Human Rights Developments
Despite some progress, the human rights situation did not substantially improve in Bulgaria in 1999. Democratic institutions remained stable. Ninety-six parties registered to participate in the October local elections. The most significant legislative change occurred on December 10, 1998, when the Bulgarian parliament officially abolished the death penalty and replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment. Overall, however, the government's actions turned out to be largely inconsistent with its stated commitment to human rights.
Legislative changes, international commitments, and national programs on human rights issues appeared to indicate positive prospects for reform; however, the government failed to actualize many of these initiatives. Despite the government's commitments to adopt international arms trade controls, no such legislation had been introduced by October and arms sales to abusive armed forces continued. On February 18, 1999, the parliament ratified the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, but the governmenthas not passed laws to implement the convention. In April, the government approved a national program for Roma, which addresses race discrimination, police brutality, education, and public participation of Roma, but the government has not implemented any laws to put this program into action. In May, the parliament passed a new refugee law, which defines refugees and creates an Agency for Refugees. Yet, in April, the government had stopped accepting Kosovar Albanians as refugees, granting them transit visas instead. Bulgaria also continued to experience serious problems with freedom of religion and expression, including police abuse and attacks against ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and journalists.
Police brutality and violent attacks by private citizens against Roma continued at an alarming rate. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) reported cases of three Roma who were shot dead by police under reportedly suspicious circumstances: Nikolay Filipov on May 13, shot after police chased him for a suspected car robbery; Gancho Vuchkov on June 6, shot after police chased him for a suspected car robbery; and Oleg Georgiev on July 13, shot during an attempted border-crossing. The Human Rights Project (HRP) also documented many cases of police abuse, such as that of Kiril Nikolov Spasov, a Rom from Russe. Two policemen beat Spasov and forced him to give false testimony in January 1999. Romany were also the victims of severe and often fatal attacks by private citizens. Blago Atanassov, a Rom from Ghelemenko, was beaten by unidentified assailants on January 16, 1999, and died later that night from his wounds. Although the district prosecutor in Pazardjik started an investigation into this incident, it had not been completed as of this writing. On June 15, Nadezhda Dimitrova, a Roma beggar, was beaten to death in the center of Sofia by four school boys, ages fifteen to sixteen, as they shouted insults. Following the incident, the minors were arrested, and an investigation is currently underway.
The Bulgarian government's stance toward some religious minorities appeared to improve. However, activities of unregistered religious movements, such as the Unification Church, remain illegal, and local authorities continue to harass them. In October 1998, Bulgaria's Council of Ministers officially recognized the Jehovah's Witnesses. That month, the parliament also passed the Substitution of Military Obligations by Alternative Service Act, which, despite some problems, signals a step forward for conscientious objectors. However, these changes did not prevent two local Jehovah's Witnesses activists from being fined by a Plovdiv court for "illegitimate religious activity," as a result of organizing a prayer meeting. Another Jehovah's Witness, Krassimir Savov from Plovdiv, was imprisoned in December 1998 for refusing military service, despite the new alternative service act. After serving half of his one-year sentence, Savov was pardoned by President Stoyanov and released.
Violations of freedom of expression continued to be rampant in 1999, including police abuse, attacks by unidentified assailants, and criminal prosecution of journalists. On June 28, 1999, Aleksei Lazarov, a media writer for Kapital , suffered multiple knife wounds and a broken leg after being violently attacked by unidentified assailants. The Bulgarian National Combat Service Against Organized Crime launched an investigation into the attack, but there had been no progress as of this writing. No one has been held responsible for the violent May 1998 acid attack on Anna Zarkova, well-known for her work on corruption. Repeated reports of police abuse of journalists, such as the police destruction of Darin Kirkov's film which he took of municipal workers in Varna pulling down illegal buildings, prompted Interior Minister Bonev's July 1999 order banning police violence against journalists.
In addition to attacks, the notorious libel laws continued to cripple free expression. In January 1999, Public Prosecutor Tatarchev launched a criminal investigation of Tatiana Vaksberg, a freelancer for Radio Free Europe's Sofia Bureau, who wrote a critical commentary of Tatarchev. The government proposed amendments to the libel laws, including the removal of prison sentences for libel offenses, which were still pending before parliament as of September.
Defending Human Rights
Local nongovernmental organizations remained very active in 1999. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the Human Rights Project (HRP), Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights, and the Tolerance Foundation, among others, continued to report on human rights abuses and initiate programs to address those abuses. As a result of a debate about the program "For Equal Participation of Roma in the Public Life of Bulgaria" initiated by the HRP in early 1998, the Bulgarian government agreed to a national program for Roma in April 1999, although, as of September, there has been little progress in its implementation.
The Role of the International Community
In May 1999, the U.N. Committee against Torture cited several positive developments in Bulgaria, including the ratification of the European Convention on the Prevention of Torture, the abolition of the death penalty, and reform in domestic human rights law. However, the committee expressed concern about reports of continued ill-treatment of minorities and the lack of a clear definition of or prohibition against torture in the law.
In light of its assistance during the Kosovo crisis, Bulgaria's chances for E.U. membership have greatly improved. Several nations have expressed support for Bulgaria's accession to the E.U., including the U.S., Greece, Turkey, Italy, the U.K., Spain, and Germany. At its December summit, the E.U. will invite Bulgaria to begin accession talks.
Council of Europe
In April 1999, a delegation of the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited police establishments, investigation detention facilities, prisons, and psychiatric establishments. In September 1999, the working group on Romany problems made specific recommendations to Bulgaria for the implementation of the Roma national program the government approved in April. The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment in the case of Nikolova v. Bulgaria on March 25, 1999, ruling that Nikolova had been denied her right to be brought before a judicial officer and that the eventual judicial review of her detention had been inadequate. On May 18, the ECHR declared admissible the application of A.V. v. Bulgaria , a case about a Rom man killed while in police custody in Pleven.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
In 1999, the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media was active in Bulgaria, consulting on a draft media law and intervening in the case of Tatiana Vaksberg, a journalist who became the subject of a criminal investigation after criticizing Public Prosecutor Tatarchev in a story.
In a June 1999 visit to Bulgaria, Secretary of State Albright praised the country for its support during the Kosovo crisis and promised support for Bulgaria's reforms. Vice President Gore, in a July 27 letter to Prime Minister Kostov, praised Bulgaria for its economic and political reforms in the past two years and stated that Bulgaria can serve as a model for the region. Bulgaria also won praise and appreciation from members of Congress who sponsored a resolution supporting Bulgaria's desire to join the E.U. and NATO. At the same time, the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 , released February 1999, criticized Bulgaria for corruption, police brutality, and violence and discrimination against minorities. The U.S., in its 1999 Annual International Religious Freedom Report , also criticized Bulgaria for the harassment of unregistered religious groups by local authorities.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:
Bulgaria: Money Talks: Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers, 4/99