‘At the mercy of psychopaths’: Palfreeman interviewed

I’m still Jock Nobody to the Australian authorities, complains Jock Palfreeman, despite the recent publication of a book documenting his case and growing civil support

Jock Palfreeman is in buoyant mood when we meet, five years into a 20-year sentence after being convicted of the murder of Andrei Monov. He has recently ended a protracted hunger strike – after the prison authorities reversed a decision to ban him from continuing a long-distance academic degree with an Australian university. He has regained some muscle strength in the weeks since our last meeting (which was in my capacity as an ordinary visitor) in February. At that time he seemed close to total collapse. Indeed, he was warned that he would lapse into a coma if he continued to refuse solids.

Palfreeman tells me that they gave him the documents allowing him to continue his studies on the morning of my visit, which occurred at the end of March. “I’ve been singing, you know, the Soviet song for WW2, Day of Victory,” he says with a smile.

Palfreeman’s euphoria doesn’t last long. A few days after our interview, he is hit by what can only be described as a “double whammy”. First, the prison decides to bar him from writing essays on a computer. (Note that he has always been banned from using the internet and that the computer was for the sole purpose of writing).

If there is any consistency in the actions of Sofia Central Prison, it’s that the authorities always seem to behave in a totally arbitrary, yet vindictive, manner. So perhaps telling him that he can continue his degree, while banning him from the wherewithal to so do, should not be surprising. The second piece of bad news – from Palfreeman‘s point of view – is that Hristo Monov, the psychologist father of the deceased, Andrei Monov, is the number two candidate on the BSP’s (Bulgarian Socialist Party) ticket in Bourgas. As such, he is a shoo-in to become an MP in the next parliament.

Despite his good spirits on the day of our interview, Palfreeman still fulminates against the latest misrepresentation in the press ridiculing his family’s fundraising effort. A key (although not formally stated) precondition to the Bulgarian authorities even considering a request to transfer Palfreeman to Australia – it seems – is payment of “liabilities” amounting to about 600 000 leva. According to Palfreeman, the “yellow press” laughed that he had (supposedly) only been able to raise negligible sums to date. Yet Palfreeman says it’s the most trivial of serial misrepresentations and fabrications.

Every parent’s nightmare

Jock Palfreeman spends 22-and-a-half hours a day in his cell. Once a week, he’s allowed to go to the library. But Jock says he doesn’t need to go there. He is drowning in books that he hasn’t the time to read. (He asks me to beseech supporters NOT to send him books). One book, however, IS particularly pertinent right now. Every Parent’s Nightmare, by seasoned Australian journalist Belinda Hawkins, documents the circumstances that led up to the death of Andrei Monov and the wounding of Antoan Zahariev, as well as the subsequent court processes which led to Palfreeman’s conviction.

Palfeeeman has read the book. (I haven’t because my copy has not yet arrived). So how does he feel about it?

“It’s perfect…it’s amazing,” he tells me. “Yet when I say ‘it’s perfect’, I’m worried that people will be confused because it’s a confusing case. The book is mostly about the lead-up to the fight, the arrest and different versions of events, as well as the supporting evidence for both sides and interviews with people after the case.”

Is the book – I wonder – objective?

“The ‘problem’ is that the evidence so supports my standpoint that it’s hard to present my case objectively WITHOUT it appearing to be in my favour. ALL the evidence is on my side,” Palfreeman says. “A mountain of neutral witnesses, documentary evidence and CCTV, and even the original statements of the gang themselves, are all concurrent with my account. The book sets out all the problems and all the discrepancies in my case. The court’s decision was blatant bullshit. And the book sets it all out in chronological order, summarising the process and the failures of the Bulgarian justice system. Anybody who looks at witness statements, expert reports and CCTV footage, as well as all the video evidence in the trial, knows that it all supports me. The only thing NOT in my favour is the second version of events given by the group – the one they gave in court – NOT the first version. No other evidence in the whole trial goes against me. There’s more against me in the ‘bad’ press than there ever was in the trial.”

Is it any consolation that his case is now so “out there” – that he himself is now “famous”?

“A friend sent me a letter saying that she wished fame equalled freedom. And that’s completely correct. I would prefer that I had a fair trial, that I was released and could go back to my life,” says Palfreeman.

And Palfreeman, although pleased with the book, says that constantly rehashed media inaccuracies continue to damage his case.

“The full eclectic story of my case has not been presented in Bulgarian. So many misrepresentations were created by the Bulgarian press and picked up by the Australian press. One of the most damaging was that Andrei Monov was stabbed in the back. That is totally untrue. That’s probably the worst one. That was something fabricated by the media, not even alleged at the trial. Actually, the opposite is true. Experts and witnesses say I stabbed him, facing him. I do NOT remember doing that. (Palfreeman has consistently stated that he has NO recollection of the stabbing). “But all the experts say the angle of the wound was face to face.”

