Bulgaria’s ruling partners GERB, Reformist Bloc call for resignation of Supreme Judicial Council
On the eve of the official release on January 27 2016 of the European Commission’s report on Bulgaria’s performance under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism – a means to bring Bulgaria in line with EU judiciary standards – ruling coalition partners GERB and the Reformist Bloc publicly called for the resignation of the Supreme Judicial Council.
GERB deputy leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov told an evening news conference that all partners in the coalition – a reference to two other minority partners, the Patriotic Front and socialist breakaway ABC – would in coming days state their position regarding the question of the resignation of the SJC.
He said that the public scandals in which the SJC had been involved meant a loss of confidence in it and indicated that the body was unable to fulfil the functions accorded to it by law.
Reports said that the Patriotic Front and ABC were similarly expected to back the call for the SJC to step down.
Tsvetanov said that he would not comment on the CVM report itself because it had not been released officially.
However, the regular ritual of the release of the European Commission’s CVM report was preceded, as is customary, by extensive advance media reports of the draft.
Customarily, the draft is sent to Bulgaria, where officials received it last week. Through a succession of governments after EU accession in 2007 brought with it the CVM, the final version of the report has tended – customarily too – to be gentler than the draft.
The January 2016 report comes after a year in which Bulgaria’s Justice Minister resigned in frustration over the form of constitutional amendments on judicial reform, in which EU ambassadors repeated calls for genuine reform, in which top judges were at the centre of controversy over recordings and transcripts of their leaked phone calls interpreted as suggesting impropriety in relations between the executive and the judiciary, and in which the Supreme Judicial Council was caught up in controversies too.
A day ahead of the release of the CVM report, which is part of a process meant to bring Bulgaria in line with EU standards in the judiciary and in acting against organised crime and corruption, Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva – who for months has been predicting a critical report – said that the SJC should resign.
Replying to reporters’ questions on January 26, Kouneva – asked if the SJC should resign – said that it was a matter of a personal decision but in their place, she would have stepped down for the sake of her reputation.
Of the SJC, the draft of the report said that the body should develop “a track record of transparent and consistent decision-making with regard to appointment decisions, applying clear standards of merit and integrity, while making such decisions in a timely manner”.
The draft report expresses doubt in the ability of the SJC to carry out its role as guardian of judicial independence and integrity. It points to opaque appointments, inconsistent disciplinary practices, and potential manipulation of the allocation of cases.
The draft also says that many of the recommendations that were made in the January 2015 CVM report remain valid.
It notes the updated strategy on judicial reform adopted in 2015 and the constitutional amendments, describing these as important steps to put reform back on the agenda after a period in which political instability “appeared to be stalling progress” – an apparent reference to the turbulence that attended the how-departed administration of 2013/14.
But the draft also describes as a major challenge for 2016 the translation of these strategies into concrete and tangible progress. It adds that the constitutional amendments, while changed from the initial version, were an important step towards reform of the SJC.
“The slow progress in high-level corruption or organised crime cases and the uncertain reaction and follow-up to specific controversies such as the one surrounding the Sofia City Court in 2014 continues to erode the public confidence in the ability of the Bulgarian authorities to deliver justice,” the draft says. It goes on to recommend that the conditions should be provided for an impartial investigation into the different allegations of high-level corruption, within the Sofia City Court, in particular with regard to possible systemic implications,” including possible comparable practices in other courts”.
The draft says that it is encouraging to see that Bulgarian judges have been speaking out in public in support of reform of the judiciary – an apparent reference to statements by Supreme Court of Cassation President Lozan Panov in 2015.
“Bulgaria still needs to establish a solid track record on securing final conviction in court in relation to serious organised crime cases,” the draft says.
The draft reportedly also calls for an independent investigation of the prosecution, in line with the judicial reform strategy, but media reports said that Bulgaria was asking that this note be removed from the final version of the report.
The draft underlines the need for a profound reform of the prosecution, pointing to the lack of results in tackling corruption in the high echelons of power and in the fight against organised crime.
The lack of effective investigations is another emphasis in the draft document.
Citing the findings of the European Court of Human Rights, the draft notes that in more than 45 judgments against Bulgaria, the court found that the authorities had failed to conduct an effective investigation and believes that these recurring problems indicate a systemic problem. This is more a problem for law enforcement, but “it is obvious that there are still problems in the prosecution and the judiciary,” the report says.
(Image: Sergio Roberto Bichara/sxc.hu)