The US State Department annual human rights report on Bulgaria uncovers positive steps on corruption and transparency but problems in the treatment of detainees and minority groups as well as poor prison conditions and judicial backlogs.
The annual report begins with an overview of Bulgaria's problems.
"There were problems with police abuse and mistreatment of pretrial detainees, prison inmates, and minorities; harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities; and official impunity. There were some limitations on freedom of the press; discrimination against religious minorities; and pervasive government corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The new government took initial steps to address corruption, and progress was made by the year's end. Other problems included violence against women and children, and substandard education for Romani children; harsh conditions in state-run institutions for children; trafficking in persons; discrimination against persons with disabilities; and discrimination against minority groups."
The report highlights deaths in custody, conditions of detention and a spate of kidnappings.
"During the year four persons in police custody died under unclear circumstances. Three cases involved accusations that the police did not provide adequate medical attention to seriously ill detainees. In the fourth case, prosecutors charged two police officers for placing a hood over a detainee who then suffocated during his transfer to another detention centre. Ransom kidnappings involving wealthy businessmen and their families remained a problem. In December police arrested more than 30 members of a kidnapping gang believed to be responsible for 17 to 19 kidnappings. At year's end the alleged leaders of the gang remained in jail awaiting trial. Police can detain persons for 24 hours without charging them. Human rights observers noted a continuing decline of cases where police arrested suspects for minor offences and physically abused them to force confessions. However, there were reports that this practice was more widely used with Romani suspects. Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) reported that Romani victims have been more willing to lodge official complaints against the authorities. Human rights groups continued to claim that medical examinations in cases of police abuse were not properly investigated and that offending officers were very rarely punished. Prison conditions generally did not meet international standards, and the government did not allocate funds to make significant improvements. Conditions in some prisons were harsh, with inadequate toilet facilities and insufficient heating and ventilation. The daily food allowance was approximately 2.5 leva. NGOs received complaints about both the quality and quantity of food. Overcrowding remained a serious problem. At year's end there were 9071 prisoners in the country's 13 prisons, fewer than in the previous three years but still several times more than capacity. NGOs received complaints from prisoners about insufficient space and considered this a major factor contributing to brutality among inmates."
Bulgaria's judiciary also earned a rebuke.
"Long delays awaiting trial were common, and there was a large backlog of outstanding investigations. Tough statutorily mandated time limits for investigations often resulted in hasty indictments that were returned by judges for additional investigation. Judicial and investigative backlogs remained a serious problem in some jurisdictions. Despite modest improvements, long delays awaiting criminal trials were common. According to practitioners, the law did not sufficiently reduce the opportunities for delaying cases."
The plight of refugees, and in particular the controversial Busmantsi detention centre, was again noted, including a death at the centre in October 2009.
"The UNHCR claimed that the risk of genuine refugees being rejected was limited. Nonetheless, observers remained concerned about the institutional capacity of the government to process requests and transfer applicants to shelters. According to lawyers, the practice of sending asylum seekers who enter illegally to the Center for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Busmantsi resulted in their being treated as illegal immigrants, subject to potential deportation. In Busmantsi there were numerous reports of guards mistreating detainees and of stays exceeding six months. Detainees also complained of poor living conditions and inadequate access to legal counsel. The May 15 amendments to the Foreigners Act set a maximum six-month period of detention. The law requires that persons seeking refugee status file an application within "a reasonable time" after entering the country. On October 6, Hassun Albaddj, a rejected asylum applicant from Syria, died in the Busmantsi detention centre. He was in custody since 2006 and was reportedly one of two individuals not released after the amendments to the law. A preliminary review found no evidence of physical abuse. However, witnesses claimed that guards ignored repeated requests for medical attention."
Corrupt voting practices were also cited in the report.
