Do you know there is currently a hunger strike at the Sofia prison – the largest detention facility in Bulgaria? Do you know why?
Let’s take a step back.
In December 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture published its observations on the sixth periodic report on Bulgaria (CAT/C/BGR/CO/6). This highly disturbing document neither received extensive media coverage in Bulgaria nor stirred the social and political debate it should have. Indeed, if one takes the time to read the UN report, one may wonder how these persistent abuses, which blatantly violate international and European legal instruments and rules, take place in a member state of the European Union (EU). While Bulgaria is not the only EU country that faces such challenges, it stands out because of the scale and severity of the problem as well as the unwillingness of a long line of governments to take action beyond empty promises – as explained below, reputable international organizations, including the Council of Europe, argue that Bulgaria has not made any progress in the last 20 years.
Ironically, Bulgaria assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU this January. In that light, the President of the European Commission Juncker argued that Bulgaria has the capacity to lead the EU in the area of rule of law (See Figure 1 below). I have already written an article entitled ‘The Rise of Modern European Dictatorships and EU’s Dual Standards on Human Rights’ which not only amply shows that Juncker is a wishful thinker, but also demonstrates Bulgaria’s persistent violations of EU law. Here, I consider what ‘example’ Bulgaria can give in the area of prison law. On the one hand, it has been stressed that even though ‘prison conditions are mainly a responsibility of [member states], the [EU] also has reasons to deal with them…in order to promote mutual trust, judicial cooperation, and the proper functioning of mutual recognition tools in the criminal law area.’ On the other hand, even more importantly, it has been asserted that in simple terms the rule of law means that a country should be governed by law rather than arbitrary actions, and prison conditions are one of the most precise litmus tests in that regard.
The conclusions, I am afraid, are negative and call for immediate action.
Systemic and brutal human rights violations in custodial and detention facilities
The latest UN report presents a rather grim picture of Bulgarian prison reality. Areas of concern include lack of fundamental legal safeguards, excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, discrimination, etc. The report states, for instance, that ‘70 per cent of detained persons do not have access to a lawyer from the very outset of criminal proceedings.’ Detainees are discouraged from having a lawyer through manipulations and the use of force. In fact, ‘one out of every three persons detained in police stations is subjected to physical abuse…which may be of such severity as to amount to torture.’ These injuries, however, are not reported in the detainees’ medical records. Furthermore, the UN report raises concern that the few police officers ‘who are found guilty of torture or ill-treatment of detained persons are punished with lenient penalties, such as fines…’
In fact, to this day, Bulgarian criminal law has not recognized torture as a separate crime. Moreover, the UN report raises concern that there is no legislation ‘explicitly prohibiting the admissibility of evidence obtained as a result of torture and ill-treatment…’ In that light, while the report does not discuss the issue, it is important to mention that Bulgaria, for instance, is the only country in the EU in which accusations by the prosecution are not subjected to judicial oversight. Moreover, Bulgaria’s Prosecution which currently benefits from 6% public confidence is known for the Soviet-style methods it uses. In other words, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office can fabricate charges and issue an arrest warrant, so that the accused person is placed in custody, abused, or even tortured to ‘confess’, provide false statements, etc. It is worth mentioning that Bulgarian independent media have shed light on a number of cases of unacceptable abuse. For example, in 2013 a young woman ‘mysteriously’ committed suicide by suffocating herself while detained in custody — arguably, she was killed for political reasons, but the evidence was covered up. In 2014, a Bulgarian attorney raised concern that his client was pressured to provide false witness statements in custody by threats and manipulations.
The UN report also emphasizes that Bulgarian detention facilities clearly do not meet international standards – overcrowding, deplorable hygiene, lack of access to toilets seem to be the norm. In this light, it should be asserted that in 2015 the European Court of Human Rights rendered a pilot judgment against Bulgaria on prison conditions (Neshkov v Bulgaria): in other words, it also identified a systemic problem. To provide further context about the unhealthy environment and abuses in Bulgaria, the 2017 Annual Report of the European Court of Human Rights indicates that Bulgaria lost 39 cases in 2017 which puts it among the top 5 countries-violators of human rights which are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. By contrast, Hungary and Poland, which are currently under the global spotlight for disrespecting the rule of law, lost respectively 24 and 20 cases. Many of the cases Bulgaria lost involve inhuman and degrading treatment. A striking case (S.F. and Others v. Bulgaria) involves a refugee family that was arrested because they crossed the border illegally — not only they were kept in conditions which do not meet any international standards, but their 1-year old child was left without food for 19 hours.
