Police and customs officers arrested in Macedonia

Police and customs officers arrested in Macedonia

02/03/2007

In the largest Macedonian police anti-corruption action ever, undercover agents conducted surveillance on a number of police and customs officers allegedly receiving bribes.

By Zoran Nikolovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje – 02/03/07

photoPolice escort some of their arrested colleagues into a court in Skopje for hearings on February 24th. [Getty Images]

Macedonian police arrested 31 fellow officers, ten customs officers and five restaurant keepers — for allegedly taking bribes — in a co-ordinated action early on February 24th. They all worked at border crossings — Deve Bair with Bulgaria, Bogorodica with Greece and Tabanovci with Serbia. Almost an entire shift was arrested at Bogorodica. The workers were immediately replaced so entry into and exit from the country continued, unhampered.

According to the Interior Ministry, the suspects had been watched for two months, with photos of the transactions taken by tiny cameras hidden in the lapels of agents disguised as students, pensioners and workers. The officers allegedly were taking 5 euros to 20 euros per person in exchange for easing the entry process or lowering the customs duties on products brought into Macedonia.

The restaurant owners allegedly helped collect the money. Investigators say the officers never took the money directly from travelers, who were instead directed to pay the money at a restaurant nearby. Travelers were only allowed to pass after the police or customs officer got a signal that the bribe was paid.

Most of the accused allegedly received the bribes individually or split between small groups. It is estimated that each customs officer earned 500 euros a week. In a search of their homes, police recovered 37,600 euros and 145,000 denars (equivalent to 40,000 euros).

The information stunned the public. Interior Ministry analysts believe the action will be pre-emptive — especially since there is photo evidence involved. Footage was distributed to the media showing customs and police officers letting travellers with unchecked luggage pass for 10 euros.

This operation represents the largest anti-corruption undertaking by the police thus far. It was met with widespread public approval and welcomed by all political parties.

Investigative judges questioned the suspects and ordered them all detained, except for two who confessed. The hearings, led by three investigative judges, took all night. The suspects were then sent to Suto Orizari Investigation Prison.

The EU has recommended that the country take a more proactive stance as far as corruption, in order to receive a date for accession negotiations with the Union. The Interior Ministry says it has other actions planned to target corruption.

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