SOFIA -- Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev fell into a coma in Sofia in April 2015 after someone smeared the door handles of his car with a substance similar to Novichok -- the nerve agent that hospitalized former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
Bulgarian officials eventually charged three Russian agents in absentia with attempted murder by using a “phosphorus-organic substance” that poisoned Gebrev, his son Hristo, and the production director of Gebrev’s Sofia-based firm, EMCO Production. All three were hospitalized and fell into comas but survived.
But amid the international furor over the recent poisoning in Russia of the outspoken Kremlin critic Navalny, Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev has suddenly ordered the suspension of Sofia’s probe.
“I’m not a KGB agent or a politician,” Gebrev told RFE/RL after being told the investigation had been suspended.
“Prosecutors said the direct perpetrators were Russian officers. OK. Russian officers,” Gebrev said. “I may be extremely low in the hierarchy, but what has happened to me is a pure act of terrorism.”
For years, Gebrev has been pushing for Bulgarian authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into who tried to kill him.
His prodding led to revelations that have helped link his case to the Novichok attack against the Russian former double-agent, Skripal, in Salisbury, England.
Bulgarian investigators initially said they’d found traces of the highly toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in Gebrev’s coffee and food at his home, but no substance banned by the international Chemical Weapons Convention such as Novichok.
Gebrev said that about six months after he fell into a coma with Novichok-like symptoms, the Bulgarian Prosecutor-General’s Office stopped any serious attempt to discover the culprits or learn more about what was used to poison him.
“At my request and insistence, [the investigation] was continued, and it ended again after about another six or seven months,” Gebrev told RFE/RL. “There was a big lull until 2018.”
Salisbury Hit Squad
Then -- on March 4, 2018 -- Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by Novichok thought to have been spread on the front door handle of his home in Salisbury.
It was Gebrev himself, reading press reports about the Skripals’ symptoms, who made the connection between the Salisbury attack and his ordeal.
International media picked up on Gebrev’s story after he spoke out publicly about their similar symptoms.
British allegations that Russia had sent a hit squad to Salisbury to poison Skripal brought fresh impetus to the investigation in Sofia.
In October 2018, Bulgarian authorities created a special investigative team and reopened the Gebrev case.
FBI and British intelligence agents joined the team. They reviewed security-camera footage of the parking garage below Gebrev’s company headquarters and determined someone had slipped inside to smear poison on his car-door handles.
In January 2019, formal charges of attempted murder were announced in absentia against three Russian suspects initially identified as Sergei Pavlov, Georgy Gorshkov, and Sergei Fedotov.
Fedotov was then identified by the Britain-based research group Bellingcat as the purported commander of the Novichok attack in Salisbury.
Bellingcat and the German news site Der Spiegel also confirmed in a joint investigation that Fedotov was a false identity used for traveling outside Russia by Denis Sergeyev -- a major general from an “elite overseas clandestine-operations” team that is part of Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit 29155.
Western intelligence agencies say the secret unit has been active in Europe for years, carrying out subversive activities that included coup attempts and assassinations.
They say the GRU unit had been unknown to them before the attack on the Skripals. But the investigation into Gebrev’s case shed light on its activities.
With agents from the FBI and British intelligence involved, the reopened Bulgarian investigation determined Sergeyev had used the same false name, Sergei Fedotov, when he and the other Russian suspects stayed at a Sofia hotel near Gebrev’s company headquarters in April 2015.
They were staying there the day Gebrev was poisoned, and one of their rooms had a view of the entrance to the underground garage where Gebrev’s car was parked.
“When the state wants to investigate, then it can,” Gebrev told RFE/RL shortly before Bulgarian prosecutors announced the attempted murder charges against the Russian suspects.
“The more I analyze what has happened so far, however cruel and ugly it sounds, it is the result of an extremely thought-out, purposeful, and consistent war against me, the company I lead, and, analyzing the whole situation, against companies in the defense sector,” Gebrev said.
Gebrev had a sense of déjà vu on August 20 when Navalny fell ill while traveling aboard a domestic commercial flight from Siberia.
Russian doctors who initially treated Navalny said there was no sign of poisoning, and Russian investigators appeared reluctant to check claims by Navalny’s associates that the Kremlin was involved.
But German doctors treating Navalny after his transfer to Berlin announced on September 2 that there were traces in his body of Novichok, a phosphorus-organic chemical warfare agent that was first developed in the Soviet Union.
Gebrev had told RFE/RL the previous day that he expected medical tests in Germany would lead to that conclusion.
“For one reason or another, in the Skripal case, the British side came out with clear information that it was the same or a similar [chemical] warfare poison [that was used against me],” Gebrev told RFE/RL on September 1. “In the case of Navalny…for all the symptoms, statements, and initial comments, things lead there.”
Weeks earlier, in late July, Gebrev said in an open letter that he saw deliberate procrastination by Prosecutor-General Geshev on the investigation into his poisoning.
Gebrev linked the situation to his arms-trading business, but said there also were “geopolitical” factors behind Sofia’s failure to hold a trial for the three suspected Russian agents.
Gebrev wrote: “Behind the ostentatious, half-hearted, and declarative actions" of Geshev lies a “fear of geopolitical consequences."
More recently, Gebrev told RFE/RL he has reviewed Geshev’s August 26 order to suspend the Bulgarian probe, as well as other documents related to his case. He said things there are “not right.”
“In the name of truth, I am familiar [with the progress of the investigation],” Gebrev said.
“When an investigation is terminated, you have the right as a victim to review the documentation on it,” he explained. “I was familiar with the investigation and there were a lot of omissions and mistakes.”
Although Bulgaria is a member of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Gebrev accused Bulgarian investigators of being neither credible nor transparent with OPCW experts.
“Every effort has been made not to involve the [OPCW] as a side that has these strengths and capabilities to prove the exact source material,” he said. “[The Bulgarian side] hid documents. They said they were connecting [with the OPCW]. But they did not connect.”
“And they think that no one is watching what they are doing here in the puddle,” Gebrev said. “Thank God there are other investigators who are aware of every single thing that is done in our country.”
The Kremlin denies any role in the poisoning of Gebrev, the Skripals, or Navalny.
The Bulgarian Prosecutor-General’s Office has not responded to questions from RFE/RL about what cooperation, if any, it has sought from the Kremlin to bring the Russian suspects to trial in Sofia.
Gebrev said that is a question he is unable to answer.
But he told RFE/RL: “If the Bulgarian side was looking for [cooperation from Russia in the investigation], it did it with fear -- not with dignity -- of a state, of a former ally, of a current partner.”
“When you are a serious person and ask a serious person a question, you get a serious answer,” he said. “When you shrink and do something else, the reaction is different.”
Gebrev said the suspension of his case could be related to domestic politics in Bulgaria rather than any direct connection to the Navalny poisoning.
He pointed to Bulgaria’s embattled prosecutor-general and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
Both have faced calls to resign at mass demonstrations across Bulgaria since early July -- with allegations that government ministries and the judiciary, including the Prosecutor-General’s Office, are controlled by criminal organizations.
“Things are very simple,” Gebrev said. “Maybe they are related to this long-standing discontent in the country.... Discontent of two figures in our society. In any case, these two figures are directly related to the case.”
“The prosecutor-general cannot be unaware of how such a landmark case is developing,” Gebrev said. “Not that I am a significant person, but the case is significant because it does not happen every day in Bulgaria or in Europe.”
“And there is no way from a purely political, politico-economic, and geopolitical point of view that the prime minister of the country is not interested,” Gebrev concluded.