Police Violence and Arbitrary Confinement

September 1996, ISBN 1-56432-200-9



Children in Bulgaria are often deprived of their basic rights by police, the very people who are supposed to protect them. After conducting a fact-finding mission to Bulgaria in the spring of 1996, Human Rights Watch concludes that street children are often subjected to physical abuse and other mistreatment by police, both on the street and in police lock-ups, and by skinhead gangs, who brutally attack the children because of their Roma (Gypsy) ethnic identity. Once detained by police, children fall victim to gross procedural inadequacies in the juvenile justice system in Bulgaria. Through administrative bodies, known as Local Commissions for Combating Juvenile Delinquency (“Local Commission”), children may be sentenced to confinement in one of eleven Labor Education Schools (the Bulgarian equivalent of juvenile reform institutions) in Bulgaria, for their “reeducation.” The practice of confining children to these essentially penal institutions, without due process, violates international law. Further, the conditions in Labor Education Schools, where children may be confined for up to three years, are notoriously harsh and do little to advance the development of the child’s overall wellbeing, and do much to impede it. This report will address the subjects of police mistreatment and abuse of street children, and the Labor Education School system in Bulgaria.

Street children
By the central railway station in Sofia, children gather every night at the heating vents on the outskirts of the station grounds, to sleep. On our first visit with the children in mid-April, during an aberrational cold snap in Sofia, Human Rights Watch found fifteen children fast asleep over the vents, interlinked and pressed together for warmth, their bodies indistinguishable. Street children like these can be found in any major city in Bulgaria, concentrated near the centers of towns, by railway and bus stations, in busy open air markets and thoroughfares, and by churches and hotels. Police abuse of these children is the subject of the first part of this report.

During Human Rights Watch’s visit to Bulgaria, in April 1996, we interviewed over thirty street children in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Pleven and Sliven, ranging in age from eight to seventeen. In addition to interviewing the children themselves, we met with lawyers, human rights activists, teachers, Roma leaders, and representatives of the Bulgarian police directorate and local policemen. Most children were interviewed on the street, sometimes alone and sometimes in the presence of other children. Many of the children have families and homes to which they occasionally or regularly return after spending periods of varying length on the street. By “street children,” Human Rights Watch refers to children who may not actually be homeless, but “for whom the street more than their family has become their real home.” Between twelve and fourteen thousand street children are estimated to live in cities throughout Bulgaria.

Most street children are Roma, for whom the unemployment rate in Bulgaria is estimated to be as high as 90 percent in certain neighborhoods, and 70 percent on average. The Bulgarian national unemployment rate is reported to be 12.5 percent. The depressed socio-economic status of Roma people coupled with inadequacies in the Bulgarian educational system were often cited among the reasons for children taking to the streets. Although children are required to attend school up until the age of sixteen, most children we interviewed had dropped out of school at very young ages.

Children told Human Rights Watch that they left their homes of their own accord, and usually cited problems in their relationships with their parents, an absence of supervision or care at home, and even hunger as the reasons for leaving. Some followed in the footsteps of elder siblings or cousins, who took to the streets before them. Contrary to popular belief in Bulgaria, the street children we interviewed were not forced onto the streets by their parents to earn money for their families. No children reported having to share their money with any adults, although several smaller children in Varna reported sometimes sharing their money with an older boy who “looked after” them. The children come from all over Bulgaria, from within cities and from rural villages and suburbs. They come from large families, single headed households, or families in which one or both parents are unemployed.

Children who live and work on Bulgaria’s streets support themselves by begging, performing odd jobs for shopkeepers, gathering waste materials from dump sites for recycling, prostitution, and theft. Many of the children are addicted to glue or liquid bronze which they inhale from plastic bags. A fourteen-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch, “the best part of living on the street is the glue. I haven’t eaten in two days because I’m not hungry. The glue makes me feel that way.” As a result, street children are viewed by police and private citizens as criminals. Their Roma identity further reinforces this image; Roma are often perceived by the Bulgarian public to be a criminal element of society. For these reasons, street children are often subject to extreme violence and abuse at the hands of both skinheads and police. Police often harass and abuse the children because they perceive them to be criminals, and skinhead gangs regularly attack and beat the children because of their Roma identity.

Children reported that police have often engaged in physical and sometimes sexual harassment of street children, both on the street and in police station lock-ups. Human Rights Watch found that police conduct routine roundups of street children upon suspicion of theft, or for the alleged purpose of identifying children and finding runaways. Children, including many under the age of fourteen (who are incapable of bearing criminal liability for their conduct under Bulgarian law), reported being held in police lock-ups overnight, often for many nights, with no review of the legality of the detention by judicial authorities. Conditions in lock-ups are grossly inadequate. Children reported receiving no food, being denied use of the bathroom, being detained with adults, and use of physical restraints.

Most disturbing, however, were frequent reports of severe police brutality against the children, both at the time of arrest and particularly during interrogation sessions at police stations. Children held in lock-ups reported that they were beaten by police with electric shock batons, clubs, chains, rubber hosing, boxing gloves, and a metal rod with a ball at the end of it (known as a beech). One boy was stripped of his clothing, doused with water, and beaten on the soles of his feet with an electric shock baton (a practice known as falaka).

In light of the reported abuses of street children by police, it is no wonder that children often do not bother to report frequent skinhead attacks against them to police out of fear and distrust of the very people who are supposed to protect them. Racially motivated attacks against street children, and Roma generally, have been rising in recent years but police do little to assist the victims of attacks. Children reported being attacked frequently, sometimes several times a week, by skinheads or other youth gangs armed with bats, chains, knives, steel capped boots, and gas guns and sprays. Almost all the children we interviewed had suffered from such attacks. Despite the frequency and regularity of attacks, children reported receiving little or no assistance from police. Those who did complain to police said that police responded to their complaints with indifference, disbelief, and even suspicion. We were unable to find information on a single criminal prosecution of skinheads for attacks against street children. Little action is being taken by either the police or the Judiciary to bring the attackers of street children to justice, fostering an air of impunity for attackers.

Labor Education Schools
Shortcomings in the juvenile justice system in Bulgaria were found both in the procedures of confinement of children in Labor Education Schools and in the conditions of confinement there. Street children, and Roma children generally, are particularly susceptible to confinement in Bulgaria’s eleven Labor Education Schools. The Deputy Director of Slavovitza Labor Education School observed that “80% of the children at [Slavovitza] are Gypsies, mainly from large families. Most of them roamed the streets before coming to us.” It is estimated that Roma children comprise approximately 50 percent of the total Labor Education School population, although in the 1992 Bulgarian census only 288,000, less than 4 percent, of the country’s 8.5 million people identified themselves as Roma. Roma leaders estimate the Roma population in Bulgaria to be much higher, as high as 800,000, but still less than 10 percent of the population of Bulgaria. Confinement of children in Labor Education Schools will be the subject of the second part of this report.

It should be noted from the outset that Human Rights Watch was denied access to Labor Education Schools by the Ministry of Education. The ostensible ground for the denial, as stated in the rejection letter of the Deputy Minister of Education, Ivan Yordanov, was that there had been two inspections of Labor Education Schools by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“European Committee”) in 1995, and by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee in 1996. In fact, the European Committee did not visit any Labor Education Schools during its visit to Bulgaria in the spring of 1995. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee was able to visit five schools in the winter and spring of 1996, but only after encountering much difficulty from the Ministry of Education in securing access to the schools. We also found strong evidence of staff censorship of children during the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s visit.

Despite the formal denial of access to Labor Education Schools, we were able to speak with students and staff members at Podem and Rakitovo Labor Education Schools. We also were able to interview students from Yagoda Labor Education School outside the school grounds, and students from Slavovitza Labor Education School near their family homes. Further, we interviewed members of Local Commissions for Combating Juvenile Delinquency, Pedagogic Offices, Public Prosecutor’s Offices, police, and Bulgarian nongovernmental organizations (“NGOs”) for all subjects of this report.

Labor Education Schools are essentially penal institutions. However, as reflected in its submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1995, the Bulgarian government views placements in Labor Education Schools “as educational rather than penal measures.” Because the schools are not prisons under Bulgarian law, the procedures by which juveniles are confined there are not subject to any form of judicial control or review; due process protections set forth in the Bulgarian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure are thus inapplicable to the procedures by which placement in a Labor Education School is made. Further, the few protections that are provided to juveniles under Bulgaria’s Juvenile Delinquency Act (the act which authorizes the establishment of Labor Education Schools and sets forth the procedures by which juveniles may be confined in them) were found to be disregarded in practice.

Under Bulgarian law, children as young as age eight may be confined in a Labor Education School through non-judicial proceedings carried out by administrative bodies known as Local Commissions for Combating Juvenile Delinquency for “offenses” as minor as vagrancy or simply being “uncontrollable.” The confinement of juveniles in Labor Education Schools by Local Commissions is carried out with little or no effort to ensure accountability to any higher authority, be it administrative or judicial. Children are sometimes confined in the schools without any hearing at all, and where hearings are held, they are reportedly inquisition-like in form and do not allow children fair opportunities to be heard. Children sometimes appear alone, without parents, and never with legal representation. There is no right of appeal and the term of confinement is undetermined at the time of placement. Children may spend up to three years in a Labor Education School, and sometimes longer in order to complete the child’s “education.”

Conditions in Labor Education Schools vary, but most are reportedly harsh. Labor Education Schools are run and supervised by the Ministry of Education. We recognize that many of the problems with conditions in the schools relate to lack of adequate financial resources. Children complain often of cold and hunger. However, other harmful conditions found are not attributable to financial hardship, such as the widespread physical abuse of children by Labor Education School staff, especially in the schools where boys are confined. Boys told us that they were severely beaten by staff members with instruments such as a ski pole, a steel stick, and cable wires. Children reported that other forms of punishment included confinement in an “isolator,” head shaving, reduction in diet, imposition of work chores, and deprivations of home leave, town outings, and the right to receive correspondence. When they try to complain about such abuses to outsiders, they may be severely punished.

In addition to harsh living conditions, the vocational education received by children in Labor Education Schools is inadequate in preparing the children for competitive employment upon release. After several years in this deplorable setting, children leave the schools physically and emotionally scarred, and ill prepared to face the challenges of living in the outside world.

Further, Human Rights Watch was alarmed by the high proportion of Roma children reported to be confined in the two Labor Education Schools designated for retarded children, and in Labor Education Schools where conditions are known to be worse than in other schools.

Human Rights Watch planned to visit the two penal institutions where children are held in Bulgaria: Boychinovtsi prison (for boys), and Sliven prison (for women and girls). Unfortunately, we were able to visit only Sliven prison, where only one girl was held at the time of our visit. Two days before our scheduled visit to Boychinovtsi (where 156 boys were held) we were informed by the Boychinovtsi prison administration that Malena Filipova, of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, had issued an order banning our visits to both prisons. Apparently Ms. Filipova was unaware of the fact that we had already visited Sliven prison. We were unable to visit Boychinovtsi as a result of her order, despite the fact that we had already secured permission to visit from the Chief of the Prison Administration, Zdravko Traikov. As a result, we are unable to comment on conditions and treatment of children in prisons. However, based on information gathered from other sources, we express concern over the reportedly large proportion of children held in pretrial detention in prison, often for over six months, and the commingling of pretrial detainees with convicted juveniles.

We also express deep concern over the lack of openness and cooperation demonstrated by governmental authorities towards external attempts to monitor conditions in both prisons and Labor Education Schools in Bulgaria.



Human Rights Watch makes the following recommendations to the Bulgarian government concerning the abuses against street children and children in confinement in Labor Education Schools:

Street children:
The Bulgarian government should reiterate the absolute prohibition on physical abuse of children by police, and should prosecute any police officer found guilty of such abuse to the full extent of the law.

Prompt investigations of complaints concerning police mistreatment of children should be conducted, and disciplinary measures and criminal proceedings ordered where appropriate.

The Police Directorate and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office should launch a special inquiry into racially motivated attacks against Roma, including attacks against street children. Criminal investigations and prosecutions against attackers should be undertaken where appropriate.

A commission of experts should be established to investigate the conduct of law enforcement officials in responding to and protecting against violent attacks on street children, and make public the results of such an investigation.

Human rights and civil rights education should be made a priority in the training of all police.

Arrests should ordinarily be conducted pursuant to judicial warrants; the only exception to this rule should be for in flagrante delicto situations where police apprehend the perpetrator “in the act.”

Police should inform all detainees of their rights immediately upon arrest.

Measures should be taken to ensure that children are not held beyond the permissible periods under law, and that the validity of any detention extending beyond twenty-four hours be reviewed by a judicial authority.

Children should never be detained with adults.

Meals should be given to detainees at regular intervals.

Detainees should be allowed to use the toilet whenever they need.

The use of physical restraints on children should be used only as a last resort, after all other means of control have been tried and failed, and only where necessary to prevent a child from self-injury or injury to others.

A citizens review board, including representatives from Bulgarian human rights organizations and nongovernmental organizations working with street children, should be established to receive and investigate allegations of police misconduct or brutality against children.

A position for an independent ombudsperson should be established to monitor and raise with the Bulgarian government and the Police Directorate the issues of police abuse and mistreatment of children both on the street and in detention.

The treatment of children in conflict with the law:
The Bulgarian parliament should pass legislation providing for the creation of a separate juvenile justice system to which the quasi-judicial functions of Local Commissions for Combating Juvenile Delinquency are transferred.

The juvenile justice system should comply with the requirements of Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice.

Protections for children should include the following:
Fair hearings should be required for all children accused of committing offenses; children should receive all due process protections including an opportunity to be represented by legal or other counsel at any hearing concerning them, as well as the opportunity to speak freely and present their case.

Parents should be informed in advance of any action or hearing concerning allegations of offenses committed by a child, and should attend any legal proceeding at which the child is present.

Children should have the right to appeal court decisions and correctional measures to a higher judicial authority. The right to appeal, and its mechanisms, should be made clearly known to children and their parents.

Where a child is ordered to be confined in any correctional or educational institution, the duration of confinement should be predetermined at the time of the order of placement. Children should be subject to confinement always as a last resort, and for the minimum period necessary.

The prosecution of status offenses (conduct which would not be punishable if committed by an adult, such as running away or truancy) should be prohibited by law.

Until such time as a new juvenile justice system is established, the Juvenile Delinquency Act and the Regulations for the Children’s Pedagogic Office should be amended so that the role of the Pedagogic Office is narrowed. Pedagogic Office Inspectors should not serve as social workers, police officers, and Local Commission members as they do now.

Conditions of confinement for children adjudicated delinquent:
The Bulgarian government should develop and implement mandatory standards for correctional institutions, including the institutions currently known as Labor Education Schools, that at minimum comply with international standards on the conditions of confinement for children. To our knowledge, the Penal Code, the Regulations for Labor Education Schools and the Juvenile Delinquency Act contain no such standards.

Funds should be allocated to ensure that children receive food sufficient for their nutritional needs, clothing suitable to the climate, adequate heating and bedding, and toilet articles necessary for their personal hygiene.

Physical abuse by staff against children should be strictly prohibited. Staff found to have abused children should be appropriately disciplined, including dismissal. Where appropriate, criminal charges should be brought against the staff. Staff should be fully informed of the rules and consequences concerning physical abuse of children.

The following disciplinary practices should be strictly prohibited:
corporal punishment;
reduction in diet;
deprivation of home leave;
deprivation of right to receive visitors;
deprivation of right to receive correspondence; and
head shaving.

Children should be informed of the internal rules of the institutions to which they are committed and their rights and obligations immediately upon entry. The rules of the institution should be made available to children upon request and posted in highly visible places.

Children confined in correctional institutions should be provided with effective mechanisms to make confidential complaints to an independent outside authority about the conduct of other children or institutional staff members, or the conditions of confinement. Children should be informed of the response to their complaints without delay.

The Ministry of Education and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office should conduct regular and unplanned inspections of correctional institutions where children are confined. Children should have free access to and uncensored communications with outside visitors and inspectors.

The vocational education provided at children’s correctional institutions should be reformed to provide children with realistic opportunities for competitive employment upon release. Where possible, children should be given a choice of the vocation in which they are trained.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to initiate dialogue with the Bulgarian government and to insist that the Bulgarian government take concrete steps to address the concerns outlined in this report.

Human Rights Watch calls on the OSCE to:
Request the Bulgarian government to submit regular reports on the specific steps it has taken to train police in human rights awareness, and in preventing and responding to racially motivated violence, including violence against Roma street children.

Organize and coordinate a series of training and educational seminars for representatives of Bulgarian police and prosecutorial bodies on the experiences of other countries in preventing and prosecuting racially motivated crimes.

Request that the Bulgarian government investigate allegations of police torture and ill-treatment of children in custody, take disciplinary measures against those police officers found to be responsible for violations of law, and make public its findings.

Organize and coordinate a series of training and education seminars for representatives of Bulgarian police on human rights and law enforcement.

Human Rights Watch calls on the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to:
As follow-up to the Report to the Bulgarian Government on the Visit to Bulgaria Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, investigate allegations of police torture and ill-treatment of children in detention, and physical abuse of children in Labor Education Schools, and make recommendations to the Bulgarian government for improvement.

Request the Bulgarian government to provide information on action taken to address allegations of police torture of children in detention, and torture of children in Labor Education Schools.

Request that the Bulgarian government, in its follow-up report to the CPT, include any actions taken which relate to children in confinement.

Human Rights Watch calls on the following U.N. entities to take concrete steps to address the concerns outlined in this report.
Human Rights Watch calls on the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, when Bulgaria appears before the Committee, to:

Request the Bulgarian government to order an immediate end to physical abuse of children by police.

Request that the Bulgarian government submit a report on the specific steps it has taken to train police in human rights and law enforcement, and in preventing and responding to racially motivated violence against street children.

Request that the Bulgarian government report on the measures it has taken to collect and investigate complaints of police misconduct and ill-treatment of children in detention, and disciplinary and criminal actions taken against offending police officers.

Recommend that the Bulgarian government take steps towards adopting and implementing legislation for the creation of a juvenile court system to which the functions of the Local Commissions for Combating Juvenile Delinquency would be transferred.

Request that the Bulgarian government take steps to eventually close all Labor Education Schools, and in the interim, take immediate and concrete steps to improve conditions in currently operating Labor Education Schools, specifically by: increasing allocations of funding for food, heating, and clothing in the schools; altering curriculum so that children receive vocational training in competitive fields; prohibiting physical abuse of children by staff members; and ensuring that children’s grievances are heard and that staff members who mistreat and abuse students are disciplined for their conduct.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Working Group on Minorities of the U.N. Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to:

Investigate racially motivated violent attacks against Roma street children, and the measures and efforts undertaken by the Bulgarian government and police to prevent and respond to such attacks; make recommendations to the Bulgarian government for addressing and preventing such attacks.

Investigate allegations of police mistreatment and physical abuse of children on the street and in detention, and government efforts to address this problem; make recommendations to the Bulgarian government for further improvement.

Investigate the extent to which due process protections are given to children deprived of their liberty; make recommendations to the Bulgarian government towards ensuring that due process protections are upheld in the detention and confinement of children.








            Police Abuse of Children on the Street
            Police Abuse of Children in Detention
                  Bulgarian Criminal Law and Procedure
                  Arbitrary and Unlawful Detention, and Physical Abuse
            Complaints and Prosecution of Police




            International Standards
            Bulgarian Law and Practice
            Local Commission Members: Role of the Inspector
            Jurisdiction of the Local Commission for Combating Juvenile Delinquency
                  Referral of Cases to the Local Commission
                  Local Commission Hearings
                  Review of Local Commission Decisions
                  Placement in a Particular Labor Education School


            Physical Conditions of Confinement
            Discipline and Punishment
            Grievance Procedures
            Education and Vocational Training
            Duration of Confinement







Human Rights Watch      September 1996      ISBN 1-56432-200-9

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