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Bosnian prosecutors seek detention of regional PM linked to ventilators deal

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnian prosecutors on Saturday requested a 30-day detention order for three men, including a regional prime minister, in connection with the import of defective ventilators for coronavirus patients.

Fadil Novalic, prime minister of the autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation, has been held in police custody since Thursday along with Fahrudin Solak, an official in charge of procuring equipment to combat the outbreak, and Fikret Hodzic, the manager of the company alleged to have procured the ventilators.

“Following the interrogation of the accused, the team of prosecutors ... has sent to Bosnia’s state court a proposal for ordering a 30-day detention for the accused,” the prosecution said in a statement.

All three men have denied any wrongdoing.

If detained, Novalic would be the first senior official to be arrested on graft charges in recent years in Bosnia which has been plagued by corruption scandals. Few officials suspected of corruption have been jailed.

On Saturday, thousands of people protested in Sarajevo against bad governance, nationalism and graft, and called for those responsible for corrupt practices to face charges.

The case involving the ventilators arose after the government relaxed public procurement rules in the wake of the pandemic outbreak to allow purchases of medical equipment through direct bargaining with suppliers rather than via public tender.

Srebrena Malina, a raspberry processing firm which had no licence to import medical equipment, was recruited by the Federation’s civil protection authority to procure 100 ventilators from China for 10.5 million Bosnian marka ($6 million).

The firm received a permit for the transaction after 80 ventilators had been delivered, spurring allegations of irregularities and prompting the investigation on how and why the company was selected to do the deal.

The prosecutors’ initial report showed the ventilators did “not meet even a minimum of necessary characteristics for adequate treatment” of coronavirus patients and that it was not advisable to use them in intensive-care units.

Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Mike Harrison