Bulgaria’s progress on judicial reform and combating corruption is slow and the country is to be urged to adopt a new Penal Code, along with other reforms that have been recommended to it before, according to media reports ahead of the release of a European Commission report on the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).
The CVM was put in place in January 2007 for Bulgaria and Romania when the two countries joined the EU.
Since then, regular reports on Bulgaria routinely have noted some progress but also customarily have come to repeat recommendations that have gone unfulfilled.
Also customarily, the official release of the CVM report – this time around, expected on January 28 2015 – tends to be preceded by leaks to the media, although in turn the language used in criticisms in draft reports usually is toned down before the report’s release.
Reports on the current draft said that it referred to two weaknesses also cited in the 2014 report, escapes of people who had been convicted of crimes and shortcomings in the system of “random” allocation of court cases to judges.
This latter issue again has been prominent of late, especially after public criticism by the French ambassador to Bulgaria of “rotten apples” in the country’s judiciary.
The draft reportedly says that the prosecution has achieved an increase in the number and speed of cases regarding corruption and organised crime, but the main delay was in the trial phase, where there were instances of cases being referred back, after long delays, to prosecutors. This was interpreted in public opinion as a denial of justice by judges.
Also raised again is a problem cited in previous reports, the formalities of the Criminal Procedure Code that hamper the work of special prosecutors and special courts.
The fact that in Bulgaria in 2014 there was a succession of three governments had blocked the legislative work of Parliament, contributing to the lack of reforms.
The draft report acknowledges that the current government had taken an important step by adopting a judicial reform strategy, but adds that this strategy is vague and lacks clear deadlines.
The next phase should be to demonstrate that reform is perceived as a political priority and to ensure consensus, concrete and specific actions for implementation, according to reports on the draft.
The Justice Ministry should prepare amendments to the Penal Code as soon as possible, according to the draft, which says that there is a pressing need for changes to anti-corruption provisions regarding people in the higher echelons of power, influence-peddling and the giving and receiving of bribes.
The new Penal Code should be drawn up on the basis of thorough assessments and public consultations, according to the draft.
The report also is said to note that a recommendation in previous reports that the Justice Ministry should draw up a national anti-corruption strategy had not been implemented, and this should now happen.
The draft reportedly says that the Supreme Judicial Council continues not to be regarded by all as an autonomous and independent body effectively able to protect the independence of the judiciary from the executive.
The SJC should urgently address the issue of the varying workload of judges.
The draft directs serious criticism at Bulgaria’s legislature, which for almost two years has failed to elect a chief judicial inspector. The report calls for a choice to be made as soon as possible, saying that this was an important test for Bulgarian institutions.
The transfer of the chief directorate for combating organising crime to the State Agency for National Security (a move made by the now-departed 2013/14 administration, appointed on the basis of a mandate handed to the Bulgarian Socialist Party) had led to a breakdown in the system.
There was concern that the removal of the anti-organised crime directorate from SANS – as provided for by legislation under the new government that has been seeking to correct the work of its predecessor – could make the same happen again has been met with assurances from the current government that it is aware of the potential problem and will implement reforms without disruptions.
The draft expresses appreciation for the creation in 2014 of a joint task force of prosecutors and SANS officials at the Supreme Cassation Prosecution Office to fight corruption.
It also recognises that there were successful moves against corruption at local government level (for example, arrests of mayors) but the EC wants to see action at higher levels of power, reports said.