More than 20 Bulgarian customs officials have been arrested in a crackdown on corruption.
The officers were held in the coastal city of Varnaa during a special operation conducted by a police unit that tackles serious and organised criminality.
Detectives seized hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian levs during raids that targeted workers from the Varna-West customs office, both at the authority’s head office and at the homes of suspects.
“An investigation is underway over an organised crime group comprised of officials – customs officers from Varna Customs Office. The investigation is for corruption activities,” Rumyana Arnaudova, spokesperson of the prosecutor general, told the FOCUS news agency.
“Active investigation procedures are underway under the management of the specialised prosecutor’s office. They started on 12 January. The interrogations continue at the moment.”
Arnaudova told local media that the officers detained are accused of accepting cash bribes, and that individuals who do not work for Bulgaria’s customs authorities were also arrested as part of the operation.
According to unconfirmed reports, some 700,000 lev (€358,000) was found during searches carried out by investigators.
The officers arrested are suspected of accepting bribes from shipping companies keen to avoid time-consuming checks on their cargoes. Those involved would meet once a month to discuss their illegal scheme, police claim.
Speaking after the officers’ arrest, interior ministry chief secretary Georgi Kostov said the operation was evidence of close cooperation between organised crime police and public prosecutors.
The arrests were made just days after three workers from the Gyueshevo customs office were convicted of taking bribes after initially being charged back in 2013.
A senior inspector identified as D Davidkov was found guilty of requesting €150 in return for not carrying out customs checks on cargo loads. Davidkov was handed a suspended one-year prison term, a 1,500 lev fine, and was banned from working for the interior ministry for three years.
M Martinov and K Petrov both pleaded guilty to requesting and receiving a kickback in similar circumstances. Martinov was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence, a fine of 800 lev and was banned from government work for three years. Petkov accepted a bribe of €300, and was sentenced to one year and five months in jail, suspended for three years, a fine of 2,000 leva and was banned from working for the interior ministry and the finance ministry for a period of three years.
A report published last year by Transparency International revealed that Bulgaria is seen as the most corrupt country in the EU. On the same day as the report was released, the European Commission criticised the country for failing to tackle corruption, warning that cracking down on high-level wrongdoing and organised crime must become its “highest priority”.