"Another significant type of violation, linked to the change in the election law, was the organised busing of voters from their home districts to districts in which majoritarian candidates needed extra votes, usually referred to as 'election-day tourism.' Observers noted that the surge in vote buying was prompted by efforts of business circles and organised crime figures to enter parliament through the new majoritarian seats. Bussed voters allegedly received money, food, and a free excursion in exchange for voting outside their districts. On September 2, parliament established a committee to investigate numerous accusations of double voting and improper registration of citizen voters living in Turkey."
Misappropriation of EU funds was also noted.
"Corruption was pervasive in the country and plagued all branches of government. Corrupt practices included bribery, EU funds fraud, elaborate embezzlement schemes, legislation protecting private interests, and official protection for organised crime figures. Corruption reportedly was severe in high civil and administrative courts. In its July 22 report, the European Commission severely criticised the country for misuse of EU funds. In 2008 the EU blacklisted two government agencies handling EU assistance and stripped the country of an estimated 486 million euro in EU funding."
The report also picked up on violence against women, noting that "although there were no precise statistics on its occurrence, police believed that one of every four women had been a victim".
Sub-standard education and institutional care was also an issue, particularly concerning the Roma and children with disabilities.
"According to the Ministry of Education and Science, 8820 students dropped out of school during the current academic year compared with 14 000 in the previous year (2007-08). The majority of students left school due to social and family reasons. The number of school dropouts was highest in regions with large Romani populations. Education for Romani children was generally inferior, and nearly 10 per cent of Roma never attended school. During the year the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the 2005 ruling that the city of Sofia was guilty of discrimination for failing to provide equal educational opportunities to Romani children. In November the anti-discrimination commission found that the Ministry of Education discriminated against children with disabilities by limiting their choice of education and isolating them in specialised institutions. The commission recommended that the ministry initiate legislative changes that take into account the children's specific education needs but allow for their integration into society. Violence against children was a problem. According to the national centre for public opinion surveys, during the year one in every five children was a victim of violence in school. According to the National Statistical Institute, 2606 children were victims of serious crimes in 2008, compared with 2743 in 2007. The government often removed children from abusive homes and prosecuted abusive parents; however, once away from their families, children often fell victim to street violence or violence in specialized institutions. During the year there were 7190 children in 138 specialised institutions. This was a decrease from 7276 children in 140 institutions in 2008 and a 44 per cent decrease from 12 609 children in 165 institutions in 2001. The majority of children in institutions were Roma. Watchdog organisations claimed the actual number was much higher, and the government manipulated the numbers by changing the terminology for the different types of institutions. Most children in state institutions were not orphans; they were institutionalised for reasons including disability, poverty, and other family problems."
Disabled individuals also continued to face discrimination in the workplace, according to the report.
"The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities; however, enforcement was poor, and most persons with disabilities were unemployed primarily due to lack of access to adequate education and skills. For the most part, work places were not equipped to accommodate persons with disabilities, and many were not able to find accessible transportation. Persons with mental and physical disabilities, including very young children, were often separated from the rest of society. For example, they were placed in special schools, which lowered the quality of their education. The government operated 26 institutions for children and youth with disabilities. The constitution protects the right of all citizens to vote, and the law provides specific measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the polls. However, in practice these measures were rarely enforced, and the majority of polling stations were still not wheelchair accessible."
High rates of unemployment among the Roma, as well as housing problems, were also noted.
"Workplace discrimination against minorities, especially Roma, continued to be a problem. The unemployment rate among Roma was nearly 65 per cent, reaching 80 per cent in some regions. The generally unfavourable attitudes towards Roma, coupled with their poor education level, made Roma less able to find jobs. Many observers noted the quality of education offered to Romani children was inferior to that afforded to most other students. Popular prejudice against Roma remained widespread. There were isolated cases of police harassment, arbitrary arrests, and violence against Roma. However, NGOs reported that while more Roma were willing to launch complaints against the authorities, the number of complaints had dropped in recent years. In September the Burgas municipality destroyed 46 Romani homes, leaving at least 200 persons homeless. There were reports that municipal police used disproportionate force against the Romani inhabitants during the demolitions. Since Romani residents lacked legal titles to this land, the Burgas municipality did not provide any alternative housing for the evicted residents. Local NGOs estimated that 50 to 70 per cent of Romani housing was illegally constructed and were concerned that more municipalities would initiate legal proceedings to demolish illegally built houses."
