Bulgaria charges two senior magistrates with embezzlement

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarian prosecutors charged two senior magistrates on Monday with embezzling European Union funds in a scandal that has further dented public trust in the judiciary system of the EU’s poorest member state.

Bulgaria is under fire from the EU, which it joined in 2007, over its failure to reform its inefficient judicial system and to convict senior officials of graft, managing to jail only a few crime bosses since the fall of communism in 1989.

Military prosecutors said Veselin Pengezov, chairman of the Sofia appeals court, and Petar Petkov, head of the military appeals court, had been charged after a four-year investigation into misuse of the EU funds. The case concerns the introduction of a new information system in military courts.

Both defendants deny any wrong-doing and Pengezov said the charges against them were politically motivated.

Last week, Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov said a total of 81 witnesses had been questioned in the case.

“All the actions we took in implementing the project in question ... conformed with the law,” Petkov told reporters. “We have not misappropriated any public resources either to our own benefit or to the benefit of other individuals.”

A recent poll showed almost two thirds of Bulgarians believe judges are susceptible to political influence. Another survey conducted in December by independent pollster Alpha Research showed nearly half of Bulgarians did not trust the country’s courts.

Public anger over corruption and organized crime is likely to be on display in next month’s European Parliament elections, when populist parties are expected to perform well in Bulgaria as in many other EU member states.

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Gareth Jones