Bulgaria's prosecutor general Sotir Tsatsarov, right, speaks during a press conference in Sofia, on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. 

© 2018 Valentina Petrova/AP Photo
(Berlin) – Bulgaria’s prosecutor general should reject a call from a political party in the country’s governing coalition to disband the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), Human Rights Watch said today. The party has been in legal battles for years with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee over its stance on anti-discrimination issues.

“It’s completely unacceptable for a political party sitting in a European government to go after a respected human rights organization like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Any attempts to silence or interfere with independent organizations doing legitimate human rights work is against Bulgaria’s obligations under EU and international law and should cease immediately.”

On September 30, 2019, the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), one of the members of  Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s ruling coalition, sent a letter to Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov asking him to deregister the organization. The letter contended that the organization “directly and indirectly exerts pressure on Bulgarian magistrates and engages in unconstitutional, unlawful, immoral and openly anti-Bulgarian activities.”

The attack on the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee comes in the wake of recent developments in a high-profile case involving an Australian citizen, Jock Palfreeman, to whom the organization provided legal aid and other support. Palfreeman was convicted in 2009 for the 2007 murder of a Bulgarian student. He has maintained his innocence all along, saying that he acted in self-defense. On September 19, the Sofia Appellate Court granted Palfreeman conditional early release from prison, causing an outcry among politicians and the media.

On September 24, Tsatsarov asked the Supreme Court of Cassation to examine the decision, claiming that two of the three judges on the Sofia Appellate Court panel had links to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and were therefore biased. The Supreme Court of Cassation is set to hear the case on October 7. The two judges in question have taken part in human rights seminars the group organized. Meanwhile, Palfreeman is in an immigration detention center in Sofia.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the largest human rights organization in Bulgaria, was founded in 1992 with the mandate to protect and promote human rights in the country. Its activities include strategic litigation domestically and internationally, and training for members of the judiciary, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials on international human rights instruments and their applications.

In a phone interview on October 2, Krassimir Kanev, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee president, told Human Rights Watch that government officials have systematically targeted him and his organization since the governing coalition came to power in 2018. “Even today, the president of the VRMO gave an interview to a popular TV station where he said slanderous things about BHC – that we defend criminal activities and support people who break the law, referring to Roma,” he said.

Public officials in Bulgaria should refrain from interfering with and obstructing the work of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and other human rights organizations in Bulgaria, Human Rights Watch said. The government should take the necessary steps to comply with its international obligations to safeguard the work of independent organizations. The authorities should investigate threats and attacks against members of independent organizations. And EU institutions should publicly condemn attacks on organizations doing legitimate work in Bulgaria, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2016, Kanev was physically assaulted in Sofia in what he believes was an attack linked to his work. The police suspended the investigation the following year saying they had not identified any suspects.