Court assumes government was scammed in free face mask case

Court assumes government was scammed in free face mask case
The face masks distributed for free by the government last year. Credit: Belga

An investigation into the purchase contract for 15 million face masks that were distributed to the public for free last year has concluded that the government was swindled.

On Tuesday, the Brussels public prosecutor’s office officially confirmed to VRT News that four people are suspected in the investigation into the €32 million contract between the Federal Government and the dubious Luxembourg-based firm Avrox for the purchase of millions of face masks.

“At this stage of the judicial investigation, I can confirm that four people are suspected of forgery, fraud and money laundering,” prosecution spokesperson Sarah Durant said, confirming that there are sufficient indications that they may have been guilty of forgery, fraud and money laundering, indirectly stating the government was swindled.

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So far, the public prosecutor’s office has not given further comment, in the interest of the investigation.

The government promised that every Belgian resident would receive a free cloth face mask at the start of the pandemic. Then-Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès ordered 15 million face masks from the Luxembourg company Avrox.

Trouble from the start

Following some initial issues, including masks not arriving or those that did being declared unusable, the government started distributing these in mid-June.

However, the problems persisted and soon, questions started being asked about Avrox, its board, and how the supply contract was won. As a result, the public prosecutor opened an investigation.

This found that the company had no experience in fulfilling large textile orders and was no more than a nameplate company registered in an office in Luxembourg that existed solely to serve as an address for hundreds of similar shell companies. The boss was subsequently arrested.

In February this year, the government put out a call to the general public to stop wearing the face masks delivered by Avrox “as a precaution” following the leak of a confidential report from Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Public Health.

This stated that the masks contained nanoparticles of silver and titanium dioxide that when inhaled could damage the respiratory tract.

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