Will the Strasbourg Court be able to curb Bulgarian police brutality?
Dozens of people suffer tear gas inhalation. Three individuals need treatment for rashes and pain in their eyes. Another person sustains a serious head wound. Who are the attackers? Take a sharp intake of breath. The law enforcement authorities.
If you think the victims were rioting football fans or vicious neo-Nazi thugs then you are wrong. The men in question, striking miners from the Maritsa-Iztok mines in southern Bulgaria, were merely blocking the road between Svilengrad and Ruse in protest against low pay. Then the big boys moved in.
Unfortunately, heavy-handed policing is not unusual in Bulgaria. Perhaps that's why Interior Minister Rumen Petkov seemed unfazed by the aforementioned 4 July incident. “When my officers implement orders, I support them,” he commented tersely. Petkov justified the actions by saying that miners had flouted an order from the local mayor regarding the location of the strike.
Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a prominent lawyer who campaigns against human rights violations, cites a recurring pattern of police violence. “When he assumed office, Petkov said the police would act on the edge of the law. Instead of being condemned as a political mistake, this statement is becoming truer all the time.”
Ekimdzhiev says Bulgarian officers act violently when they believe themselves immune from sanction. This would seem to be quite often judging by reports from Strasbourg's European Court of Human Rights and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). The BHC, which has monitored state-sponsored cruelty over recent years, concludes that too many violent officers go unpunished – “especially when the victims belong to the Roma minority”.
According to reports from the Sofia Military Court of Appeal, circulated to the media this year, 55 policemen were tried over the last two years for inflicting injuries. Of these, 34 received sentences. But courts are still failing to sentence enough wayward officers. More and more victims, who fail to gain redress in Bulgaria, are taking their grievances to the Strasbourg Court instead. Many of the 112 verdicts delivered on Bulgaria by Strasbourg since 1998 concern police brutality. Judges have regularly condemned the state for its inadequate inquiries into violence, concluding that many “investigations” are merely cover-ups rather than serious efforts to punish culprits.
An early case, from 1998, concerned two Roma men murdered by military police. Relatives of the deceased complained about the investigation, alleging not only that it was bungled but that the killings were motivated by race hatred. The Strasbourg Court upheld all the charges, making this the first instance of Bulgaria being found guilty of breaching Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This states the following: “The enjoyment of rights and freedoms laid out in (the Convention) shall be secured without discrimination on grounds of sex, race, colour, language, religion, political opinions, national or social origin, and association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.” The state was ordered to pay 58,000 euros in compensation and costs.
Strasbourg also ruled that an investigation into the death of a man in custody in September 1994 had been incompetent. In processes such as Asenov against the state, Angelova against the state or the most recent one, Vasilev against the state, Bulgaria was also found guilty of violating Article Three of the Convention: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
To serve and protect? President Georgi Parvanov (second from left), Interior Minister Rumen Petkov (middle) and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (right) at the Interior Minisrty Day Parade in July
Ekimdzhiev, commenting on the website of his organisation Eurorights, blames the Interior Ministry for the present situation. “It fails to state sufficiently clearly the terms and conditions of firearms use. The law allows for the use of a gun against an unarmed person, even if he does not resist and does not threaten anyone. In the case, known as ‘Nachova Against the State', army policemen shot the two Roma men only because they had fled from military service and tried to elude a patrol.”
The BHC's findings seem to support Ekimdzhiev. “Many instances of lethal gun use by police in recent years were ineffectively investigated and concluded that the weapons were used legally… In at least one instance a man died under dubious circumstances after ending up in police custody.”
The organisation monitors many cases. But a brief examination of just a few reveals an alarmingly dark side to Bulgarian law enforcers.
1. In March 2004 a policeman shot a Roma man in the head. The case remains unresolved. Plovdiv's Military Prosecutor's Office tried to halt the investigation on the grounds that the weapon in question was used legally. However, the courts repeatedly pressed for further investigations.
2. In September 2004 another Roma man was shot by a policeman. The Sofia Military Prosecutor's Office stopped the investigation. But last year judges stated that “the inquiry remains incomplete and superficial, and the conclusions of the investigators are groundless, controversial and dubious… It is clear that the Sofia Military Prosecutor's Office wants to terminate the process without making serious efforts to establish the truth”. This angry court resolution notwithstanding, no indictment was filed in court until the end of last year.
3. In April 2005 a policeman beat a man to death in Varna while two of his colleagues stood by. Two officers were subsequently dismissed. Another was charged with murder and given a 16-year jail term. However, he appealed against his sentence and the court has delayed confirming the verdict.
4. In June 2006, during routine security checks, policemen from a special unit raided a Varna nightclub. According to several victims, the “barrettes” – as this special division is called – beat the clubbers and forced them to bark like dogs. “It was like life under Pinochet,” Nikolay Nikolaev, chairman of the St Konstantin and Elena Tourist Society, recalls. No investigation into this event has been launched.
5. In 2005 – in a particularly gruesome incident – a man died after falling from the third floor of a police station in Kazanlak. Aside from injuries sustained in the fall, medical experts found bruises and injuries on his body. The Human Rights Court in Strasbourg challenged the official explanation that he fell out of the window when trying to escape while handcuffed. The Bulgarian state was found to be in breach of Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights.
6. By far the most infamous example of police brutality is the murder of Angel ‘Chorata' Dimitrov. The 38-year old man was beaten to death in 2005 by law enforcers, conducting an operation ironically entitled “Respect”. Five officers are awaiting trial for this murder. The Bulgarian media alleged that one of them, Miroslav Pisov, wanted to kill Chorata for personal reasons. Rumen Petkov tried to play down the killing but the media prevented him. It was the republic's ombudsman, forging an independent inquiry, who blamed the police for his murder. The case is still in court, scheduled for a hearing in September.
After these examples, indicating a persistent pattern of violence, will the Strasbourg Court succeed in changing police practices? In particular, will it restrain the primitive instincts of its more aggressive officers?
The Sofia District Military Prosecutor's Office absolved the five policemem accused of murdering Angel 'Chorata' Dimitrov while in custody, in 2005
Snezhana Botusharova, a judge for nine years, says the decisions of the European Human Rights Court do succeed in modifying local legislation. She says that following the verdicts on Asenov's case, the Penal Code was amended so that only a judge can decide to place a suspect in custody.
But not everyone agrees that the court's censure of the state affects the national judiciary. “Our research shows that when it comes to police brutality, practices are actually regressing,” says Yuliana Metodieva from the BHC. Her organisation's annual report states that “in 2006 human rights in Bulgaria improved in some fields… but in many others, such as the rights of ethnic minorities and their protection from discrimination, it has deteriorated”.
Apart from political indifference to the problem, the Strasbourg Court's decisions are mitigated by the fact that victims' compensation is paid from state funds. No one seeks payments from the aggressors themselves. “The Bulgarian state's reaction usually follows events. The government opts for the easiest get-out clause,” Ekimdzhiev says. “It pays compensation with taxpayers' money but fails to analyse the judicial problems, which brought the verdicts in the first place, or acts adequately to solve them.”
He says Bulgarian law does not impose any disciplinary measure or any financial liability on those officers and civil servants whose actions led to the state being sued. “None of the prosecutors who botched the investigations into the Asenov and Angelova incidents and others were ever held accountable for the verdicts,” says Ekimdzhiev.
When it comes to police brutality, this is one area where greater EU harmonisation would be welcomed by all. If Bulgaria wants to be truly accepted as a fair and modern democracy, it must learn that no one is above the law, particularly the police themselves.