Social assistance was also found wanting.
"On August 6, the European Committee of Social Rights unanimously found the country to be in violation of the European Social Charter by failing to meet its obligations to ensure than any person who is without adequate resources has access to social assistance provided by the state. The committee issued the ruling in response to 2006 and 2008 amendments to the Social Assistance Act, which limited the time citizens were eligible for assistance. The court found that these restrictions had a disproportionate effect on Roma, women, and other marginalised groups and that access to social assistance cannot be subject to time limits if the persons affected continue to meet the basic condition for eligibility for assistance."
Gay rights continued to be stifled or - at least - the report implied a reluctance to tackle discrimination.
"The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. Reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons were rare, but societal discrimination, particularly discrimination in employment, remained a problem. The gay-rights organization Gemini reported that individuals continued to be reluctant to pursue legal remedies for discrimination due to the stigma of being openly identified as gay."
There continued to be incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Since 2008 there were 110 cases of vandalism against mosques, including an October 7 fire that completely destroyed the Nokopol mosque; authorities determined the fire was arson. On October 8, the government announced that it would provide 25 000 leva to repair this mosque and another mosque that was also damaged in a fire believed to be accidental. The investigation into the arson continued at year's end. According to the Jewish organisation Shalom, anti-Semitism was not widespread, but there were increasing reports of anti-Semitic incidents prior to the July 5 national elections. On June 24, vandals broke a memorial slab in Blagoevgrad, in the southwest, before its unveiling. The memorial was dedicated to Jews from Aegean Thrace who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. On July 13, several Molotov cocktails were thrown at the former synagogue and the Jewish school in the coastal city of Burgas. In 2008 a Jewish cemetery in Shumen was desecrated; the youths were caught and ordered by the court to attend an educational program In January anti-Semitic slogans, including "Juden Verboten" (Jews forbidden), were painted on the Holocaust memorial in Plovdiv. Jewish organizations expressed concern over the lack of public reaction to these incidents from the government and the lack of successful prosecutions. On May 21, the Sofia municipal council decided to name one of the capital city's streets after Bogdan Filov, a prominent scholar and former prime minister. As prime minister, Filov's government passed anti-Semitic legislation, advocated the country's alliance with Nazi Germany, and deported approximately 12 000 Jews from present-day Macedonia and Greece to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. In response to local and international outrage, then Sofia mayor and now Prime Minister Boyko Borissov submitted a report to the Sofia City Council calling for the annulment of this decision. On October 2, the Sofia City Council annulled the decision, returning the street to its original name."
The report also says that some children are still being forced to work in sometimes dire conditions.
"The law prohibits forced or compulsory labour, including by children; however, according to the government's labour inspectorate, there were some reports that such practices occurred in the agricultural and textile industries. Children sometimes were forced to work due to economic conditions or because of pressure from family members or criminal organizations. Women and children were trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Besides trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labor included heavy physical labour and health hazards on family tobacco farms, particularly among the ethnic Turkish minority. The government continued programmes to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, mounting educational campaigns about their effects, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labour."
The 12 countries studied for the report, which also applauded successes such as good cross-cultural communications skills, were: Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The report, on the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, refers to the continuously poor results of the judicial system to investigate, prosecute and try cases of high-level corruption and organised crime.
Simeon Saxe-Coburg and his spouse Margarita opened a new heating and insulation system at the Tsar Ferdinand Hospital for Pulmonary Diseases in Iskrets, a project implemented thanks to the Embassy of the Sovereign Order of Malta in Sofia and the Nando Peretti Foundation.
According to the law's provisions, the commission will have the power to investigate individuals without prior notification and would not require a criminal conviction in order to launch an investigation.
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