Following a week of debates in Parliament, including two sessions that went late into the night, Bulgarian MPs adopted at second reading the law on the confiscation of assets acquired through criminal activity.
The law will come into force in November and mandates a revamp of the existing state commission on confiscating assets acquired through criminal activity. A new commission will have to be set up, according to the law's provisions, no later than January 2013.
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. Once any asset is impounded, its owner would have one month to present proof that the respective property was acquired using money gained in a lawful way.
The final vote in Parliament came late on May 3, with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov and Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva in attendance.
Borissov thanked MPs for passing the law, saying it would be well received by Bulgaria's European partners. The judiciary's weak capacity to confiscate the assets of convicted criminals has been a recurrent criticism in the annual Co-operation and Verification Mechanism reports issued by the European Commission on the country's progress in fighting organised crime and reforming the judiciary.
"It's a difficult law and a very poor law – for those who have come by their riches illegally. For 22 years, people have been looking at mansions in the foothills of Vitosha Mountains, at the seaside and across the countryside, wondering where the money came from. I hope that this law will regulate this process," Borissov told Parliament after the final vote.
US ambassador to Bulgaria James Warlick was among the first to congratulate the Cabinet and Parliament on May 4. "Strong, non-conviction based asset forfeiture legislation is an essential tool in the fight against organised crime and is therefore something the United States has supported," Warlick said in a statement.
The law will face its first test before it even enters into effect, with opposition parties saying that they would refer certain passages to the Constitutional Court. One flaw pointed out by critics is that the wording of the law does not clearly define what property is considered an asset acquired as a result of criminal activity.
On May 4, speaking on the breakfast talk-show of private broadcaster bTV, Tsvetanov said he was confident that the court will find no fault with the law. He quoted recent research done jointly by the Interior Ministry and the Centre for Study of Democracy think-tank, which estimated the size of assets acquired as a result of criminal activity at about 3.5 billion leva.
Some of that money had been invested abroad and some in property in Bulgaria, but the new law gave law enforcement agency more tools to fight organised crime, Tsvetanov said. However, the ministry did not at this time have a list of people to refer to the commission, he said.
Kovacheva said that the fixation on the commission investigating criminal assets was missing the point. "The role of the commission is important, of course, but we should not be overestimating it. The focus should be on the civil courts, the institution that will have the decision power on weather a certain property is to be confiscated or not," she told Nova Televisia's breakfast TV show.
The law raised the professional requirements for future members of the commission, who will be subject to investigations for criminally-acquired assets themselves, in order to ensure complete transparency, Kovacheva said.