June 12, 2013 / 3:07 PM / 6 years ago

Bulgaria charges ex-interior minister in wiretapping scandal

SOFIA (Reuters) - A former Bulgarian interior minister was charged with abuse of power on Wednesday in a wiretapping scandal that has damaged the public’s trust in politicians.

Bulgaria's Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (R) speaks during a news conference next to Prime Minister Boiko Borisov in Sofia February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, a senior politician with the now-opposition GERB party, was accused of not imposing enough controls over employees when he was minister, allowing them to carry out illegal wiretaps of politicians and businessmen. He faces eight years in prison if found guilty.

The scandal, dubbed the “Bulgarian Watergate”, overshadowed May parliamentary elections, dented support for the center-right GERB party and helped bring a Socialist-led government to power.

It is yet another damaging blow to the country, the European Union’s poorest, which has been criticized by Brussels for failing to show tangible results in imposing strict rule of law and fighting organized crime and corruption.

Tsvetanov has denied any wrongdoing and repeatedly said he had not been aware that interior ministry officials had wiretapped phones illegally or had not followed the rules.

“I do not feel guilty,” Tsvetanov told reporters minutes before he was charged.

Prosecutors launched a probe after they were tipped off that police officers had illegally eavesdropped on more than 100 politicians and businessmen.

They said in April they were ready to charge Tsvetanov, but would wait after the May 12 election because as a candidate running for a parliament seat he was immune to prosecution.

He won his seat but voluntarily gave up his immunity from prosecution last week.

Prosecutors have already charged four other interior ministry officials with abuse of power after finding discrepancies in the way wiretapping data and equipment were handled at the interior ministry.

GERB, the largest political party, resigned from the government after mass protests against low living standards in February, prompting the election. Bulgarians used the demonstrations to vent their anger at the political class, who they have long accused of corruption.

GERB won most votes in the election, but not enough to form a government. A minority government, backed by the Socialists and their ethnic Turkish MRF allies, took office at the end of May.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Pravin Char

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