Sadly, Bulgaria does not learn anything from these judgements. In that regard, if you have cultivated equanimity, you can visit the Facebook page of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association where (on occasion) victims of abuse publish evidence in an attempt to raise awareness of the violence and deprivations they have been subjected to.
Finally, the UN report raises concern about corruption – detainees often have to bribe prison officers for services that should be provided by law.
This ultimately takes us to the current hunger strikes in the Sofia prison. Detainees complain against the rampant corruption and physical abuses at the facility. Inexplicably, its current director was already dismissed for major violations and corruption in 2014, but reinstated in office after his successor was also dismissed for violations.
Do you find this acceptable? You do not need to give an answer now. Let’s take a look at another report.
Systemic refusal of Bulgarian governments to address human rights abuses
While Bulgaria is certainly not the only EU member state which faces challenges in the prison sector, the situation in Bulgaria stands out for two main reasons: 1) the complete abdication of Bulgarian governments which only make empty promises before international institutions to simulate commitment to solving the problems 2) the scale of the problem. As repeatedly emphasized by NGOs such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee: ‘[the] Bulgarian prison system has not been a focus of attention for any of the governments in the last few decades.’
To add some context, the UN report discussed above is by far not the first ‘Red Flag’ Bulgaria has received. In 2015, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) issued a public statement in light of its periodic visit to more than 20 establishments. It should be noted that such public statements are rare – they are released only when a state refuses to comply with recommendations the CPT has made in the past. Key issues of concern the CPT raised were the deliberate physical ill-treatment of prisoners and people detained by the police, the endemic corruption, the deteriorating material conditions, etc. The CPT explicitly stated:
‘In its previous reports, the Committee has taken due note of the repeated assurances given by the Bulgarian authorities that action would be taken to improve the situation of persons placed in the custody of the police, or held in establishments under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. However, the findings of the 2015 visit demonstrate again that little or nothing has been done as regards all the above-mentioned long-standing problems. This state of affairs highlights a persistent failure by the Bulgarian authorities to address most of the fundamental shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of detention of persons deprived of their liberty, despite the specific recommendations repeatedly made by the Committee. The CPT is of the view that action in this respect is long overdue and that the approach to the whole issue of deprivation of liberty in Bulgaria should radically change.’
If one reads between the lines, it is clear that Bulgaria has not made any progress since 1995 when the CPT first visited. It is also visible that Bulgaria made many empty promises it never (most probably) intended to fulfill. While a new report is expected in the coming months, there is not much hope that any major improvements have been made in the meantime.
The need for radical change
Certainly, prison conditions are a ‘hot topic’ in many EU countries – the UK audience may immediately bring up the recent disturbing report about the state of the Liverpool prison. Yet, the Bulgarian case is peculiar for a number of reasons. As stated above, the gravity and the scale of the problem as well as the unwillingness of a series of governments to address it in any way apart from empty words is shocking. Moreover, to give you a sense of the absurdity, in Liverpool the problem was identified and documented by national institutions and the UK Parliament immediately held an evidence session. By contrast, the UN report on Bulgaria explicitly states that regular checks by Bulgarian authorities ‘surprisingly’ did not identify any deviations. Furthermore, the Bulgarian government did not even bother to publicly address the major violations referred to in the UN report.
Hence, this is further evidence that it is outrageous that the Bulgarian government presides the Council of the EU at the moment with an agenda, which includes the rule of law. Bulgaria is bound by EU law, the European Convention on Human Rights as well as numerous other international conventions and rules. Yet, it permits itself to disrespect all of them. There are plenty of violations in many other areas but the prison sector is particularly revealing for, to quote Nelson Mandela, ‘[it] is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’
In a true democracy, those responsible for such failures would resign. In Bulgaria, they arrogantly claim that criticism based on evidence is fake news.
It is high time for Bulgaria to comply with all legal obligations it has undertaken under international legal instruments as well as its own laws. Human rights are inalienable, nobody is above the law in states abiding by the rule of law, and only a legitimate court can have a say on punishment.
If you are disturbed by what you have just read, please share on social media and raise awareness among your friends and acquaintances. Think of your own ways of promoting solidarity with victims of abuse.
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 To give a brief idea: the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the UN Nelson Mandela Rules, the UN Bangkok Rules, etc. While the Committee Against Torture examines the implementation of UN standards and rules, many of the violations it refers to also amount to breaches of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Prison Rules, etc.
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