Prague Mayor Under Police Protection over Possible Russian Poison Plot

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a journalist's question during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, has been placed under police protection amidst claims that the Russian government had attempted to poison those responsible for removing a statue of a Soviet general statue from the city.

The mayor and Ondřej Kolář, the leader of the city district where the statue of former USSR general Ivan Konev used to stand, were both warned by Czech security officials following the arrival a man believed to be a member of the Russian secret service (FSB). The unnamed man arrived three weeks ago carrying a Russian diplomatic passport as well as a briefcase allegedly containing the deadly poison ricin.

“Security forces knew about the arrival of the traveller and assessed the men as an immediate risk for a pair of Czech politicians whose actions in recent months have provoked the wrath of Moscow,” wrote the Prague-based newsmagazine Respekt.

Mr Hřib confirmed that he has been placed under police protection, but said that he could not say if it was a result of the supposed Russian poison plot “due to a decision of the police”.

“I can confirm that I have police protection, that it was set up around Catholic Easter, two weeks ago. However, if the Russian agency is trying to kill me with ricin or novichok or polonium, it’s a thing that I cannot really comment on right now,” he told The Times on Monday.

Mr Hřib continued to say that it is “very important for me to stand by my beliefs, even if it means a risk for my life”, adding that he has a “duty to advocate free speech not only for me but also for other citizens”.

Earlier this month, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu called for the Prague district leader Kolář to be prosecuted for removing the statue, which supposedly violated a law in Russia against desecrating the memorials and graves of war heroes.

The Czech Republic has said that it will not extradite Kolář, but Russia could try to have the case recognised by Interpol in order to have him arrested should he leave the country.

The bronze statue of Ivan Konev stood in Prague since 1980, seven years after the Soviet general’s death. He is credited with helping free the city from Nazi occupation during the Second World War. However, Konev also is remembered as the man who arrested and deported Czechs that fled from Joseph Stalin’s communist regime.

In response to the reports of a possible poisoning plot, the Russian embassy in Prague said, “The allegations in the story are absolutely baseless”, claiming that it was designed to “discredit” Russia.

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka

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