Bulgarian prosecutors have charged senior state officials in connection with a document-fraud scheme that they said had enabled people from Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans to obtain Bulgarian passports and travel freely in the European Union.
Authorities on October 31 said they detained Petar Haralampiev, head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, on suspicion of taking bribes and leading an organized criminal group. Haralampiev's lawyer said he denied the accusations.
Some 20 others were also detained in the investigation, including the chief secretary of the agency that provides services to the Bulgarian diaspora, Krasimir Tomov, who faces charges of bribe-taking and influence-trading.
Investigators have also charged a Serbian national and a Bulgarian from the western town of Kyustendil, close to the Serbian and Macedonian frontiers, with involvement in the scam.
"This is the most serious case of high-level corruption to come to light" in Bulgaria, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev told reporters.
Prosecutors said applicants, mainly from the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine, had been paying up to 8,000 euros ($9,080) to secure fraudulent certificates that supposedly established their Bulgarian origin.
Armed with such certificates, the applicants could apply for Bulgarian passports, and with them obtain the right to travel and work freely across the 28-nation European Union.
BNR public radio reported that the scheme led to between 30 and 40 fraudulent passports being issued per week.
Authorities said the crime ring appeared to target people in Macedonia, Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine, where there are significant Bulgarian minorities.
Bribes were also paid to speed up the process, they said.
Prosecutors said evidence suggested that the document-fraud scheme dates back to June 2017, a month after Haralampiev took over the agency.