Trial starts in Bulgaria against 9 persons for embezzling millions from EU Aid Funds

Sofia - A Bulgarian court on Monday launched a trial against 9 people accused of embezzling millions from European Union aid funds.

The defendants were accused of stealing 14 million leva (9.6 million dollars) from funds made available to Bulgaria by the EU as part of the SAPARD (Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development) programme.

The defendants allegedly imported used machinery for meat processing, but forged documents so the machines could be registered as new. The EU fund was drawn upon for the cost of new equipment, with the defendants allegedly pocketing the difference.

A probe was launched more than two years ago on a tip from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). However, the amount of money cited in the indictment covers only part of the missing funds.

OLAF said in a confidential report, leaked earlier this year, that more than 50 million dollars were missing. But the report said the money was only missing from funds intended for Bulgarian farming. There are suspicions of much wider abuse and hints of political protection for perpetrators.

The reported widespread abuse spurred Brussels into freezing nearly 500 million euros (800 million dollars) in various development programmes for Bulgaria in July.

The Balkan country joined the EU in 2007, but remains plagued by corruption and an inefficient judiciary. In order to control the distribution of EU funds, Sofia in June agreed to allow Brussels bureaucrats to install a real-time monitoring system.

The trial launched on Monday is the first of the kind in Bulgaria.