A saintly institution?

I told Palfreeman that I had met the deputy director of Sofia Central Prison. She seemed hospitable enough, offering me coffee, a picture of Mother Teresa adorning the wall of her office.

“For visiting journalists and lawyers, it’s a complete façade of professionalism and courtesy,” says Palfreeman. “Then, when you guys go, they start swearing at us, and degrading us.”

Ordinary visitors get much rougher treatment. I can attest – through visits to the prison in a non-professional capacity – that the guards make every effort to dehumanise you.

“Imagine if you are a relative who came from a different city or country,” says Palfreeman. “Or you are an Australian visitor and get treated like s*** by all the prison guards. It’s not even that you get treated like s*** because of security concerns. That’s not the problem. It’s not that people are mistreated in the fulfilment of the guards’ duties, such as searching people’s possessions. It’s all unnecessary mistreatment.”

Palfreeman has been active with his newly formed Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association. The aim is to form a union that can speak for prisoners’ concerns. He tells me that his campaigns led to a crackdown.

“On March 15, they put the organisation’s head secretary in isolation. They accused him of organising a collective protest, which is bullshit. All he did was submit a very rational complaint to the director saying that we want prices in the prison shop to be lowered. We also requested a more accountable system of parole and more medical supervision. He wrote a list and submitted it to the prison. Almost straight away, guards destroyed everything in his room, just ripped it apart, and they put him in solitary confinement as punishment for complaining. We’re organising a campaign to have him brought out of isolation. Then we plan to sue the prison for violating his freedom of speech. It’s obvious he’s suffering because of submitting this complaint. This will start up in the Bulgarian courts but end in Strasbourg because these are completely draconian reactionary measures from a director who should have been fired in the last century! They have a ‘throw away the key, lock them in a dungeon’ type mentality, just because a prisoner writes a complaint! And the ‘complaint’ is not that we want to go free. These are all legitimate protests. We want better conditions, we want better food and we want prices in the prison shop to be lowered because the private enterprise of the Ministry of Justice makes huge profits by ripping off prisoners.”

Palfreeman says that the only improvements to the prison are made by private donors. For example, a room was completely renovated through the philanthropy of an organisation called the Sisters of Mother Teresa – hence the picture in the deputy director’s office!

He says he only writes on the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association blog when a major incident happens. “I write it and then give it to a lawyer who uploads it. That’s one reason why there are so many misspellings,” he says with a laugh.

Gillard ‘should get moving’

Palfreeman expects little from the transitional government (which has little operational power anyway) or even the unlikely (at the time of writing anyway) prospect of a government of a new persuasion from May onwards. After all, he has been damned by both Left and Right.

“I was convicted under the BSP but my appeals and transfer requests were denied by GERB. I want to reiterate they have denied these requests through silence. And they can only do that because the Australian government is allowing them to,” he tells me.

Palfreeman complains about the inaction of the Australian government. “As far as I know, (prime minister) Julia Gillard has not been involved in my case. There has been no contact from her. She has not spoken to my family. The difference between her and (predecessor) Kevin Rudd was that Rudd picked up the phone and called my father in person. She either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care about, my case. Bob Carr (Australian minister for foreign affairs) travelled to some foreign country to help an Australian prisoner convicted of corruption. Yet the Australian government has not commented on my case from 2007 to date. Why? I’m not wealthy, I’m not anything. I’m Jock Nobody. The Australian ambassador in Athens (Jenny Bloomfield) hasn’t even been to see me. She hasn’t been vocal about Bulgaria’s refusal to reply. As far as I know, she has made no request for information about my case.”

Palfreeman wants Carr to visit. He says he has even considered renouncing Australian citizenship, not – he hastens to add – because of his dissatisfaction with Australian people or society, but because of his anger at his country’s government.

Jock Palfreeman’s father, Dr Simon Palfreeman is a distinguished pathologist in Australia. But Jock believes that his father’s influence carries little sway with the authorities.

“He’s respected within his field but how many pathologists are there in the Australian government?

Time, chance and hope

Palfreeman is cagey when it comes to so-called optimism about his case.

“You don’t want to lose hope. You don’t want to say there’s no chance. We’re fighting for the chance – rather a possibility – not an actual result.”

Palfreeman says that the Australian authorities have been rebuffed continuously. “They sent a request to Bulgaria through the mail seeking information about me. After six months, there was still no reply, so they sent another letter asking them to reply to the first letter.”

He says that this type of bureaucratic mail request system is the sum total of the Australian government’s involvement. No senior Australian official, from beginning to end, has come to Sofia as an advocate.

“The most useful and intelligent thing would have been to support me in the trial,” Palfreeman tells me. “They could have made comments about the over-documented problem of corruption in Bulgaria. Sadly, it’s so documented that people don’t investigate it anymore. They just assume that every institution in Bulgaria is corrupt.”

He hopes that growing support for his case will influence the Australian government.

Palfreeman rejects “the wrong place, wrong person, wrong time” thesis that some “liberal” commentators – often favourably disposed towards him – have cited. By this they mean that Palfreeman’s “bad luck” was intervening in a brawl involving the son of a well-connected Bulgarian psychologist.

“I’m completely against that view of things,” Palfreeman tells me. “The problem is not what happened on that day, apart from what happened to Andrei Monov, of course – a young man losing his life. The problem in my circumstance is what happened subsequently. Yes, I was beaten and attacked, but I was able to defend myself. The ‘wrong place and wrong time’ in my circumstances at least (apart from Monov) was AFTER that – the Bulgarian police, institutions, investigators, the prosecutor’s office, and then the court.”

Palfreeman insists that the attack he witnessed that night could have led to the Roma’s death. He cites bar fights where a single punch has resulted in a fatality.

“I’ll give you a perfect example. A young Roma was killed in Samokov. Ironically, Hristo Monov was the psychologist for one of three Bulgarian boys who beat a young Roma boy to death. The Roma was on his way to a cafe to meet friends from school when three racists attacked him.”

Palfreeman, who lived in Samokov for some time, claims that one of the attackers, reputedly a die-hard Nazi, also attacked a black American man teaching English for the US Peace Corps. Palfreeman rejects the accusation – sometimes thinly veiled from the prosecution but a recurrent motif nevertheless – that he “intervened” in a dispute when he knew little about Bulgaria.

“Look, ask me about the Bulgarian economy, the Bulgarian stock exchange or the floating of the Bulgarian leva, and I know next to nothing. But I lived here for almost a year. That was long enough to understand that there IS an active Nazi racist underbelly in Bulgaria. The Nazis roam the streets at night when there are fewer witnesses. They target anybody they see as different. Ask another Roma man who was attacked. (He cites a particular case). He’ll tell you ‘Jock saved my life’.”

Psychologist – heal thyself?

Hristo Monov, father of the deceased Andrei Monov, has warned that Palfreeman “would kill again” if he were ever released. Obviously Mr Monov has lost his son (and most people would have some sympathy for him on that score alone) but Palfreeman maintains that the vindictiveness of Hristo Monov’s anger – in the face of overwhelming evidence – is unreasonable.

“He’s convinced himself, he’s brainwashed himself, like a mantra he has repeated to himself. He actually used the word ‘sociopath’ to describe me. Why does he say I’m a ‘violent sociopath’? Because he has no other way to explain what happened that night other than to have to say that his son was a sociopath, part of a group of 15 young men who attacked a Roma. Any psychotherapist and any psychologist – any doctor or indeed anyone in the medical profession – will tell you that you DON’T treat your friends or family or yourself. The first thing he should realise is that he’s too close to the problem. He should stay right away from trying to psych-analyse me. He’s too close to it.”

As for Andrei Monov, Palfreeman claims that you can only judge him from his behaviour that night.

“He attacked a Roma, chasing him for about 80 metres. Let’s not forget he had 0.29 per cent blood alcohol content. Yet he was still running, fighting, shouting and beating. He was clearly a heavy drinker.  If Andrei had never been a drinker, he couldn’t have been attacking people with a blood alcohol level of 0.29 per cent. He was also connected to Levski Ultras. They call them ‘fan clubs’ but everyone knows that these ‘fan clubs’ are more than about just watching football.” He cites examples of nationalism and xenophobia in similar ‘fan clubs’ throughout most European countries.

Palfreeman says his conscience would not allow him to pass by that night.

“We’re always taught – in countries like Bulgaria, the UK – that we must love our neighbour. Yet 40 people were watching 15 drunks beating one black guy. I did NOT want anyone to die. That was the whole point of going there. I’m not saying that what eventually happened was correct, only that my motivation was correct. In court, the prosecution completely denied the racist motivation of the gang attacking the two Roma. There was a complete state cover-up of a racist gang attack despite testimony from a neutral witness – the man who worked at the kiosk – who told the court that he heard the group of boys shout out ‘nigger’ in Bulgarian.”

‘Idiot’ observers

Palfreeman says he still has to face misconceptions from ignorant observers about his conditions. One recent comment particularly riled him.

