WORLD REPORT 1999 - Bulgaria

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Bulgaria remained static during 1998. Though the non-communist Union of Democratic Forces government, elected in 1997, gave rhetorical support to improving its protection of human rights, its actions revealed unwillingness and inability significantly to change legislation or provide adequate remedies for victims of abuse. State authorities routinely infringed on freedoms of expression and religion; often state institutions and the press appeared to collaborate to increase hysteria and prejudice against minorities. Ethnic minorities continued to suffer disproportionately from widespread police brutality.

The Bulgarian penal code, which criminalizes defamation, was used to prosecute independent journalists in 1998, resulting in the imposition of fines and/or suspended sentences. The government also used other means to exert pressure on critical media. On February 9, the day after “Hushove” aired a program satirizing Prime Minister Ivan Kostov and Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova, the National Media Council and the State Television and Radio Administration canceled the popular television series. Officials alleged financial impropriety, but had earlier threatened to end the show for its “denigration of public authority.” Themanaging board of the National Radio removed journalist Diana Yankulova from the air for three months beginning in March for conveying information given anonymously regarding the minister of the interior. Svetoslava Tadarakova was dismissed from the National Television by the general director for “statements in the media [which] ruin the good reputation of Bulgarian National Television.”

There were reports of at least eleven violent attacks against media representatives in 1998, including physical assaults and bombings of newspaper offices. The attacks were believed to be motivated by the desire to intimidate journalists investigating corruption. Police have made no arrests in connection with these crimes, nor have they completed investigations into the attacks. Roma also were frequent targets of violence. On January 12, police shot and killed a fleeing Roma suspected in the murder of a taxi driver. A minor female witness was detained by police, who reportedly threatened to shoot her and threw a hammer at her when she could not respond to inquiries about the whereabouts of a pistol. She was released unhurt approximately one hour later. Skinheads attacked a group of Roma children living in an abandoned building on May 15, 1998. One boy, Metodi Rainov, fifteen years old, was killed when he was thrown from a window; others were beaten and chased out of the building and down the street. Authorities had made no arrests as of this writing although the victims claimed they could identify their attackers. Police and prosecutorial officials have routinely failed to investigate and prosecute police officers accused of brutality, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity for police misconduct. Only two policemen were convicted and sentenced for having murdered suspects during 1998. Prosecutors suspended other investigations involving police brutality or did not file formal charges. On at least four occasions in 1998, police conducted large scale raids of Roma neighborhoods; the police claimed they were searching for stolen goods, but local human rights groups and witnesses suspected the raids were intended to intimidate Roma and collectively to punish the Roma community for its perceived criminality. Residents of the neighborhoods were beaten, and homes and goods were destroyed. Witnesses and victims told the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee that they were too afraid to file official complaints, and that they were convinced that the complaints would have no effect.

Local authorities and media continued to harass the members of non-Orthodox religions. False and inflammatory reports that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had committed various crimes were disseminated by both private and state-owned television and print media. In violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, police arrested children and adults for distributing religious tracts. On February 19, four apartments belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses were searched by police . Religious material and other personal items were confiscated. On March 12, Varna customs officials confiscated religious materials from Jehovah’s Witnesses because they were of a “religious-sectarian nature.” Krassimir Savov’s two-year prison sentence for his conscientious refusal to perform compulsory military service was confirmed by the Plovdiv Regional Court on July 2, 1998. Mr. Savov, a Jehovah’s Witness, remained at liberty pending his appeal.

In Barges, the municipal council refused to register “dubious religions,” including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of the Moon, and Seventh Day Adventists. These religions already had been officially registered by national authorities in Sofia. The decision of the city authorities had no legal effect, but demonstrated the level of intolerance and hostility toward non-Orthodox religious groups.

The death penalty remained legal under Bulgarian law. The Bulgarian parliament placed a moratorium on executions in 1996; however, at least two death sentences were imposed in 1998. Bulgaria’s death row prisoners have complained to the European Court of Human Rights about the length of their stay on death row. Conditions for other prisoners also remained deplorable. The rights to representation and prompt challenge of the lawfulness of detention are not guaranteed by the code of penal procedure and were routinely violated.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights groups, including the Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights (BLHR), the Human Rights Project (HRP), and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) remained active. The Bulgarian human rights community was particularly active on issues related to the rights of the Roma minority and undertook numerous initiatives to protect their rights. On October 3, 1998, the HRP sponsored a meeting between representatives of the Bulgarian government, Roma and other human rights NGOs, and the international community to disucss equal paricipation of Roma in Bulgarian society. The BLHR, supported by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), argued before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a Roma applicant in Assenov v. Bulgaria, which challenged Bulgaria’s provision of a remedy for allegations of police brutality. The case is currently pending.

In April, in connection with the case of Assenov v. Bulgaria, the ERRC released the results of a six-year study of Bulgarian attitudes toward and official treatment of Roma. The survey revealed severe prejudice against Roma, especially among law enforcement officials and state-owned media. Among other things, the survey emphasized that fourteen Roma men had been killed or last seen alive in police custody since 1992, and there had been only two convictions among the very few cases brought against police for violence committed against Roma. It also underscored the inability of Roma victims to obtain a remedy for ill-treatment and the fact that Roma make up the overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian prison population. Other human rights initiatives in Bulgaria included a project designed to provide legal counsel to those detained by the police and efforts to educate Bulgarian societyabout human rights and minority issues.

The Role of the International Community

Council of Europe
In a report released in June 1998, based on an investigation completed in September of 1997, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance criticized Bulgaria’s “lack [of] structures and policies to deal with racism and intolerance,” expressing particular concern about the treatment of Roma.

Bulgaria remained subject to the Parliamentary Assembly’s monitoring procedure, and a report about Bulgaria’s compliance with Council of Europe commitments was debated in the Assembly’s September session, although no vote was taken. The Assembly stated that Bulgaria has made progress, but still must take action in the areas of preventing police brutality and freeing the media from government control in order to comply with the commitments Bulgaria made when it joined the Council of Europe.

European Union
The European Union concluded in 1998 that Bulgaria would not be ready for the first wave of European Union expansion and accession. The E.U. pointed to rampant corruption, the lack of adequate reform of the judicial system, ongoing abuses by the police and secret services, and pervasive discrimination and marginalization of the Roma minority. Bulgaria continued to receive substantial E.U. assistance to improve its longer term accession prospects.

United Nations
Bulgaria submitted a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in early 1998. The report acknowledged that, although Bulgaria recognized de jure equality between men and women, women suffered de facto disadvantages in employment. The committee recommended that Bulgaria establish a strong and effective national machinery with adequate financial and human resources for advancing the position of women in Bulgaria.

United States
First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton visited Bulgaria in mid-October and announced a new six million dollar phase of the Democracy Network, a USAID-sponsored program that will award grants to projects that support civil society over the next four years.