Bulgaria elects sole candidate for new chief prosecutor amid protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s top judicial body on Thursday elected the sole candidate for the next chief prosecutor in a process lacking competition that raised questions whether nominee Ivan Geshev would wage a genuine war on high-level corruption.

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After a ten-hour hearing and a hoax bomb threat, the Supreme Judicial Council voted 20-4 for Geshev, currently deputy chief prosecutor, to take up the top job for seven years.

The powerful position is key to combating graft in Bulgaria, ranked as the most corrupt member state in the European Union by the watchdog Transparency International.

“Although we had just one candidate, this is the most disputed choice for a chief prosecutor so far,” said Anton Stankov, a lawyer and a former justice minister.

The vote was held a day after over 1,000 people marched in central Sofia to protest at the 48-year-old Geshev’s promotion.

On Thursday, protesters blocked two major boulevards in Sofia for hours after they were not allowed near the Council building, where Geshev’s supporters held up banners reading “Geshev - the People’s Sheriff” and “Worthy Chief Prosecutor”.

The lack of competition for the post angered many in the capital, who see Geshev’s election as a pre-determined outcome of a deal between graft-prone political elites and local oligarchs.

Geshev holds a law degree from a police academy and has been a prosecutor since 2006.

Prosecutors, police and investigators have praised Geshev’s successes in cracking down on crime gangs involved in banking card scams, migrant trafficking and cigarette smuggling in recent years and his zeal in chasing offenders.

Critics argue that quiet support for his nomination by the political establishment indicated Geshev would not go after elites and might use his powers to target rivals and opponents.

At the hearing, Geshev denied all accusations and said the process for his election was fully transparent.

“I will not allow media, political or economic circles to indicate who is to be charged and what is more, on what charges,” Geshev said at his hearing before the vote.

The chief prosecutor is one of the most powerful positions in Bulgaria with wide powers to launch and stop investigations.

Despite a declared political will to uproot graft, Sofia has yet to jail a high-ranking official on corruption charges.

Failure to deliver results on fighting graft is keeping the country outside the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel zone, curbs foreign investment and is one of the obstacles to Bulgaria’s push to adopt the euro currency.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Mark Heinrich