The Bulgarian authorities slam a BBC sting exposing serious crime in Bulgaria’s biggest Black Sea town
In the middle of the summer, the lead story on BBC1's Ten O'Clock News was a report on baby smuggling in Bulgaria. Presented by Sangita Myska, it used a hidden camera to expose a child trafficker operating out of the popular Black Sea resort of Varna.
The BBC's three-strong undercover team spent over a month setting up the sting, which revealed Bulgarian businessman “Harry” negotiating the sale of a child and its illegal passage to the UK for 60,000 euros.
Despite footage of Harry boasting that he had smuggled children across Europe, discussing tried and tested trafficking routes, and arranging “viewings” of a number of toddlers “for sale”, Varna police claimed that they had “found nothing to support claims of an organised group selling children”.
The BBC team arrived in Varna following a lead from a colleague, someone Myska had worked with on previous undercover assignments, that a trafficker operating in Varna was smuggling babies and children out of Bulgaria.
One member of the team, a security expert, posed as a shady British businessman looking to buy a baby in Bulgaria.
In “Laying Bait for Baby Smugglers”, a documentary about the making of the report, he describes how the operation began. The first step, he said, was to “get alongside this criminal element which is operating in Bulgaria”. To do this they made contact with some of the lower echelons of Harry's gang and worked their way up to Harry himself, who, it turned out, was running operations out of a rather unlikely locale - a petrol station café in Varna.
While lacking the gangster chic of a casino or strip club, the café did serve a practical purpose, allowing Harry to remain inconspicuous amid the constant comings and goings of the garage's customers. He used it to meet new clients and drive them out of Varna, changing vehicles along the way to avoid detection.
It was on one of these trips that Harry pointed out prostitutes on the roadside whom he'd put to work, and boasted of “routinely trafficking” women across Europe.
According to the BBC report, he then revealed that children were part of his portfolio and that he had successfully smuggled them into Norway and Germany.
The “British businessman” cover story was prepared: he and his childless wife wanted to adopt, but they could not go through regular channels as he had served six months in prison. So he was looking to buy a baby in Bulgaria.
The story worked. The fabricated jail sentence was the first step in convincing Harry, who bragged about a previous conviction of his own – for people trafficking in Germany.
“After the first meeting we had, he thought I was a very rich, dodgy, successful businessman,” said the undercover team's security expert. Over the following weeks, the team gained Harry's trust over a series of meetings in Varna's restaurants, nightclubs and bars.
The next step was a meeting at an upmarket Varna hotel. Harry had no questions concerning the businessman's story. “He didn't ask for my surname. He didn't ask for my passport. He didn't ask for anything,” said the security expert. “All Harry was interested in was building bridges with myself and ‘my gang', as he called it, because he wanted the money.”
At the meeting, which the team secretly filmed, Harry set his price: 20,000 euros up front, 20,000 when the fake adoption papers were provided, and a final 20,000 on delivery. A total of 60,000 euros for the sale of a child and its illegal passage to the UK.
They discussed with Harry the best route to transport the child into England. Harry recommended travelling overland by car to avoid security checks. “You go through the hole,” he suggested, referring to the Channel Tunnel. “Or through Northern Ireland... Go home. No questions asked.”
Harry went on to reveal his favourite trafficking route. “I use Cherbourg to Rosslare. Always.”
Having set the price and decided the route, Harry brought his camera to the next meeting and showed photos of some of the children he was offering for sale. For extra money, he said, he would smuggle the child to England himself.
Two weeks passed before Harry arranged to meet again for the “viewings”. All were girls, one as young as 18 months, said the BBC's Ten O'Clock News editor Craig Oliver.
Fitiya was the first toddler to be viewed. She was accompanied by her mother, who said she was too poor to care for the child.
During the next meeting, opposite a courthouse, an old man appeared with a photo of his 20-month-old granddaughter. When asked if the child's mother knew of the proposed sale, he simply hung his head in shame.
The final meeting was with Nazar and her father, who said he had seven other children to feed and needed the money. He was eager to set a date for the sale.
At that point, Myska says, the team concluded that it had become clear that Harry had a number of toddlers ready for sale and, before any money had changed hands, ended their investigation and handed the evidence over to the Varna authorities.
Shortly after the BBC report was aired three men were arrested in connection with people trafficking. However, 39-year-old Hasan Ahmed Hasan – “Harry's” real name – was released without charge.
Bulgaria Bites Back
In response to the report Veselin Petrov, Varna's chief of police, insisted that there was no evidence of organised criminals selling children.
GENERAL VASIL VASILEV'S COLUMN*
The BBC's Insinuations Are Manipulative
“Small children, small problems”, goes a Bulgarian saying. I will, however, extend it: “A small country, big problems.” Above all, when created by partners and allies.
I would like to direct your attention to the latest injustice, the report by my colleagues from the BBC (sic). What use are inaccurate reports? Are they meant to disgrace a sovereign European state? The constant drumbeating by some newspapers in the UK about crime in Bulgaria casts suspicions on the objectivity of their independent press.
The opposite would mean that we should not believe the investigation carried out by the Bulgarian police which clearly shows that there is no evidence of crime in this case. But there is subjectivity and then there is provocation.
A month ago such a provocation was perpetrated by some Greek media and, after checks, it turned out that they had dared to accuse our country on baseless grounds.
Now, when we are an equal member of the large European family, we should not allow the slandering of our country – especially when it is manipulative.
Yes, we have our flaws, but who hasn't? To remove them, objectivity, goodwill and mutual aid are needed.
We remember the case of Michael Shields and Bulgaria's readiness to solve it in the best way. Which it did. But as that saga ended, Bulgaria did not hear any “thank you”. This was the least that good cooperation between partners and allies in the struggle against crime deserved.
Why didn't the British journalists share their plan with the Bulgarian police?
Now there are rumours that they did not trust the police. How are we then to have international police cooperation against terrorism and organised crime? It is founded on mutual trust and respect. Otherwise, there is no cooperation.
Being now Europeans and an integral part of such a large Union, we must trust and help one another. Trust me!
* This article was translated and is being published with the kind permission of the German-owned mass circulation daily 24 Chasa. General Vasilev is the former national police chief.
AT WAR WITH THE BBC
Using language oddly reminiscent of the Cold War Interior Minister Rumen Petkov said he was determined to fight any “libellous anti-Bulgarian campaign” conducted by the BBC or by “foreign tourists smearing Bulgaria with bogus reports of thefts and assaults”. Petkov posted on his official site the personal details, including dates of birth and passport numbers, of some of the BBC reporters who took part in the Varna sting.
The BBC said such a move jeopardised their personal safety.
A Bulgarian lawyer of the European Development and Human Rights Association added the two BBC reporters had the right to sue the Interior Ministry for what he billed a grave breach of the Personal Data Protection Act and the European Convention of Human Rights.