Czech police are uncovering a network of illegal alcohol producers and distributors after spirits laced with methyl-alcohol are suspected of killing as many as 23 people in the past two weeks.
The police have charged 23 people with various crimes related to making and spreading poisonous substances, Martin Cervicek, police president, told reporters in Prague today. The government imposed an indefinite ban on sales of hard liquor across the country on Sept. 14 as police and customs officers search for the source of the contaminated beverages.
“The investigation conducted so far clearly shows that the cases are related,” Cervicek said. “We have progressed to a group of people that may be related to organizers, or possibly to importers of the base material.”
Autopsies have confirmed that 19 people died from drinking tainted liquor and doctors are examining four more deaths suspected of having been caused by methanol, Leos Heger, the health minister, said at a news conference today. As many as 40 people have been hospitalized in the country’s worst case of mass alcohol poisoning in at least 30 years, he said.
Two people in neighboring Slovakia were hospitalized yesterday with cases of “lighter poisoning” after drinking plum brandy bought over the Internet in the Czech Republic, Heger said. Poland yesterday banned the sale of liquor imported from the Czech Republic for 30 days.
The sale and serving of all spirits with more than 20 percent alcohol content “is prohibited until the recalling of this extraordinary measure,” according to a statement posted on the government’s website. The ban includes both domestic and imported liquor, it said.
The state collects about 750 million koruna ($40 million) a month in taxes from hard liquor sales, Ladislav Mincic, a deputy finance minister, said on television yesterday.
“If this prohibition lasts for a very long time,” the revenue shortfall “would be a challenge as it would complicate” efforts to cut the budget deficit, he said.
The tainted alcohol was sold in bottles under fake labels from at least two Czech liquor makers and the bottles weren’t properly sealed, according to police.
The poisonous drink was sold at discounts in bottles labeled as vodka or tuzemak, a local rum-like alcoholic beverage. Several people went blind or fell into coma after consuming it.