Fall of Czech lobbyist Janousek dubbed 'Voldemort'
- 28 March 2012
- From the section Europe
The Czech Republic has been gripped by the case of a controversial lobbyist who faces up to 10 years in prison for deliberately running over a woman with his car while drunk.
Roman Janousek's arrest on Friday came days after a newspaper alleged his influence over politicians and officials in Prague was once so great it virtually made him the city's "shadow mayor", selling off city property, rigging public tenders and overseeing huge development projects.
The paper called him Voldemort: He Who Must Not Be Named - a billionaire businessman whose influence on communal politics was all-encompassing, yet officially denied. The extent of that alleged influence is still emerging.
On Friday, the law finally caught up with Mr Janousek, 43, not on suspicion of bribing officials, or rigging public tenders, or for allegations of laundering millions of dollars through a Swiss bank account, or any of the other allegations of corruption that have surfaced recently in the Czech media.
He was arrested and charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm and drink-driving.
Eyewitnesses say he deliberately ran over a woman with his luxury Porsche Cayenne after damaging her car in a minor collision.
Pursued by another driver, Roman Janousek eventually abandoned his vehicle and tried to escape on foot. His drunken lope through a scrubby park was captured on CCTV cameras.
Local TV crews arrived in minutes, and he slurred his way through a rambled, rather surreal explanation.
"It felt a bit like watching a Tarantino movie," says Jindrich Sidlo, a commentator for the leading financial daily, Hospodarske Noviny.
"The sight of this guy running away from the police in a park after almost killing someone in his car... it was incredibly tragicomic. This isn't the way notorious gangsters are supposed to meet their end."
The incident and subsequent arrest came days after a newspaper published transcripts of what it said were intelligence service wire-taps of Mr Janousek's conversations with politicians and city officials, most notably Pavel Bem, who was mayor of Prague between 2002 and 2010.
The intelligence services deny the tapes came from them, although an official investigation has now been launched.
The conversations are almost humorous for their foul-mouthed banter and incongruous nicknames.
Pavel Bem has repeatedly insisted Mr Janousek is a friend and has categorically denied he was involved in any decision-making at City Hall.
But the wire-taps suggest Mr Janousek's counsel was sought for everything from the sale of city land to who should run the Prague branch of the country's monolithic state health insurer, VZP.
Mr Janousek refuses to speak to the media.
Many, if not most, Praguers have long believed their city is run by a small coterie of super-rich businessmen and corrupt officials, rather than their elected representatives.
The transcripts have done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.
Not for nothing is Marianske namesti, the small square that houses City Hall, colloquially referred to as "Mafianske namesti".
High-level corruption and cronyism has, however, been difficult to prove in court. Indeed there seems to be little appetite in high places to ascertain the veracity of the Janousek tapes.
President Vaclav Klaus says the wire-taps are "destroying democracy". Mr Bem, a serving MP who was once a protege of Mr Klaus, described them as "demeaning and perverse".
The outrage surrounding Mr Janousek's road-rage incident is likely to subside in time.
He said he was "under stress", has apologised and offered compensation to the woman, a member of the country's Vietnamese minority.
She remains in hospital under police guard. But questions are already being asked about the police handling of Mr Janousek's arrest. He was neither placed in handcuffs nor held in custody despite having attempted to flee the scene.
Many Czechs will undoubtedly see that as a symptom of a wider malaise: the existence of a rich and powerful elite who live by a different set of rules.
The Porsches, the personalised number plates, the ostentatious villas - for most Czechs, all these are the visible trappings of money earned dishonestly, using political connections and a liberal interpretation of the law.
But only now are the citizens of the Czech capital learning the true extent of their influence.