By Tommy Trenchard
FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone's anti-graft commission has indicted 29 state employees - including the country's top doctor - for corruption, most of it linked to the misuse of funds from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-backed vaccine provider, officials said on Friday.
The GAVI Alliance put on hold some $6 million in grants late last year after an internal audit found more than $1 million already disbursed for the impoverished West African nation's health sector had gone missing.
Chief Medical Officer Kisito Daoh and five other doctors were all charged on Thursday with 22 counts of misappropriation of GAVI funds, a spokesman for the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) said, adding that more indictments were expected.
Most of the other 23 civil servants indicted were also charged in connection with the GAVI investigation.
"We cannot make society perfect. But we are sending the right signals," spokesman Shollay Davies said.
Daoh was one of 10 health ministry officials suspended last month by President Ernest Bai Koroma after the ACC announced it was launching an investigation into the disappearance of the GAVI funds.
"This just goes to show the government is serious about corruption. The government is giving (the ACC) a free hand to do their work," Koroma's spokesman Unisa Sesay told Reuters.
The GAVI Alliance, which aims to improve access to immunization in the world's poorest countries, was launched in 2000 with a $750 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It has disbursed more than $27 million to Sierra Leone's government since 2001.
GAVI said irregularities, which included undocumented expenses, cash disbursements with no documentation and overcharged procurement costs, occurred from 2008 to 2011.
It is requiring that the government reimburse the missing funds before it releases the frozen grant money.
After Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war the West African state had some of the world's worst health statistics. In response donors poured in funds. But allegations of corruption have dogged such efforts.
Niger also arrested about 20 doctors late last month on suspicions they had embezzled $1.5 million donated by GAVI between 2007 and 2010.
(Reporting by Tommy Trenchard; Editing by Joe Bavier and Andrew Roche)