“Some idiot Australian wrote a letter to a newspaper editor. He said any prisoner in Goulbourn jail (in New South Wales, Australia) would most likely be ‘green with envy’ about my prison conditions in Bulgaria. My friend sent me a letter quoting him. I wish he’d sent the original. How did he come to that conclusion? Maybe from photos on my wall that Belinda Hawkins took. I doubt he’s read the (Hawkins) book. What does he think is luxurious? Because I have a fish and a flag on the wall!? True, in an Australian prison, you don’t wear civilian clothes. You have to wear a uniform. The reason is simply that the Bulgarian government doesn’t have enough money to buy uniform! It’s not a privilege. It’s the result of bad management. Everything in here that is in some way good does not emanate from a right or privilege – it’s because of bad management! We’re not given any sheets or blankets. We have to supply them ourselves. My family and friends go to extraordinary efforts to send me bedding and clothes. Prisoners here who don’t have money are left to go to an unsheltered exercise yard in flip-flops! In an Australian or British jail you can choose educational and sporting activities!”

Signs of institutionalization?

After so long in jail, I wonder if Palfreeman feels he could adjust to life in the outside world.

“In some ways I am institutionalized. With prisoners and guards, I know where we stand. Now, when I meet other people, I sometimes forget about etiquette. I have to remind myself not to swear. I’m also forgetting some English. Before prison, meeting new people was no problem. Now, if a new person comes in, a lawyer or some other person, I don’t know how to act. I’m getting uncomfortable. Put me on a flight to Australia tomorrow and I would be highly strung, probably overly-paranoid and maybe verbally aggressive. Prison teaches you to get angry quickly. I’m no longer used to interacting with people calmly. Perhaps this is not so much a prison thing but a Bulgarian prison thing. People here don’t have normal courtesies. In a Bulgarian jail it’s all: ‘Give me this, do this, do that!’ It’s brash. And that’s how I’m becoming. I’m getting discourteous, even rude!”

Ironically, when I say that, if released, he would find not being ordered about rather disconcerting, he says that this is NOT what his prison life is about at all.

“I’m not being told what to do all day because there is NOTHING to do all day,” says Palfreeman. This is a failed institution. There’s no system at all. One day, we meet in a certain room, the next day it changes. There’s no procedure for anything. Even social workers and the prison director don’t know procedures. I had an argument with another person last year and I was summoned to a disciplinary hearing a month-and-a-half later. I asked the prison director about the law and he looked at me blankly. Well, the law says you can’t call a prisoner to a disciplinary hearing over a month after an incident. Yet the director himself is handing out punishments, left, right and centre. It’s like a judge giving you 20 years and then not quoting the law. It’s complete chaos! Nobody knows how to do anything!”

Faced with the overwhelming boredom of prison life, Palfreeman has to try to create a world in a small, impersonal space in the knowledge that his painstaking efforts can be crushed in a few seconds on a guard’s whim.

“I surround myself with my garden, my fish and my stamp collection. I’m collecting pot plants. I’m writing letters to people and reading books. Everything possible that I can do in that space, I do. But, of course, 20 guards can come in tomorrow, tip everything onto the ground, throw food on top and destroy everything. And then I have to start again. I’ve been trying to grow parsley for a year yet it keeps dying. I finally get a little bunch to grow and yesterday some guards came in and ripped the parsley out of the soil. My entire world is in that corner.”

Freedom in 2028?

One day, it is true, Palfreeman will get OUT. Yet right now OUT seems a long way off. If he serves his full sentence, he will be 41 on release.

“As it is now, without any pressure from the Australian authorities, I’m at the complete mercy of these psychopaths. The other question is – if I have served so much of my sentence, for example if I’m here for 18 years – will it be worth transferring? The big difference is that in Australia they have a parole system.” (No parole or “rehabilitation” is part of the Bulgarian prison system).

He repeatedly damns the Australian authorities for not getting more involved from day one, saying that they should have insisted on a fair trial. He cites cases of other Australian prisoners imprisoned abroad where his country’s authorities have intervened – in particular the case of Schapelle Leigh Corby, an Australian woman convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia, currently in jail in Bali. She is now serving a reduced sentence after making a successful appeal for clemency.

Australia, he says, should have demanded better from Bulgaria, a member of the EU. He feels that Bulgaria’s mentality still languishes “somewhere around 1985” during the era of Cold War relationships.

Ask him if he would ever come back to Bulgaria after his release, and he says his first (instinctive) reaction is to say “no”.

“However, last week I was speaking with a human rights organisation and I said: ‘I should come and work for you guys as a prison inspector’. And there’s nothing illegal about an ex-prisoner working for an NGO, especially someone with such an extensive knowledge and experience of Bulgarian prisons!”

An audience with Palfreeman IS indeed rather like meeting an extremely erudite and articulate defence lawyer. Except he is probably more knowledgeable than the average Bulgarian lawyer about the shortcoming of the Bulgarian penal system. As I walk out the door, I momentarily forget he’s a prisoner. I almost invite him to dinner. Perhaps that’s the measure of how much Jock Palfreeman seems out of place in such a brutal institution.




Gabriel Hershman

Gabriel Hershman is a British journalist and writer with special interest in politics and cinema.