Controversial Illegal Assets Forfeiture
Act may turn out to be either a blessing or a curse
Issue 68, May 2012
by Anthony Georgieff
A phalanx of EU ambassadors, including those of the UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands and current EU president Denmark, lining up in a concerted show of support for a piece of domestic Bulgarian legislation and the political party (GERB) that introduced it? The American ambassador sending strongly-worded press releases to assert his unequivocal support for a Bulgarian law? Just stopping short of saying "... or else!"
I rarely write in the first person singular, but the events surrounding the adoption of the Illegal Assets Forfeiture Act in early May were so extraordinary, at least from the perspective of the democratic procedures and practices in Europe, that I thought I would speak my own mind ‒ and make a point of it.
The legislation in question is a bill that has been under discussion and compilation by the Justice Ministry and the ruling GERB for at least two years. It provides for the seizure of assets deemed to have been accumulated through criminal activities, without first securing a conviction in court. Under the new act, it will be up to the alleged criminals to prove the origin of their assets. To put it in another way, the individuals under investigation will have to prove they are innocent, not vice versa.
The so-called Venetian Commission, a Council of Europe consultative body on constitutional and legal affairs, has reportedly indicated that, if adopted, it would make Bulgaria the testing ground for similar laws to be enacted later in countries such as Serbia and Ukraine that have high corruption and crime levels but hope to accede to the EU.
Critics say that the new act may (and some say it will) be used for political and economic repression of opponents to GERB and its leader. They add that it will be extremely dangerous to leave it up to GERB and the prime minister to implement it, bearing in mind their handling of similar issues such as organised crime, election fraud and so on and so forth. One of the main points that critics feel particularly strongly about is the "presumption of guilt," a return to Communist-era practices that has nothing to do with legislation anywhere in the developed world.
Similar laws exist and are implemented in many EU countries and in the United States, but can it work in the highly corrupt environment of Bulgaria?
I think it can.
To justify my assumption, I need to bring up some historical background.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers