Wed, Jun 19 2013
Volen Siderov, an MP and leader of the ultra-nationalist Ataka party, was sentenced to keep from inciting discrimination by the Sofia regional court on July 21. Siderov must defer from making inflammatory statements and should refrain from similar actions in the future, judges ordered. If, however, Siderov continues to make such statements, he will face a fine of up to 200 leva.
The case against Siderov was filed by Yulyana Metodieva from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) under the Protection Against Discrimination Act. It is the first-ever case won against Siderov since his party won 10 per cent in the parliamentary elections in June 2005. Though eight cases have been filed against Siderov under the same act, this is the first one to bring about a sentence.
In January, the BHC organised a coalition of 68 public organisations and 18 respected public figures and filed a civil law case against Siderov. The case was divided into eight separate proceedings by the court as different reasons for discrimination were given. In its July 21 verdict, the court rejected Metodieva's claim for public apology as unjustified. In its reasoning the court pointed out that Siderov had exceeded all norms in exercising the right to freedom of speech in his statements, thus violating the right of freedom from discrimination. The sentence can be appealed within 14 days.
The Sofia Echo spoke to Metodieva in her office at the BHC.
"I am extremely happy with the court's ruling because this sentence will influence the other seven cases that we had filed against Siderov. It is obvious that the court has done its job well in this case following the Protection Against Discrimination Act, which is a relatively new law," Metodieva said. However, she was not pleased with the fact that the court had denied her motion about Siderov making an official apology for his "language of hate".
"This is a common practise in the all European countries and that is why I am not pleased with court's denial, but I am not going to appeal it," she said.
Metodieva described the court's ruling as balanced. "It is obvious that the young judge Ivan Dochev tried to find some balance and make an advanced effort in order for his decision not to be attacked by Siderov's lawyers."
Explaining why the BHC decided to fight Siderov in court, Metodieva said: "Our way to fight Siderov's language of hate is through the court by filing civil claims, because we just want the law to be applied. Siderov is an MP and the only thing that he is supposed to do in his capacity is to make laws, not talk against minorities".
Metodieva is pleased that the BHC `s efforts in this direction were welcomed and supported by most of the media in Bulgaria. "When we filed our complaints, we were in the news immediately and I like that the media appreciated our efforts," she said.
At the same time, according to her, Siderov and his lawyers had underestimated the claims because "it is about moral, not financial, damages". While the fine of 200 leva that Siderov might face in the future is not a big threat, Metodieva looks at the sentence as an achievement "because this is the first time this measure has been applied in Bulgaria".
If Siderov continues his language of hate, this, according to Metodieva, would cost him his political future, "because this would mean that he has no respect for the law as an MP".
"The court has applied an act that has received the recognition of all European Union institutions as one of our best laws, and if Siderov decides not to follow it, he would just be sent to oblivion as a politician," Metodieva said.
Another achievement of the complaints is that when the BHC filed the complaint in January, "we all saw that he changed his public speaking into a more moderate manner, even though the Roma subject is still his favourite one".
This was one of the effects the BHC wanted to achieve - Siderov to prevent his own language. The scandal about the incident on Trakia highway, after which Siderov was accused of perjury and lost his MP immunity, contributed to his moderate language.
Metodieva is pleased with court's decision, but she still has her eye on the future. The BHC's research as a non-governmental organisation has showed that Ataka would continue to have six to eight per cent of hardcore supporters, depending on the economic situation in the country.
"What worries us is that after Bulgaria joins the EU in 2007, many people might be disappointed and then the search for the guilty would start and we all know that the first attack would be against minorities," she said.
The BHC had initiated a declaration supported and issued by the European Parliament that was send to Bulgaria's Parliament against the new form of totalitarianism in Bulgaria represented in Volen Siderov's Ataka party, she said. Metodieva is ready to take the risk to be blamed by Ataka supporters for working against their leader.
"We are not worried that the people supporting Ataka would think of us as the bad guys: we are used to that. Something more: we are very happy that the media in Bulgaria supported our efforts and furthermore we received support from international institutions such as the European Parliament."
Speaking of institutions, Metodieva is certain that the Bulgarian Government should have a long-term policy when it comes to minorities, especially because Bulgaria, at the moment, is a host of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. "All of us, NGOs and media should pressure the authorities constantly to make efforts in this area in order for minorities to have their rights protected. I think that in this area we are doing a good job."
As for the debatable term "reverse discrimination" - one of the court's motives not to impose harsher fines on Siderov - Metodieva thinks that most of the people using it do not actually know what it means. "When we talk about reverse discrimination and minorities, we should apply the international legislation and conventions and nothing else."
Bulgaria ratified a minorities convention in 1999 and has undertaken certain obligations.
"When politicians, for example, from Ataka and from Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, talk about reverse discrimination, they create a certain atmosphere of tension in Bulgarian society, not really knowing what they are talking about. People's attention gets distracted and they cannot understand that politicians are accusing minorities for something the state has to do but has not," she said.
The messages coming from politicians were very dangerous here in the Balkans because everyone had seen what happened in other parts of the region when minorities were blamed for everything, Metodieva noted.
"I see a real threat for Bulgaria coming from such messages and I will tell you why": last March, the BHC contracted BBCC-Gallup polling agency to do a survey among Bulgarians about ethnic distances.
"This survey showed that the Bulgarian society is seriously ill and the illness is called racism," she said.
The BHC asked if people would mind their mayor, teacher, doctor or lawyer being from a minority. The answer was positive. It was positive even towards the Jew minority in Bulgaria, which is considered to be well accepted. "This means that ethnic distances within Bulgarian society have always been what lies beneath, and when provoked, they will immediately surface." Since nothing good has happened in the economic life of the country, this can be easily done, Metodieva said.
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