OCCRP Weekly News Roundup

Black Market Tobacco in Bulgaria and Elsewhere

Bulgarian authorities raided an illegal cigarette factory in the town of Haskova and seized 1,420,000 pieces of cigarettes and 4,900 kilos of loose tobacco.

According to the Focus Information Agency, the six-member gang possessed a fake license for selling and producing tobacco products. They have all been placed under arrest.

Europe’s economic woes have turned some unlikely citizens into illicit cigarette traders, according to a New York Times report. Where cigarettes are expensive, people are looking for a bargain.

“In times of economic crisis, especially a long economic crisis like the one Europe is experiencing now, people have less disposable income, and they are particularly interested in cheaper products,” said Simeon Djankov, the finance minister and deputy prime minister of Bulgaria.

The damage from lost tax revenues has amounted to 9 billion euros missing in EU member states and 1 billion euros missing from the EU Budget, according to Jens Geier, a German member of the European Parliament.

The illicit tobacco industry is not a new or specifically European phenomenon. Last year, OCCRP published a report detailing how Japan Tobacco knowingly dealt with some of the most notorious smugglers in the business in Europe and elsewhere.


Helping Putin, with a Sense of Irony

A leading Russian opposition figure wants to help Russian president Vladamir Putin fight corruption.

Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and opposition figure, said he will introduce a debit card through his National Reserve Bank in which one percent of all purchases will benefit RosPil, a fund set up by opposition blogger Alexey Navalny to expose corruption.

"I'd like to 'marry' this project with the authorities' official position, so that on the official level, the authorities support citizens' intention to finance the struggle against corruption themselves," Lebedev said in a statement posted on his website, according to The Guardian.

But Russian authorities probably have no appetite for irony, and Lebedev’s own website might be under fire soon.

A proposed new law currently going through the Russian Duma would grant Russian authorities power to restrict online content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. Critics say it will allow Russian authorities to censor content they don’t like, much like the firewall in China.

Russian authorities are also attacking Lebedev’s partner, Navalny, once again. Closed two months ago, the Russian Investigative Committee has reopened a five year probe into Navalny for losses incurred at a state-owned timber company called KirovLes. Navalny was an advisor to the Kirov region’s governor in 2007, when the investigation started.


Polish Police Get Tough on Polish Organ Trafficking

Police in Poland have started to crack down on organ trafficking, charging 23 individuals for allegedly attempting to sell their organs online in the largest anti-organ trafficking operation in Poland to date.

Approximately 80 police departments participated in the operation which found 250 individuals advertising organs, primarily kidneys, online. 150 people were questioned in the case, but only 23 were charged with organ trafficking.

This report comes on the heels of a New York Times exposé on the increase of black market body parts in Europe in the wake of the economic crisis.

“Organized criminal groups are preying upon the vulnerable on both sides of the supply chain: people suffering from chronic poverty, and desperate and wealthy patients who will do anything to survive,” said Jonathan Ratel, a European Union special prosecutor, according to the Times.

Polish Police have not yet said whether the organ advertisements were related to an organized crime ring.


“No Justice, No Protection” in Tajikistan

Amnesty International released a report, found here, detailing torture and other forms of ill treatment by law enforcement officials in Tajikistan.

The report details the different plights individuals risk in the early stages of detention, the failure of authorities to hold those responsible for crimes and the inadequate investigations into accusations of torture.

In addition to recounting episodes of corruption and impunity, the report also addresses the plight of journalists operating in Tajikistan.

“Journalists reporting on allegations of torture and other ill-treatment also risk repercussions and can face serious harassment to prevent them from publishing material perceived to criticize the authorities,” the report states.

The report concludes that despite government declarations that it is committed to safeguarding human rights, Amnesty International continues to receive reports about torture, harassment, and protracted investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment.