Human Rights Developments
Bulgaria experienced significant political and economic upheaval in 1997. In February, the Socialist government agreed to early elections after more than a month of strikes and mass demonstrations against corruption and economic mismanagement. Elections on April 19 installed a coalition government led by the Union of Democratic Forces. While the new government pledged greater respect for human rights, serious violations continued: police brutality, violence and discrimination against minorities, especially Roma Gypsy, and government interference in religion and the media were of particular concern.
Police brutality continued to be a major human rights problem during 1997. Several individuals died in suspicious circumstances involving the police, and numerous cases of excessive use of force were reported. Complaint procedures were inadequate, with police undertaking initial investigations themselves, and many investigations pending for extended periods. Moreover, persons bringing complaints were often subsequently charged with criminal offenses.
Three persons died during or immediately after leaving police custody during 1997. A detainee died in police custody in Popovo on January 7, and the subsequent military investigation had yet toreport its findings at the time of this writing. A criminal suspect, Georgi Biandov, died in hospital under suspicious circumstances on March 26 following his arrest and possible mistreatment at the hands of police in Burghs. On June 5, Petar Karandzha was shot in the head while allegedly attempting to escape from a detention facility in Sofia. A subsequent investigation by the military prosecutor's office exonerated the officers involved in the killing, despite the lack of evidence that Karandzha's actions threatened the life or security of anyone present at the time.
The amendment to the penal code adopted on August 12 guaranteeing trial within one year of incarceration (two for serious cases) was a positive development. Regrettably, the Parliament decided in September that the law would only apply to those sentenced after August 12, offering no hope to prisoners already in custody, some of whom have gone without trial for more than three years. Bulgaria's moratorium on executions remained in effect in 1997, although death sentences were issued by the courts as recently as September.
One of most blatant abuses of police power occurred during a peaceful anti-government protest on January 11. A large police contingent clubbed and kicked demonstrators, including several opposition members of parliament. The action resulted in approximately 300 injuries; eleven people were hospitalized. The incident was not an isolated one: on February 4, Roma demonstrated in Pazadijk and threw stones at several food stores. Special police responded with indiscriminate violence, beating approximately sixty Roma, some inside their homes. In June, a special police unit raided a nightclub in Sofia, beating or harassing many of its patrons, resulting in fifty-one formal complaints by victims.
Violence and discrimination against Roma in Bulgaria was not limited to police action. Attacks on Roma by other Bulgarians were common. On April 6, five Roma were reportedly beaten in front of the mayor's office in Sredno Selo by a crowd of between one hundred and one hundred and twenty people after the theft of some cattle from a neighboring village. The most serious incident took place on July 20 in Sliven. Nedka Tsoneva, a forty-one-year-old Roma woman and her twelve-year-old son were assaulted by four teenage boys. The son watched as the boys beat the woman to the ground and repeatedly kicked her. Mrs. Tsoneva fell into a coma during the attack and died the following day. The boys reportedly cursed "the Gypsies" as they beat Mrs. Tsoneva, and the oldest is alleged to have told investigators that he killed the woman "because he hated Gypsies."
The Bulgarian president told the Council of Ministers in Strasbourg on April 22 that there was no Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Expressions of Macedonian culture were frequently suppressed: on May 5, police arrested fifteen ethnic Macedonians to prevent a cultural celebration. On October 9, however, the Bulgarian president signed the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, signaling a new commitment to uphold minority rights.
The gay community was also the target of official discrimination. On March 5, police raided the Flamingo gay bar in Sofia, beating up and harassing several people, some of whom were taken to the police station and handcuffed for as long as twenty hours. On August 29, police raided a gay bar in Sofia and assaulted and harassed its patrons.
State intervention in religious matters continued in 1997, despite the change in government. The government refused to register Fikri Sali as chief mufti of the Muslims in Bulgaria, despite a Supreme Court order to do so. Religious minorities also fared badly: non-Orthodox Christian groups including the Jehovah's Witnesses and Word of Life were refused official recognition, and along with Mormons, were the subject of public attacks and official discrimination.
A member of a Protestant evangelical group had custody of her child taken away from her by acourt, reportedly on religious grounds. A campaign organized in April against evangelization by several recognized Protestant churches included the patriarch, who called the evangelicals "traitors of faith and nation" and the chief prosecutor, who warned of possible revocation of the churches' official legal recognition by the state. In August 1997, municipal authorities in Haskovo prohibited a meeting by Baha'is and evicted them from property they occupied in the town.
Five journalists covering the demonstration on January 11 were beaten by police, marking the start of a bad year for press freedoms. Major issues included violence against journalists and the use of courts to suppress reporting. The effect of Bulgaria's strict libel laws became clear in March when a court handed Yovka Atanssova, a journalist with Starozagorksy Novini (Stara Zagora), three consecutive sentences totaling eight months and a 710,000 lev fine (about U.S.$410) for a series of articles about secret service informants who have become prominent business and political figures.
The Right to Monitor
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki received no reports of interference with the right to monitor.
The Role of the
Although the new government made contradictory statements regarding its commitment to human rights and in many cases failed to change existing policy, the response of the international community to Bulgaria's applications to NATO and the European Union, appeared to have little to do with the country's human rights record.
In April, however, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination met to discuss Bulgaria's progress in meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Although it noted the current difficulties faced by Bulgaria, the committee expressed concern over Bulgaria's failure adequately to address continued discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the country, especially those of Roma origin.
In July, the European Commission issued its opinion on Bulgaria's fitness to begin E.U. membership talks. The report concluded that Bulgaria is not ready for membership, primarily for economic reasons. The report pointed to "too frequent abuses by the police and secret services" and problems with the integration of Roma as concerns, but concluded that "Bulgaria is on the way to satisfying the political criteria" for membership.
Although Bulgaria's application for membership in NATO failed to win acceptance at the July 8 NATO summit in Madrid, it received positive support from the United States. On a July 14 visit to Sofia, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said that Bulgaria would be a "very strong contender" for membership in the future if it remained committed to democracy and the promotion of human rights. This position contrasts with the generally accurate assessment of human rights in the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996.
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