A Czech court on Monday acquitted former Prime Minister Andrej Babis of having illegally accessed €2 million ($2.1 million) in European Union funds 15 years ago.
The acquittal comes ahead of a presidential election this week where the populist billionaire is among the favorites to win.
Babis, 68, who greeted Monday's verdict with a jubilant tweet commencing with "INNOCENT!!," is also facing a French investigation over financial fraud that French media say involves his purchase of property in France. He denies any wrongdoing in that case as well.
The prosecution had sought a suspended sentence and a fine for Babis.
What was Babis accused of?
Prosecutors had alleged that Babis hid his ownership of a company in 2008 to illegally tap the EU funds to build a leisure and conference center near the Czech capital, Prague.
The company, a farm known as the Stork's Nest, received EU subsidies after its ownership was transferred from the Agrofert conglomerate of around 250 companies that Babis owned to members of his family. The subsidies were intended only for medium- and small-sized businesses, meaning that Agrofert would not have been eligible to receive them.
Agrofert, which has interests in farming, chemicals, food processing and media later again took ownership of the farm and returned the subsidies.
Babis placed his business interests into a trust in 2017 after criticism that they conflicted with his government roles. His businesses receive large EU subsidies under the bloc's agricultural policy as well as funds for investment projects.
Babis was finance minister in 2014-2017 and prime minister in 2017-2021.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets twice in 2019 to demand that Babis step down over scandals, including the conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.
Babis ultimately left the prime minister's office after 2021's elections, narrowly losing out to current Prime Minister Petr Fiala's party and its allies.
What did the court say?
Prague Municipal Court judge Jan Sott said it had not been proven that what Babis and one of his managers did was a crime.
However, Sott rejected the idea that Babis was persecuted because of his political activities, something the former prime minister repeatedly alleged.
The prosecution can appeal the decision.
What are Babis' chances in the presidential election?
Opinion polls have indicated that Babis is one of three front-runners in the election, the first round of which takes place on Friday and Saturday.
As no candidate is expected to win the first round, a run-off is likely on January 27-28.
Polls have indicated that Babis would likely lose the second round to either of the two other favorites, retired General Petr Pavel and former university rector Danuse Nerudova, both of whom are backed by the current coalition government.
Although Czech presidents have little daily executive power, they have an important political role, as they appoint prime ministers, central bank board members and judges at the constitutional court.
tj/msh (AFP, AP)