The Anti-Corruption Fund (ACF) has submitted a report to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) concerning the defective masks and medication purchased in 2020 from China by the Ministry of Health in order to combat the Covid-19 crisis. This happens after the case was already referred to the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office (PORB) twice — in 2020 and 2021. The first time, the PORB terminated the proceedings, and no actions have been taken so far following the second referral.
ACF first alerted the Bulgarian institutions about an issue with the masks and medication from China back in September 2020, with the release of its “The Mask Impossible” investigation. The investigation revealed that the former health minister, Kiril Ananiev, had provided frontline medics and health workers with RYZUR masks, the total cost of which was EUR 1.6 mln. Ananiev claimed that the masks had passed a reliability test; however, the test had been carried out in an uncertified laboratory, and only on a single mask that was not even of the same type as the ones imported from China.
In March 2021, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) terminated the investigation of the imported Chinese masks without even examining the detailed documentation appended to ACF’s report. The documents unequivocally showed that the distributed masks had not undergone any quality assessment despite the numerous media and scientific publications concerning their compromised quality.
The SPO’s reasoning was that in the course of the preliminary inspection, it had requested the then minister of health to fulfill his obligations to protect the life and health of the public. Ananiev responded that he had already done precisely that, which was enough for the SPO to terminate the proceedings.
At the beginning of July 2021, ACF also alerted the Sofia-City Prosecutor’s Office (SCPO) about irregularities surrounding the Ministry of Health’s purchase of two Covid-19 treatment medicines (Hydroxychloroquine Sulfate Tablets 100 mg. and Azithromycin Dispersible Tablets 250 mg.) from China for a total price of USD 629,000. ACF emphasized that the medicines had been purchased without contracts, without the relevant accompanying documentation, and with no possibility to identify the manufacturers, as well as their unlawful distribution to health facilities in the country.
With a SCPO ruling dated 13 August 2021, ACF’s report was referred to the jurisdiction of the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office (SpPO). There is no information about any actions undertaken by the SpPO to date.
At the end of June, the caretaker Minister of Health, Stoytcho Katsarov, also alerted the Prosecutor’s Office regarding violations committed by Minister Kiril Ananiev in the course of contract negotiations with China for the supply of medicinal products, personal protective gear and medical equipment. At the end of August 2021, Minister Katsarov announced that the PORB has referred his report to the EPPO. The press release, published by the Ministry of Health, states that the PORB transferred all the materials describing committed violations to the EPPO for reasons of jurisdiction.
“According to the press release, the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office decided that it did not have jurisdiction to investigate whether the health minister has broken the law by signing unfavorable contracts with China,” says Sofiya Zheleva, legal expert at the Anti-Corruption Fund.
“Consequently, ACF collected all the available information and documentation related to the compromised masks and medication from China, and submitted it to the EPPO. The case falls within the EPPO’s jurisdiction, as the amounts paid under the contracts at issue came from European funds. Moreover, in addition to the harming of the EU’s financial interests, the health of European citizens — medics and patients — was endangered and infringed.”
“The case is of especial importance, as it focuses on whether the Bulgarian authorities made the necessary efforts to protect the health of the Bulgarian citizens and frontline medics. Wе have reasons to doubt that due care was exercised and we hope that the EPPO will issue a decision that will help prevent the occurrence of such violations in the future,” says Boyko Stankushev, Director of the Anti-Corruption Fund.
The two parts of “The Mask Impossible” investigation are available here and here