US State Department: Bulgarian government actions against human rights abusers ‘insufficient’

Human rights issues in Bulgaria included physical mistreatment of detainees and convicts by officials; harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities; corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability in the judicial system; mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers; corruption in all branches of government; and violence against ethnic minorities.

This is according to the US State Department’s country reports on human rights practices for 2018, released on March 13.

“Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.”

Conditions in most prisons were harsh, with problems including violence against inmates by prison staff; overcrowding; prison staff corruption; and inadequate sanitary, living, and medical facilities.

In the report published on May 4 following its visit in 2017, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) noted that interprisoner violence remained a serious problem. The CPT claimed there was a “slight improvement” regarding the severity of alleged mistreatment of persons in police custody, but the number of allegations of physical abuse remained high in police detention centers, migrant detention facilities, and psychiatric establishments.

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for the media, gravely damaged media pluralism.

The International Research and Exchanges Board’s (IREX) 2018 Media Sustainability Index identified “steadily escalating political pressure on the media” as well as daily “harassment and pressure against journalists and media owners.” IREX noted the existence of a deep division of “warring camps” in the media, resulting in smear campaigns and increasing “aggressive propaganda.” Reports of intimidation and violence against journalists continued.

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials in all branches of government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corrupt practices included bribery, conflict of interest, elaborate embezzlement schemes, procurement violations, and influence trading.

In January, Bulgaria’s National Assembly passed a law on combating corruption and forfeiture of illicit assets. The law established an anticorruption and asset forfeiture commission authorized to collect and check asset declarations, identify conflicts of interest, and pursue asset forfeiture.

In its November report, the European Commission commended the new legislation as “the most significant single step” in the country’s anticorruption reform, noting authorities would “need to show concrete results and build a track record of…final decisions in high-level corruption cases.” According to the Institute for Market Economics, the new law focuses on creating administration rather than introducing new anticorruption tools. NGOs criticized the legislators for providing an administrative body with wiretapping authority.

The 2011 census indicated that 1130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number as 5000.

Antisemitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews “Shalom” indicated that during the year there were no violent acts of antisemitism, but that there was a wave of antisemitic sentiments, enabled by the presence of “far-right and ultranationalist” political parties, the US State Department said.

One of those wrote, “Those dirty Jews who…for 600 years have been trying to destroy us. In the end they might succeed.” Shalom reported that children of Jewish origin faced antisemitism in school. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country.

In February a rally took place in Sofia in honor of Hristo Lukov, leader in the 1940s of an antisemitic and pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The government, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally, the State Department said.

Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova had banned the march in 2017, but the Sofia Administrative Court overturned the ban.

Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry condemned the event in declarations issued before and after the event, calling it a “shameful act” and a “demonstration of xenophobia, discrimination, and hatred.”

Shalom, the online human rights platform Marginalia, and the Sofia Municipality cohosted a conference titled “Sofia Says No to Hate Speech and Extremism” a few days before the rally, gathering government representatives, NGOs, academics, students, and diplomats to discuss rising nationalism, intolerance, and antisemitism, to make a clear statement against extremism, and to explore possible avenues for engaging the public in the spirit of tolerance.

On November 29, the country became the 32nd full member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

In May, Shalom described an exhibition portraying the pro-Nazi government of King Boris III and Bogdan Filov as rescuing Jews during the Holocaust as “provocation” and “distortion of history.” Speaking to a television reporter at the opening of the exhibition, then deputy prime minister Valeri Simeonov blamed the rescued Jews for subsequently executing their rescuers after becoming part of the communist government.

As of November authorities had not identified the perpetrators who in September 2017 knocked down gravestones and broke grave slabs at the Jewish Cemetery in Sofia.

In October the Jewish organizations Shalom and B’nai B’rith protested the Ministry of Defence’s initiative to award a medal to Dyanko Markov, a member of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions that supported the deportation of Jews during the Second World War.

In December the Sofia City Court exonerated Marginalia journalist Yuliana Metodieva in a libel lawsuit filed by Markov for describing Markov in an article as a “prominent anti-Semite.”

On September 11, national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism Georg Georgiev, Sofia mayor Fandukova, and Shalom president Alexander Oscar signed a Manifesto for Tolerance and launched an initiative promoting Sofia as a city of tolerance and wisdom. The first event under the initiative took place on September 16, when volunteers cleaned facades of hate graffiti.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions, the State Department said.

Bulgaria’s government focused most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. According to the ombudsman, the laws and regulations on persons with disabilities were outdated, lacked a patient-centred approach, and needed comprehensive reform.

In December, the National Assembly passed the Persons with Disabilities Act and Personal Assistance Act, which are intended to reform the social support system and provide adequate funding for persons with disabilities. The new legislation was conceived after a six-month, tent-camp protest by mothers of children with disabilities demanding changes in disability assessments, personal assistance, and financial aid. The laws provide for individual evaluation and increased budget for personal assistants. They make local governments responsible for providing personal assistance services and the central government for disbursing and monitoring the funding for such services.

In October the protesters demanded the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who had accused the “shrill mothers” of pursuing an ulterior political agenda and suggested that they stay home if their children were “truly sick.” Simeonov resigned in November.

In September a group of NGOs and activists issued a declaration alleging that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities had reported “downright lies and half-truths” at the 20th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and called on its chairman to report back to the committee with correct information. According to the NGOs, and contrary to the report, there was no deinstitutionalization, children and young persons were not integrated in the education system, the system did not provide for personal assistants, and public areas and transportation were not accessible.

