Bosnian official suspended amid probe into import of defective ventilators

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - A senior Bosnian official in charge of procuring medical equipment to combat the coronavirus outbreak was suspended on Tuesday amid a criminal inquiry into the import of ventilators for COVID-19 patients that proved defective.

Fahrudin Solak, head of the civil protection authority (FUCZ) in the Bosniak-Croat autonomous region of Bosnia, has denied accusations of irregularities in the procurement of the Chinese ventilators.

The case arose after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Bosnia-Croat Federation government to relax public procurement statutes to allow purchases of medical equipment through direct bargaining with suppliers rather than via public tender.

A raspberry processing firm, Srebrena Malina, that had no license to import medical equipment was then recruited by FUCZ to procure 100 ventilators from China for 10.5 million Bosnian marka ($5.84 million) for care of COVID-19 patients.

Srebrena Malina 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 an investigation into possible corruption and fraud.

Prosecutors were investigating in part how and why Srebrena Malina was chosen to do a deal for the ventilators while several other companies with experience in procuring medical equipment said they could obtain effective machines at a lower cost.

The prosecutor’s office said in an initial report on Monday the ventilators did “not meet even a minimum of necessary characteristics for adequate treatment” of COVID-19 patients and that was not advisable to use them in intensive-care units.

Medical experts said the ventilators were found to be of a type for use in medical transport rather than intensive care units, and the price paid for the machines had been inflated.

Both Solak and Fikret Hodzic, a prominent television presenter who owns Srebrena Malina and is close to the largest Bosniak party, denied any wrongdoing. Solak tendered his temporary resignation pending the outcome of the inquiry.

Several Bosnian import-export companies with connections to the political establishment have been under scrutiny since the coronavirus crisis began amid accusations of profiteering as authorities scrambled to plug shortages of medical equipment.

Bosnia, split into Serb and Bosniak-Croat autonomous regions since the 1990s war, has registered 2,158 cases of COVID-19 and 117 deaths from the lung disease. Both regions have begun a gradual easing of lockdowns imposed to contain the outbreak.

Reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Mark Heinrich