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Bosnia police question regional PM over import of defective ventilators

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The prime minister of Bosnia’s autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation Fadil Novalic has been quizzed by police about the import by a fruit processing firm of ventilators for COVID-19 patients that proved defective, his SDA party said.

Neither the police nor the prosecutor’s office could comment further but said more information about the case would come out later.

The SDA said Novalic had been held for questioning since late on Thursday alongside fellow member Fahrudin Solak, the official in charge of procuring equipment to combat COVID-19.

Local media reported Fikret Hodzic, the manager of the fruit processing firm which procured the ventilators, was also questioned as part of a criminal probe into the procurement.

All three men have denied any wrongdoing and the SDA questioned the credibility of the investigation into suspected corruption and fraud.

“From the very beginning, by selectively publishing the collected documentation and evidence, the Prosecutor’s Office has shown that their only intention is to discredit the prime minister and involve him in the affair at any cost,” it said.

The case arose after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Federation government to relax public procurement statutes to allow purchases of medical equipment through direct bargaining with suppliers rather than via public tender.

The raspberry processing firm, Srebrena Malina, which had no licence to import medical equipment was recruited by the Federation civil protection authority (FUZC) to procure 100 ventilators from China for 10.5 million Bosnian marka ($5.92 million).

It received a permit for the transaction only days after 80 out of the 100 ventilators arrived, spurring allegations of irregularities and prompting the state prosecutor to open the investigation.

Prosecutors are investigating how and why Srebrena Malina was chosen to do the deal when several other firms with experience in procuring medical equipment had said they could obtain effective machines at a lower cost.

Their initial report showed the ventilators did “not meet even a minimum of necessary characteristics for adequate treatment” of COVID-19 patients and that it was not advisable to use them in intensive-care units.

Solak was suspended as the head of FUCZ earlier in May.

Reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Alison Williams

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