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Czech police say found source of deadly bootleg booze

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 24 Sep 2012 16:08 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Police charge two people with mixing lethal alcohol

* Up to 15,000 litres could still be in market

* Govt to consider easing ban on alcohol sales, exports

By Jana Mlcochova

PRAGUE, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Czech police have arrested two men suspected of distributing bootleg alcohol containing methanol that has killed 25 people this month and put dozens in hospital, some suffering blindness.

The government last week extended a ban on the sale of spirits in bars and shops to include stopping all liquor exports, hitting drinks companies' sales and reputations in its European Union markets.

"We know the source and how it got onto the Czech market," police President Martin Cervicek told reporters on Monday.

He said up to 15,000 litres of poisonous alcohol could still be in the market and police were continuing their investigation.

The two suspects face jail terms of 12-20 years for endangering the public.

Police last week found thousands of litres of suspect liquid in a warehouse in the industrial northeast, where the first cases of poisoning appeared at the start of the month.

Those arrested worked for a company that used methanol, or methyl alcohol, in the production of windshield washer fluid.

Roman Kafka, a state prosecutor, said they had knowingly sold the tainted alcohol on the black market but believed the methyl alcohol could be neutralised by ethanol.

"They believed that the mixtures done in this way would be neutralised and it would not be damaging to health. They did not act with a direct motive of killing anyone, but they should have known," he said.

Drinks industry officials estimate the illegal liquor market has doubled since 2010, when an excise tax hike was put in place to plug budget gaps, to 15-25 percent of the 55 million litre-a-year Czech market.

The industry has criticised the government's handling of the affair. Distilleries are losing millions of crowns a day in revenue and most have temporarily shut down production. Exports of Czech spirits were worth ${esc.dollar}80 million last year.

The government has vowed to get liquor back on bar and supermarket shelves as early as this week, as soon as it can impose new safety measures.

Health Minister Leos Heger said on Monday he would be willing to ease restrictions if ministers at a regular government meeting on Wednesday agreed. (Additional reporting by Robert Mueller; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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