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Bosniak-Croat Federation PM Detained Over Deal To Buy Respirators From China

Fadil Novalic (file photo)
Fadil Novalic (file photo)

The prime minister of Bosnia's autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation has been questioned in a potential corruption case involving the purchase of 100 respirators from China for coronavirus patients.

Fadil Novalic was questioned as part of an investigation into suspected corruption and fraud by federal police on May 28, according to media reports.

Neither the police nor the prosecutor's office would comment on the matter, but they said more information about the case would be released later.

The chairman of Novalic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosnian Muslim party, confirmed on May 29 that Novalic was in custody and asked the prosecutor's office to "urgently present the evidence" against him.

The 5.4 million-euro ($6 million) deal raised suspicions after it emerged that the authorities had hired a local fruit-processing company with no license to import medical equipment to procure the respirators.

Prosecutors in early May cited an expert who said the respirators were not the right model for the intensive-care units where they were needed. Bosnia-Herzegovina has reported nearly 2,500 infections and around 150 deaths from the coronavirus.

Fahrudin Solak, the government official in charge of procuring equipment, and Fikret Hodzic, the manager of the fruit-processing firm, were also questioned as part of the probe, according to local media.

Prosecutors have not yet said what charges could be filed, but a source in the investigation and protection agency told RFE/RL there were grounds for suspicion of money laundering, forgery of official documents, and abuse of office.

All three men have denied any wrongdoing, and the SDA questioned the credibility of the investigation.

"From the very beginning, by selectively publishing the collected documentation and evidence, the prosecutor's office has shown that their only intention is to discredit the prime minister and involve him in the affair at any cost," it said.

Party Chairman Bakir Izetbegovic said no evidence would be presented, and claimed that the questioning of Novalic was part of an ongoing series of attacks on Bosniaks by chief prosecutor Gordana Tadic.

He asserted that the reason other officials were not detained was that they were not Bosniaks.

Tadic said on Face TV she did not know what Izetbegovic based his claim on and said his words amounted to a direct threat against her and her family.

The case arose after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the federation’s government to relax public procurement statutes to allow purchases of medical equipment through direct bargaining with suppliers rather than via public tender.

The fruit-processing firm, Srebrena Malina, was recruited to procure 100 ventilators from China and it received a permit for the transaction only days after 80 out of the 100 ventilators arrived.

Prosecutors are investigating how Srebrena Malina was chosen when there were several other firms with experience in procuring medical equipment that had said they could obtain effective machines at a lower cost.

With reporting by AP and Reuters