Police say they believe criminal negligence was behind the outbreak of methanol poisonings in the Czech Republic. At a press briefing in Prague on Tuesday Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Hruska said the evidence collected so far pointed to a fatal error rather than a premeditated crime. Twenty three people have been charged so far and according to the deputy interior minister investigators were getting closer to the source, but were not there yet. Police president Martin Cervicek said earlier that identifying the source and tracing the contaminated liquor could take weeks.
The death toll from contaminated bootleg liquor in the Czech Republic has reached twenty-two. An autopsy conducted on a woman who died at home has confirmed death from methanol poisoning. A 29-year-old man from south Moravia who had been in critical condition for over a week also died on Tuesday. The man reportedly ordered the lethal liquor on the Internet. Meanwhile four more people are reported to have been hospitalized in Ostrava and Karvine in Moravia after drinking spirits they had at home. More than 35 people remain in hospital in different parts of the country, though most of the cases have occurred in Moravia.
Preventive checks of spirits are taking place around with country with police officers, fire fighters and hygiene inspectors out the field daily. Fire fighters recently uncovered 260 litres of alcohol in plastic containers in which the methanol content exceeded 20-30 percent. An illegal bottling plant was uncovered in the vicinity of Cheb, west Bohemia, from which police confiscated equipment, bottles and stamps. Police are investigating how 94,000 tax stamps designated for an official liquor producer ended up in the hands of bootleggers.
The council for radio and TV broadcasting has issued a ban on advertisements for spirits while sales of hard liquor are prohibited. The regulation banning the sale of all beverages containing more than 20 percent alcohol – came into effect on Friday after bootleg liquor took its 20th victim and when it emerged that many of the victims had bought the deadly alcohol from regular stores. The bottles contained fake or stolen labels and tax stamps. It is not clear how long the ban may last for. The health minister has indicated that the government may in time moderate the ban and enable the sale of imported quality alcohol that is considered safe.
Czech spirits producers and importers are losing about 15 million crowns on net sales every day as a result of the ban. Some have restricted production and may be laying-off staff. Restaurants and bars report a steep drop in profits and a drop in regular customers. The state is also reported to be losing around 25 million in taxes each day. The estimate includes a drop in excise duty as well as value added tax.
Several liquor producers have issued statements criticizing the government for having neglected the problems with bootleg alcohol for years and say that the broad ban on spirits will severely damage their finances and reputation. The Jan Becher company that makes the country’s famous Becherovka liquor has turned to the European Commission for help. Some hard drink producers have quickly changed their production plans in view of the ban on imports from Poland and Slovakia and are focussing on other buyers.
Dr Knut Erik Hovda from the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Centre in Oslo who last week brought an antidote to methanol to Prague to help deal with the outbreak of methanol poisonings has expressed grave concern with regards to the crisis. He said the situation was very serious and the authorities did not have things under control. He moreover noted that in view of the high costs of the antidote fomepisole Czech doctors only used it in extreme cases treating other victims with ethanol which was far less effective and not without side-effects.
A controversial government bill on tax hikes which was earlier rejected by the lower house is going back for a repeat vote linked to a vote of confidence in the center- right government. The prime minister is still hoping to reach agreement with the six rebel deputies from his own party who scuppered the legislation and remain vehemently opposed to the proposed hike in VAT. The threat of the government falling is not imminent however since the deputies in question have agreed to support the bill in its first reading and propose changes later. This gives the prime minister an extra thirty days in which to come up with a compromise solution.
The Defence Ministry is selling unused land and property in order to be able to save money. Close to 40 buildings are being put on the market including a hotel, a spa and wellness facility and unused military barracks hat can serve as storage facilities. Last year the ministry sold property to the tune of 364 million crowns, this year it is hoping to increase its budget by 426 million.