By Misko Taleski
Macedonian police arrested 87 toll-road workers on Wednesday (December 1st) as part of “Operation Cobblestone” for allegedly stealing about 2m euros by printing false bills.
Three investigative judges ordered jail detention for the majority — seven in absentia — and house detention for two.
According to the police, two high-level officials from the public company Macedonia Roads — which services the country’s roads and collects tolls — organised the criminal enterprise.
“We [have] pressed criminal charges … for misuse of office and official duties, for receiving bribes, illegal possession as well as falsification of documents,” Internal Affairs Minister Gordana Jankulovska told SETimes.
Jankulovska explained that five toll stations throughout Macedonia were misused in order to steal money along the north-south transportation Corridor 10 Highway.
“To maintain being part of the group, the toll workers paid between 100 to 500 euros monthly,” she said.
Operation Cobblestone is a continuation of another 2007 police operation named “Snake eye” during which seven toll workers and managers of Macedonia Roads were arrested. However, prosecutors could not prove in court that they exacted material damage.
Former public prosecutor and judge, Attorney Stavre Dzikov, told SETimes that laws and procedures must be strictly followed rather than allow verdicts that will become subject of legal and other manipulation.
“As a defender of one of the suspects criminally charged in the first operation [Snake eye], I succeeded in nullifying the court’s verdict. There were no arguments or proof shown that the person conducted the alleged crime. That is why in Cobblestone, the Macedonian judicial organs must be prepared and act with utmost professionalism to avoid repeating earlier mistakes,” Dzikov said.
The accused in the Snake eye case sued Macedonia in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which ruled that the government pay them 2,000 euros in damages each for being unreasonably detained.
State Security Director Ljupco Todorovski said Cobblestone lasted three and a half years and the police used a multitude of investigative techniques to obtain evidence. It entered the computer system and observed the way the group falsified bills, followed its members undercover and infiltrated the group with an agent, he said.
“This time around, we played chess with all the figures,” he said.
During the search of the toll stations, Macedonia Roads offices and the toll-workers’ homes, the police said it found 170 ready-to-use blank bills, 10,999 euros and undetermined amount of other currencies and confiscated computers with programmes for falsifying bills.
Todorovski assured the public there are censors at every toll station who determines the number of vehicles that pass and a register about how many bills are issued.
The Macedonian public received the news of the arrests and the assurances of evidence with approval.
“I drive on the Corridor 10 Highway almost daily. Like many other drivers, I pay the toll fee and usually do not inspect the bill. It seems the group has thought out its plan well since nobody noticed irregularities for about a year,” Skopje driver Borko Nikolov, 47, told SETimes.
Cobblestone is the last in a multitude of big police raids in the past several years that highlight the government’s determination to root out organised crime. Pension fund, healthcare, police officials and A1 TV owner Velija Ramkovski’s criminal enterprise have been some of the more visible targets.
“Preventing organised crime is a first priority of the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Regional and international co-operation however, is a key element in a systemic approach to battling organised crime,” Jankulovska told SETimes.