Prosecutors charge head of Bulgaria’s Customs Agency, critics allege link to elections

Prosecutors in Bulgaria have lodged charges of participating in an organised crime group against the head of the Customs Agency and three others, but detractors have called the move into question as possibly linked to the country’s forthcoming early parliamentary elections.

The four accused – Customs Agency chief Petya Bankova, controversial figure Nikola “Pascal” Nikolov and father-and-son Martin and Stefan Dimitrov of Haskovo – have been ordered into 72-hour custody by prosecutors.

The April 4 announcement by the Prosecutor’s Office follows an operation the previous day by the State Agency for National Security (SANS) and the Anti-Corruption Commission. Marin Dimitrov is a former director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Agency.

According to the statement by the Prosecutor’s Office, on April 3 a pre-trial proceeding was started by the Anti-Corruption Commission regarding the existence of an organised criminal group, “created for a profit and with the aim of committing smuggling, money laundering and corruption crimes, in which persons holding a public office take part, as well as with regard to data on official crimes”.

The Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office was notified of the initiated pre-trial proceedings on April 3 and immediately took over the leadership and supervision of the investigation, the statement said.

In the course of the investigation, 30 searches and seizures were carried out in private homes, business premises and motor vehicles, the Prosecutor’s Office said.

It said that a lot of physical evidence was seized – mobile phones, documents, notes, notebooks with notes, computers, a large amount of money in different currencies, 1501 cartons (15 010 000 cigarettes), among other items.

The statement said that the accusation against the four accused is in connection with “participation in an organised criminal group that existed from June 2022 to April 3 2024, and the group was created for a profit and with the purpose of committing crimes against customs and excise legislation, as well as corruption”.

“According to the evidence gathered so far, a person holding a public position in the Customs Agency also participated in the group. For the specified crime, the law provides for imprisonment for a term of three to 10 years.”

Prosecutors are to request the Sofia City Court to remand the four in custody pending the outcome of court proceedings.

However, Bankova’s lawyer Adelina Natina told reporters that her client had information that drug money seized at Bourgas port was going to be used to buy votes in the upcoming elections.

“The data Ms. Bankova has is that the drug money seized at Bourgas port was going to be used to buy elections – from whom, we have no information. Considering yesterday’s action, it is unlikely that Ms. Bankova will be able to continued to work so that the scheme is exposed,” Natina said.

Natina was referring to the nearly 200 kilograms of cocaine, hidden in a refrigerated container with bananas, seized by the Bourgas customs officers last month.

Referring to the allegation that the criminal group operated from January 2023 to April 2024, Natina said that Bankova did not know the people with whom she was accused of participating in a criminal group. Natina said that Bankova was appointed to the Customs Agency on August 8 2023.

Natina that the leader of the criminal group was not named.

Natina said that 10 people had been arrested in the April 3 raid, but only four had been charged and it is unclear what was happening to the others.

Bankova formerly was an employee of SANS, but left because she was in poor relations with its head, she told reporters on April 3.

Outgoing Finance Minister and We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria co-leader Assen Vassilev, who appointed Bankova as deputy head of the Customs Agency in August 2023 and as its head in February 2024, said that if there was no serious evidence, this was an action to intimidate the head of the Customs Agency.

Unless the April 3 operation produced “serious evidence”, it would “boil down to an attempt to intimidate the Customs Agency chief, who started to intercept the smuggling channels and fired 20 customs officers on alerts from foreign customs agencies, governments and [security and intelligence] services,” Vassilev said.

Outgoing Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, of WCC-DB, said on April 4: “There have been rumours for a long time that SANS is covering up drug channels.

“To me, it is very strange that Petya Bankova should be accused of covering up drug channels. It is very important what happens so that it does not turn out that she is being attacked because she is doing her job,” Denkov said.

“Since she was appointed head of the Customs Agency, there has been a record amount of drugs and contraband seized. She was a SANS employee, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she has information she can use. There is a blind spot in the agency attitude to corruption,” he said.

Denkov said that he had never spoken to Bankova, but described her as a person with an excellent reputation.

He said that he had officially requested information from SANS on the case.

“In order to receive it, I need a special permit from the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office, to which I have already sent a letter. We have no coordination between the institutions. The managers are not appointed by me, so there is no reason to criticise me. If an accusation comes out and there is evidence against Bankova, she will bear responsibility,” Denkov said.

WCC-DB co-leader Kiril Petkov said: “Actually, the cudgels have been brought out again” – a reference to abuses in the years of Bulgaria’s post-communist transition, which saw the rise of organised crime groups and abuse of state institutions against individuals and firms.

“Yesterday there were arrests of senior officials in customs, no one is coming forward to say anything. Today the chief secretary is disappearing,” Petkov said, referring to the April 4 announcement of the resignation of the chief secretary of the Interior Ministry.

DB co-leader Atanas Atanassov blamed the political attack on his until recently partners in the government: “We are witnessing an organised and coordinated operation to discredit the WCC-DB coalition by using the unreformed prosecutor’s office and security services.

“They are used by those who caused the rotation to fail,” Atanassov said, referring to the intended but aborted plan for the Prime Minister’s post to “rotate” from WCC-DB to GERB-UDF’s Maria Gabriel.

On April 4, WCC-DB MP Mihal Kambarev told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television that what had happened the day before was either a pre-election gimmick, or the Customs Agency had broken up a smuggling ring financing someone’s election campaign. 

(Photo of the Palace of Justice in Sofia: Prosecutor’s Office)

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