Inadequate legal response to homophobic murder: Bulgarian law must change, European court says

The European Court of Human Rights, in a judgment on June 14, found against Bulgaria in the case of an applicant whose son was the victim of a homophobic murder in Sofia in September 2008.

Three young men beat and choked the applicant’s son, Mihail Stoyanov, to death in the Borissova Gradina park in Sofia.

The attackers were part of a group of secondary-school students who loitered in the park, singling out for assault people whom they perceived as homosexuals.

The European court found in particular that, although the Bulgarian courts had clearly established that the reason behind the attack had been the perpetrators’ hatred for homosexuals, there had been no tangible legal consequences.

This was because the Bulgarian Criminal Code did not provide for homophobia as a specific aggravating factor in respect of the crime of murder.

The court found that Bulgaria had to ensure that violent attacks motivated by hostility towards the victim’s actual or presumed sexual orientation were treated as aggravated in criminal-law terms.

All three attackers were arrested in June 2010. They were identified because one of them had been using the victim’s phone for a few months after the murder.

Two of the attackers were tried in 2013-15 (the other remained a witness) and found guilty of aggravated murder, for having killed their victim in a particularly painful way.

The Bulgarian courts refused to characterise the reason for the murder as hooliganism, which would have been a further statutory aggravating factor, finding that homophobic and hooligan motives differed.

In fixing the sentences the first- and second-instance courts found that the homophobic motive behind the attack was as an individual aggravating factor, balancing this against other mitigating factors.

Ultimately, in June 2018 the Supreme Court of Cassation, upholding the attackers’ convictions, sentenced them to 10 years’ and four years and six months’ imprisonment, respectively. These sentences were below the statutory minimum.

In fixing the sentences, the Bulgarian court took into account various mitigating factors, including the attackers’ clean criminal records, their young age and the excessive length of the proceedings against them.

In November 2018, Stoyanov’s mother, Hristina Stoyanova, lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights.

Stoyanova alleged that the Bulgarian authorities’ legal response to the homophobic motive underlying the murder of her son had been inadequate – in particular, because of the lack of statutory provisions making such a motive an aggravating factor for the crime of murder.

The non-governmental organisations Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Deystvie were granted leave to intervene in the proceedings as third parties.

In the June 14 Chamber judgment, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken together with Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court held that Bulgaria was to pay the applicant 7000 euro in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 3 183.90 euro in respect of costs and expenses.

News of the European court judgement comes just four days before Bulgaria’s capital city is to be the scene of the 15th Sofia Pride, a campaigning protest for equal rights for LGBTQI+ people in Bulgaria.

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