While the law requires improved access to public and transportation infrastructure for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects and existing buildings.

Beginning in December 2017, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination conducted a nationwide inspection campaign of public buildings, utility providers, telecom operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities received certificates; the rest were fined from 2000 leva to 20 000 leva.

The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of the employers’ insurance costs, in addition to the full costs of adjusting and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. On August 15, the government launched a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire persons with more than 75 per cent disability. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee concluded, however, that the government did not provide real opportunities for professional training or employment.

Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions under harsh conditions in remote areas. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. Less than one per cent of all persons with disabilities had access to medical, social, and psychological support in day centres around the country.

The Ministry of Education transformed most of the 55 “special schools” for students with special education needs into education support centres, leaving only five special schools with approximately 700 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining approximately 18 200 students with special education needs, attended mainstream schools. Those studying in the special schools received diplomas that higher-level learning establishments did not recognize as qualifying them for further education.

The law provides specific measures for persons with disabilities to have access to the polls, including mobile ballot boxes, voting in a polling station of their choice, and assisted voting. According to ODIHR, those measures were “not sufficient to ensure equal participation, especially for persons with visual impairments who cannot vote independently.”

Human rights organizations reported a persistent level of racial discrimination against Roma. The media often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language, highlighting instances in which Romani persons had committed a crime.

Nationalist parties, such as Ataka, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria, routinely resorted to strong anti-Romani, anti-Turkish, and antisemitic slogans and rhetoric.

According to an Open Society Institute study released in June, Roma were the target in 81 per cent of incidents of hate speech.

In October 2017 the Bourgas Regional Court convicted Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov for abusive and degrading statements against Roma he made in 2014 while he was a National Assembly member, ordering him to cease his breach-of-law behavior and refrain from similar infractions in the future.

NGOs accused the government of being unwilling to address anti-Romani attitudes and hate speech and criticized the appointment of Simeonov as deputy prime minister in charge of ethnic integration.

There were few prosecutions for hate crimes, and sentences were often short or suspended for those convicted. As of July prosecutors had opened 17 hate-crime investigations during the year and pursued one indictment against one person; the courts issued three convictions, including two prison sentences.

On May 12, a Rom, Mitko Boyanov, died in a hospital in Shoumen from stab wounds. Boyanov and his older brother had argued with Veliko Lefterov, who had demanded that they stop speaking in Romani. In the ensuing scuffle, Lefterov stabbed Boyanov. As of November, Lefterov was in custody awaiting indictment.

According to the Standing Roma Conference, local authorities disproportionately targeted illegal Romani dwellings for demolition. NGOs frequently petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to order the government to freeze the razing of homes in Romani neighborhoods until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons. The government did not respond.

The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multi-ethnic schools and kindergartens but allows segregation of entire schools. Of Romani children, 30 per cent (up from 16 per cent five years earlier) were enrolled in segregated schools outside mainstream education, according to the European Roma Rights Center.

Romani children often attended de facto segregated schools where they received inferior education. There were instances of ethnic Bulgarian students withdrawing from desegregated schools, thereby effectively re-segregating them. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students. In June a school in Blagoevgrad announced that it would not enroll Romani students in first grade and ended with no first-grade students. The school director explained that the school had become segregated and she wanted to reverse that trend to comply with the legal prohibition.

According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards.

NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes.

On September 29, football hooligans beat black British citizen Leon Koffi severely in the immediate vicinity of the Ministry of Interior. Koffi sustained serious injuries and required treatment in the hospital for two weeks. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the circumstances of the case indicated it was racially motivated. As of November the case was under investigation.

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition.

No laws protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. NGOs asserted that authorities often refused to investigate and prosecute homophobia and transphobia because they are not recognized by law as crimes.

According to the June Open Society Institute study, the number of hate speech incidents directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons doubled compared with 2016 (from 21 to 42 per cent).

In February a survey of LGBTI persons conducted by the GLAS Foundation revealed that 73 per cent of respondents had received threats due to their sexual orientation, with 60 per cent of the threats occurring in schools. Fifteen per cent were victims of assault, but none reported the incident to police due to fear of police harassment and lack of trust that the report would be properly investigated.

While reports of violence against LGBTI persons were rare, societal prejudice and discrimination, particularly in employment, remained a problem. According to the youth LGBTI organization Deystvie, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners to protection against domestic violence. On June 29, the Sofia Administrative Court ruled in favor of the right of residence in the country of a partner in a same-sex couple who was not an EU citizen.

As of October the Migration Directorate, which approves residence permits, was appealing the decision in the Supreme Administrative Court.

NGOs stated persons suspected of being gay were often fired from their jobs, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as LGBTI.

Many health professionals considered LGBTI status a disease, and the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in refusal of health services, particularly to transgender persons. NGOs complained that most parties in the national assembly, government ministers, and municipal authorities were reluctant to engage in a dialogue on the challenges facing LGBTI individuals and related policy issues.

In May the organizers of a Gender Bender Drag Show in Plovdiv were forced to cancel the event due to more than 150 threats received by the venue owners.

In September a gay couple was assaulted in downtown Varna by four men who had taunted and bullied the couple on their way to a restaurant, the report said.



The Sofia Globe staff

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