Central Bohemia region after his arrest, but remains member of parliament. He said he was being persecuted by an "octopus" of opponents directed by the interior ministry and likened his case to the jailing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Rath, who was to be one of the centre-left Social Democrats' leading figures in regional elections likely in October, faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty of overpricing a contract to repair a publicly-owned chateau, funded by EU subsidises, by millions of dollars.
The Czech Republic, like neighbouring Slovakia and other former communist countries, has undergone profound economic and political transformation over the last two decades.
But many of its institutions have struggled with graft and a system where prosecutions are rare and convictions even more so.
An opinion poll in March showed 30 percent of Czechs believe nearly all politicians are corrupt, and another 44 percent think most are. Another poll showed 85 percent believe corruption is the country's most serious problem.
Anti-graft groups have given some credit to Prime Minister Petr Necas' centre-right government for a series of steps to improve public procurement, including laws tightening tender rules and proposals to limit anonymous ownership of companies.
Political analyst Jindrich Sidlo said a long period of impunity enjoyed by the political classes may now be coming to an end.
"This case must scare a lot of people," Sidlo said in a television debate, but he also sounded a note of caution as past cases showed investigations can often lead nowhere.
($1 = 20.5690 Czech crowns)
Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Robin Pomeroy