March 2, 2018 / 4:49 PM / a year ago

Czech parliament appoints Communist-era riot police officer to head its police watchdog

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech parliament narrowly endorsed a communist lawmaker to lead its police oversight committee on Friday despite objections from the opposition over his past in a brutal, Communist-era special police unit.

Zdenek Ondracek’s appointment marks the first time a Communist lawmaker has held such a post since the fall of communism nearly three decades ago and comes as the party, which opposes NATO membership and holds pro-Russian views, could be gaining influence again.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s ANO party has been courting the Communists for support as it tries to form a new government. When Babis’ minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in January, the Communist Party was the first to say it could back an ANO government.

In 1989, Ondracek’s police unit used water cannon, clubs and dogs to disperse anti-regime protests. The demonstrations eventually led to the peaceful overthrow of Communist dictatorship in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

In the debate preceding the vote, some opposition lawmakers recounted how Ondracek’s unit beat their relatives who were at the protests.

But Ondracek said after the vote that he would not change anything in his career.

“I lived in a certain time, the same way as dozens of my colleagues in parliament did,” Ondracek told reporters.

A video from 1989 posted on YouTube shows Ondracek defending police actions in an interview with state television.

Parliament approved his appointment with 79 votes in favour out of 155. Ondracek won a previous vote in December but the result was revoked within hours over procedural irregularities.

ANO has 78 seats in the 200-seat lower house. With only 15 Communist lawmakers, at least one more party has to either support Babis’ government directly or leave before a new vote of confidence.

Direct or indirect support might also come from the far-right, anti-EU SPD party of Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura.

ANO, though, is chiefly negotiating with the Social Democrats whose chairman Jan Hamacek had said the party could join an ANO-led government but Babis’ presence remained a problem.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jason Hovet and Raissa Kasolowsky

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