The Bulgarian Socialist Party government’s proposed new Penal Code has lurched into yet another controversy, this time by upsetting coin collectors and antique dealers by its vague provisions intended to protect the country’s cultural heritage.
The current justice ministry rushed out a draft of a new Penal Code at the end of 2013, and the text already has been approved by the Cabinet in spite of admissions that it will need revisions – a fact that critics say shows that the government gave the nod to something it knew to be flawed.
Human rights groups, NGOs and opposition politicians have expressed outrage about a number of provisions.
One of the most controversial, providing for jail terms for photographing people without their consent – a measure that was seen as opening the way for curtailing exposes of corrupt politicians or even coverage of anti-government protests – is to be withdrawn.
Other provisions that have sparked disputes include heavy penalties for possession of even the smallest amounts of illegal drugs, a measure against Bulgarians working for foreign organisations “to the detriment of the republic” and changes to the rules on mandatory sentencing. The provision on Bulgarians working for foreign organisations is also, current justice minister Zinaida Zlatanova has said, set for revision to clarify that it is intended to cover times of war.
In another example of what critics see as vague drafting, the text provides for up to four years in jail and a fine of 2000 leva (about 1000 euro) for anyone in possession of unidentified and unregistered items of cultural heritage. Anyone in possession of more than three such items could face up to six years in prison.
The text also extends the definition of cultural heritage to include archaeological objects, and covers not only antique coins but also items such as pictures more than 50 years old, icons and many other items that Bulgarians customarily would have in their homes.
Professor Valeri Stefanov of the Union of Collectors said that there should be a clear methodology about what should be under state protection and what need not be, because at the moment it seemed that it wanted to maintain a special system for everything.
Members of the union said that in recent years the state had been spending huge sums of money on specialised police raids, investigations and court actions, in most case over unimportant antiques and coins of little value.
Critics see the vague provisions as criminalising the unregistered possession of anything from grandmothers’ recipes for traditional dishes to childhood photographs of people more than 60 years old.
Stefanov told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, “at the moment, with the proposed changes to the Penal Code, sanctions are at the door of every Bulgarian home. What will happen with people, the intelligent and educated people of Bulgaria, who have the fortune or misfortune to buy books, to keep items of sentimental value in their homes?
“Now the state wants to protect everything. Put it this way – does it want to protect the archive of Vassil Levski and Hristo Botev or does it want to protect a grandmother’s written recipe for winter pickles?”
Well-known Bulgarian artist Svetlin Roussev (80) said, “If I want to sell one of my student paintings, I have to go to identify it at the Ministry of Culture- it’s absurd”.