Bulgaria’s Prosecutor-General defends probe into Protest Network activists
Bulgaria’s Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov has sought to defend the investigation, including a tax probe, into four activists from the Protest Network – while also defending the prosecutor assigned to the probe.
Tsatsarov’s statement on February 27 followed reactions to reports of the investigations from the United States embassy in Sofia and from France’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes.
The four people under investigation by the National Revenue Agency, at the request of prosecutor Boryana Bestsova, are Antoaneta Tsoneva, Nikolai Staykov, Assen Genov and Konstantin Pavlov.
All four are core members of the Protest Network, which arose during the 2013/14 protests demanding the resignation of the then-government after the election by the former ruling axis of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.
On February 25 2014, the Protest Network handed the Prosecutor-General’s office, with copies to other Bulgarian state institutions and foreign partners, a dossier containing allegations against Peevski, Corporate Commercial Bank majority shareholder Tsvetan Vassilev, and populist politician and former talk show host Nikolai Barekov.
Betsova was assigned to follow up the allegations, and no prosecutions were initiated. She is now in charge of the investigation into the Protest Network four.
French ambassador Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, well-known in Bulgaria for his forthright criticism of shortcomings in the country’s judiciary, have referred repeatedly to “rotten apples” in the judicial system – as well as being party to a call by a group of EU ambassadors for reforms of the judicial system – sent out a Tweet asking what kind of apple Betsova was.
The US embassy, in a post in Bulgarian on its Facebook page on February 26, said that it was aware of ongoing checks into Protest Network activists and media that had received grants from the America For Bulgaria Foundation.
The Facebook post said that the foundation was an independent organisation and said the foundation’s activities were related to the provision of grants that were fully transparent and accessible to everyone through the AFB website.
The embassy said that it was “convinced” that all checks would be carried out professionally and in full compliance with the relevant provisions of Bulgarian legislation as well as with respect for civil rights and freedom of speech.
Tsatsarov said on February 27 that Betsova was not a rotten apple, but a prosecutor who would submit an indictment against former MP and head of Parliament’s legal committee, Tsatsarov said. This was a reference to Hristo Bisserov of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, who stepped down suddenly in November 2013 as deputy speaker of the now-departed 42nd National Assembly, before it emerged that there were serious criminal allegations against him, including of money-laundering.
Tsatsarov said that he stood behind every prosecutor and investigator who fulfilled their legal obligations.
He confirmed that the investigation into the Protest Network four arose from letters sent by Nedyalko Nedyalkov (a figure from a media widely seen as close to Peevski) requesting an investigation into their income and assets and whether they had properly declared and paid taxes.
According to the Prosecutor-General’s statement, the letter described the organisations in which the four were involved and said that these got finance from the Open Society Foundation, the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Nedyalkov asked prosecutors and the National Revenue Agency whether these funds were being used as income by the four, whether their tax affairs were in order and for prosecutors to take action if there was evidence of a crime.
According to the Prosecutor-General, the case was assigned via random selection to Betsova.
In December 2014, it had been found that there was insufficient data for pre-trial proceedings and urgent investigative actions were not required. Betsova had forwarded the matter to the Interior Ministry’s “Criminal Police” directorate-general. This investigation had not been completed.
Tsatsarov said that the investigation was into the four individuals, not NGOs or entities such as America for Bulgaria or Open Society. Nor were the grants to media the subject of an investigation, he said.
He said that the Protest Network activists had made a serious of allegations to his office regarding crimes. There was no reason to believe that those who made allegations had some kind of immunity from allegations made against them, Tsatsarov said.
Responding to the US embassy’s message, Tsatsarov said that he had ordered that the basis of the conclusions of the supervising prosecutor in ruling on the merits of the allegations would be publicly available.
Meanwhile, on Facebook the episode continued to provoke considerable reaction, including from those in the focus of the probe, with photographs posted including a scan of a letter from the National Revenue Agency regarding the investigation.
In the course of the 2013/14 protests against the “Oresharski” cabinet, a frequent talking point on the part of those close to the ruling axis of the time was that the protests were “paid”.
On the media front, the publishers’ association in which media seen as close to Peevski issued a public challenge why America for Bulgaria gave money to some media but not others. This background to this included the foundation having given, in 2012 and in 2015, a sum – on each occasion – of three million leva (about 1.53 million euro, $1.71 million) to a Bulgarian-language media company, a member of the rival publisher’s association, and in turn seen as having been favourably disposed to the 2013/14 anti-government protests.
On February 26, the Protest Network wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, saying that his coming to power in November 2014 had coincided with the latest and most powerful media and institutional attack on the Protest Network, and asking why the NRA investigation had been ordered, saying that – as an affected party – the network had been given no reasons for it.