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Czech exec in hot water

Zelezny charged with smuggling paintings

Vladimir Zelezny, the TV exec who cost the Czech Republic $500 million in reparations to U.S.-backed Central European Media Enterprises after he stole control of its Nova TV station in the mid-1990s, is back in court.

This time he’s charged with smuggling paintings into the country and evading 6.8 million Czech crowns ($2.9 million) in associated custom fees and taxes, for which he faces up to 12 years in prison.

The loquacious Zelezny, former Nova topper and now Czech minister to the European Parliament, denies the charges and spoke for two hours on the opening day of his trial in Prague City Court on Monday.

Prosecutors say Zelezny’s Czech-American business associate, George Novotny, brought a painting by Chagall in through Prague’s Ruzyne Airport in April 1998, followed by five more modernist master works in July 1998, purchased at Sotheby’s in London.

Zelezny says Novotny smuggled the Chagall in without his knowledge, telling him it was from a private Czech collector and required no customs declaration. He claims he gave Novotny the cash to pay customs for the other paintings.

CME, which now owns TV Nova again, won the $500 million international arbitration settlement in 2003 against the government for not protecting Lauder’s investment in the Czech market after Zelezny’s 1999 station coup.

Zelezny hinted in his speech that he suspected CME’s owner, Ron Lauder, was behind the charges.

One theory Zelezny didn’t float was that the state might be pursuing the art crime case to recoup some of the $500 million.

The latest charges have taken years to come to court because Zelezny’s European parliamentary status gave him protection from prosecution. That was stripped from him in October.

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