SOFIA (Reuters) - When Bulgarian student Zhelyaz Andreev got a job at the Sofia office of a Miami-based company to help pay his way through university the last thing he expected was to be sucked into an international incident. He was wrong.
Last week, Bulgarian authorities arrested him following an Interpol Red Notice on a U.S. Department of Justice indictment for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and violate the Syria embargo by selling aircraft parts to Syrian Arab Airlines.
A judge ordered his release but banned him from leaving the country pending an extradition hearing. Dozens demonstrated to support him. Four other Bulgarians who worked at the Sofia office of export company AW-Tronics also face similar charges.
As a result, the 29-year-old finds himself at the centre of a diplomatic incident.
“I do not feel guilty. Everything I did in this company in the three years I worked there was a result of my job description ... and the direct orders of my superiors,” he said.
The case has touched a nerve in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest state, where many young people prize jobs with foreign companies because they pay better. Some said his case shows the peril young Bulgarians can face if foreign employers breach rules set outside the country.
Demonstrators last week in Andreev’s hometown of Dobrich in northeastern Bulgaria and the capital held signs that read: “You could be next” and “Working in a call centre is not a crime.”
Andreev faces charges for his role in six deals linked to the export of aircraft parts to Syria’s national air carrier between October 2013 and March 2014, according to the indictment.
He joined the company in May 2013 and told Reuters he was the contact person with the airline but did not sign documents because he his position was so junior. He said he was not warned about the U.S. embargo and was unaware of its existence.
The U.S. embassy in Sofia declined to comment. The Bulgarian justice ministry said it has contacted the U.S. Department of Justice and consultations could start this week. There was no immediate comment from the justice department.
Bulgaria’s state prosecutor said last week he would not seek the detention of the other four pending talks with U.S. authorities.
Charges against Andreev are part of an indictment against 11 people including his two former managers who are Miami residents of Iranian origin.
They, along with the company’s export compliance officer, pleaded guilty last October to conspiracy to defraud the United States and illegally export aviation parts and equipment to Syria. They were sentenced in December to up to two years in prison.
“I assumed that after the main defendants ... who are the owners of the company and who took all the managerial decisions pleaded guilty ... the situation for us would calm down,” said Andreev, who is soliciting donations to help him hire a lawyer in the United States.
Washington put Syria’s national air carrier under embargo in 2013 for transporting weapons and ammunition to Syria with Hezbollah and Iran’s revolutionary guards.
Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg