Reuters International

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Prosecutors in Kosovo charged 64 people including a government minister and 44 doctors with taking bribes to refer patients with heart problems - some of them already dead - to private clinics, the office of the state prosecutor said on Wednesday.

This is the biggest bribery investigation in the health sector since Kosovo became independent from Serbia in 2008.

"Some doctors received up to 500 euros in bribes from these (private) hospitals to refer a patient to put in a stent," the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

"These referrals were even written for patients that were already dead."

Some patients were later admitted to other hospitals and found not to have had a stent inserted, the statement said.

There were periods when one of the private hospitals had no licence and doctors were not certified to carry out the surgeries. Between 2011 and 2014 some 220 patients died in the two private hospitals involved in the case but no autopsies were carried out.

A former health minister - identified only by his initials but who a source in the prosecutor's office said was the current environment minister - was accused of signing documents which resulted in 4.5 million euros being channelled to the two private clinics, the indictment said.

The minister's office was not available for comment.

Kosovo's crumbling health system ranks among the worst in Europe, driving those who can afford it to seek treatment abroad. Bribery is rife in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alison Williams)

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