Pandur case probe compromised with Czech detective’s exit

Ex-Czech interior minister fears corruption probe into Kč 14.4 bln Steyr/Pandur APC deal could ‘stall’ with detective’s retirement

foto: Armáda ČRČeská pozice

Elite Czech police detective František Zahálka, long on sick leave, plans to leaves the force, having filed a request to retire as of November 30 this year. His imminent departure confirms rumors that a key figure in the probe of alleged corruption around the purchase of Pandur armored personnel vehicles (APCs) from Austrian arms maker Steyr was frustrated with how the investigation was moving forward.

According to police security experts, Zahálka has a deep understanding of the complex case around the Kč 14.4 billion purchase of 107 Pandurs , which involves some of the biggest names in Czech politics and business of recent years.

“Of course we are not looking forward to his departure and are trying to convince him to reconsider,” Tomáš Martinec, director of the Police Anti-Corruption and Financial Crime Unit (ÚOKFK), told the daily Právo this week.

Police inspectors have been trying to discover how the identity of a state’s witness in the Pandur case, former Steyr manager Stephan Szücse, was leaked to the media, and carried out a search of Zahálka’s office; shortly thereafter, he went on sick leave. The raids apparently stem from distrust between the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Prague and the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office.

When asked about the circumstances surrounding Zahálka’s departure, Social Democrat (ČSSD) MP František Bublan, an ex-interior minister who now heads the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, told Czech Position the detective was part of a “landmark investigation team.”

“He bit into the investigation with great force. Investigations could now stall,” Bublan said, adding that the police officer had access to sensitive and exclusive information that other team members did not. “Because of control mechanisms, it was not possible that Mr. Zahálka acted alone; he was rather the team leader,” Bublan added.

‘Pandura’s box’

Widespread Czech press reporting of alleged corruption by Czech politicians involved in the billion-dollar contract between US company General Dynamics’ Austrian subsidiary Steyr Mannlicher and the Czech Defense Ministry for Pandur APCs shook the political scene, wrote Mary Thompson-Jones, the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Prague, in a February 24, 2010 cable to Washington classified as “SECRET/NOFORN” (meaning not for release to foreign nationals) recently published by WikiLeaks.

In that cable (with the humorous title “PANDURA’S BOX: CORRUPTION SCANDAL LIFTS THE LID ON CZECH DEFENSE PROCUREMENT”) Thompson-Jones goes on to say that a Steyr official had told a US embassy official of the alleged role in the bribery attempt played by a deputy defense minister (and later minister) Martin Barták — now accused by a former US Ambassador to Prague William J Cabannis (2004–2006) of soliciting a bribe over another huge defense contract — and then Czech PM Mirek Topolánek’s right-hand man, Marek Dalík.

See related article: Ex-Czech PM Topolánek keeps ‘cool’ over Steyr bribe allegations via WikiLeaks