Czech power giant CEZ is under increased pressure from the government following a scandal surrounding an armed team the company employs to deal with electricity thieves.
The company set up a paramilitary-style commando unit to see to what are called “non-technical losses”, which means the theft of electricity via illegal connections to the grid.
The Czech prime minister, Jan Fischer, has called for checks on the legality of CEZ's operations, while some other politicians have demanded the immediate dissolution of the anti-theft unit.
However, the company's CEO Martin Roman said he has no intention of disbanding the division; a move which he suggested would harm law-abiding customers.
“Electricity is stolen in large amounts by armed gangs who will stop at nothing and are prepared to use violence. And those who steal electricity aren't stealing from CEZ, they are stealing from honest customers,” Roman told a news conference organized in response to the revelations.
Some of those who steal electricity in the Czech Republic are also believed to be involved in another crime: operating illegal marijuana farms. The CEZ boss told reporters that last year alone the company had uncovered more than 80 large-scale cannabis growing operations.
The amounts of electricity stolen are significant too. The power utility said that since the special division was set up in 2005 it had uncovered a total of 15,000 cases of power theft, with losses amounting to over USD 25 million.
Shooting practice, exercises in hooding and undressing a prisoner and endurance tests in extreme conditions feature in a training video of the armed unit that has been all over the Czech media recently.
In a second, rather horrifying video, members of the unit are seen entering the home of an alleged electricity thief; moments later the man is found lying in a pool of blood, having shot himself in the head upon their arrival. Both films are part of police evidence from an investigation into the armed unit's activities.
The company has also pointed out that the shocking video images were recorded five years ago, and said it had changed its practices since then.
No power outage in sight
CEZ is one of the largest players on the European energy market and has a lot of influence in the Czech Republic. Too much influence, according to some critics. In fact, it has so much clout that some locals jokingly refer to the country as CEZka Republika, instead of the correct Ceska Republika.
Prague-based journalist and commentator Erik Best said he didn't believe the commando unit affair would cause much harm to CEZ in the long term.
“I think they've done a pretty good job of justifying their actions since then,” said Best. “They got the support of the deputy interior minister, who said their current practices in terms of theft prevention have been dealt with.”
However, CEZ is not out of the woods yet. Police in the Czech Republic are preparing charges of trespassing and blackmail against 32 members of the firm's anti-theft unit following an investigation that was launched before the videos emerged.
Author: Ian Willougby
Editor: Rob Turner