Statue of Justice - © Michal Kalasek/Shutterstock

Statue of Justice - © Michal Kalasek/Shutterstock

In September 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency, a fire at the Tetovo hospital in North Macedonia led to the death of 10 patients. Now, the trial has come to a controversial conclusion

16/06/2023 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

The trial for the fire in the Tetovo hospital in September 2021 – where 14 people lost their lives and ten were injured – ended at the beginning of June 2023. The two former directors of the Clinical Centre in Tetovo received conditional prison sentences, while a doctor who was accused of not acting according to regulations during an epidemic was acquitted.

The clinical hospital in Tetovo, as a legal entity, was found guilty of "causing public danger" and should be fined one million Macedonian denars (16,000 Euros). On September 8, 2021, a modular prefab facility with 35 beds for the accommodation of Covid-19 patients that was set up on the grounds of the hospital burned down.

Directors Florin Besimi and Artan Etemi were tried for "serious crimes against public security" for which they received a conditional prison sentence of one year and six months, so they will not actually go to prison if they do not commit a new crime.

The court decided to acquit Dr Boban Vucevski and the Clinical Hospital for the criminal act of "failing to comply with healthcare regulations". Specifically, the Prosecution accused the doctor of allowing relatives of patients to stay in the hospital room to help those ill people to recover.

The reasons for the sentence

Judge Jordan Velkovski explained the journalists that the verdict was based on the evidence presented at the main hearing and the facts arising from that evidence. He emphasised that the prosecutor's office had filed an indictment with which the defendants are not accused of causing the fire, but of not installing fire extinguishers.

He assessed that the defendants did not install fire extinguishers and thus caused a danger to the life and body of people and patients with Covid-19. On the other hand, he believes that the fire itself was not their direct fault.

According to the judge, the prosecutor's office did not prove that Dr Boban Vucevski was the facility manager, and pointed out that there was a warning on the entrance doors that no one – except doctors – was allowed to enter, and there were no guards at the doors.

In addition to domestic institutions, experts and investigators from the Federal Criminal Police from Germany were involved in the investigation, that started after the fire and lasted almost a whole year until August 2022.

The prosecutor's office also announced that the start of the fire was caused by the ignition of an extension cable connected to a defibrillator which was used to resuscitate a patient in one of the hospital rooms.

After the flames started, the medical staff tried to put them out, but the fire quickly spread throughout the building, on the roof and wall panels of the building, and through the hospital inventory. The expert reports were made on the order of the prosecutor's office about the direct causes of the fire.

Experts speak of violation of procedures

The exact causes of the fire were clarified during the trial by an expert in electrical engineering, who also submitted a written report to the prosecutor's office during the investigative procedure.

“The entire procedure to set the electrical installation from start to finish was not performed following the regulations and rules for this type of construction”, said forensic expert Irfan Shaqiri in court. “The very act of connecting the object to the operator's voltage network was performed by two employees of the Clinical Hospital without drawing up a document, a report which is necessary for this type of installation. All the activities by these two electricians were performed without any supervision by certified electrical engineers, authorised by our Chamber of Electrical Engineers”.

According to the expert's findings, the electrical installation in the modular hospital lacked a large number of documents required for this type of construction.

“The facility, a modular hospital designed and constructed by the ‘Braco’ company, has been installed, according to them, as requested by the Ministry of Health”, added Shaqiri. “According to their statement, their duty was only to prepare and install the facility at the given location. From their side, there is also no report on the electrical installation, because apparently no one asked them to prepare such a document”.

During all the hearings, groups of citizens gathered in front of the court and peacefully protested and demanded the release of doctor Vucevski, whom they believed should not be charged in this process. Many of the protesting citizens, in statements to the local media, pointed out that Vucevski helped them the most to overcome the disease while they were being treated at the hospital.

The reactions

The trial for the fire in Tetovo’s hospital began on December 7, 2022, but was then postponed several times between September and December 2022.

The prosecutor's office says that it will wait for the verdict in written form, and then, after studying its content, it will further decide whether to file an appeal or not.

There were also reactions from different political parties about the verdict. Representatives of the Alternativa movement asked if “we would have had the same punishment if the director of the hospital was not the brother of Minister Fatmir Besimi, while Minister of Health Fatmir Mejiti did not answer whether justice was served with this decision for 14 people who were burned alive in the hospital".

For VMRO-DPMNE, this verdict is proof that the Macedonian judiciary is controlled by political actors. “The verdict in the case of the modular hospital in Tetovo is more proof that there is no justice for the people in North Macedonia, and the judiciary serves only the government. 14 patients burned alive, and the fact that there is no one to blame for that, just proves to what extent our judiciary is politicised”.

According to VMRO-DPMNE, the judiciary in North Macedonia “is a shame for all of Europe”.

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