Strasbourg Fails to Reform Bulgaria’s Violent Police
18 07 2007 Human Rights Court rulings fail to have much impact on law enforcers whose abuses go unpunished.
By Albena Shkodrova in Sofia
Several dozen people suffering from gas intoxication, three of them requiring medical treatment for rashes and pain in their eyes, and one for head injuries; this was the legacy of a visit by the Bulgarian police to the site of an unauthorized coal miners’ strike in the south a few days ago.
“When my officers carry out orders, I support them,” the interior minister, Rumen Petkov, commented after the event.
The minister justified the police brutality, saying the protesters had violated the local mayor’s orders concerning where to hold their strike. Workers from the Maritsa-Iztok mines had blocked the road between Svilengrad and Ruse as part of their protest against low wages.
Instead of decreasing as the country develops and integrates with the European Union, critics say excessive and unnecessary police violence not only remains a problem in Bulgaria but is getting worse.
They claim a mixture of low standards, controversial legislation and ineffective prosecution of police who abuse their position stand behind this trend.
“As soon as he took over, minister Petkov said the police will go to the limits of what the law allows,” a human rights lobbyist, Mihail Ekimdzhiev, says, referring to the treatment of the miners. “Instead of being condemned, his statement is becoming truer than ever.”
Through the years of its transition to democracy, Bulgaria has had a long and grim record of police brutality. Although the media have reported on hundreds of cases, many have gone unpunished.
Some were solved by the local courts, or reported to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, where a large proportion of the 112 sentences concerning Bulgaria since 1998 centre on police brutality.
Most involved the use of firearms against unarmed persons and beatings of suspects during interrogation. Most also concerned individuals rather than groups.
However, the case with the group of miners is not without precedent. During routine security checks last June, police from a special unit carried out a mass beating of clubbers in the resort of Varna, according to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Several victims of the raid told the committee that while the police beat them, they forced them to bark like dogs.
Experts say one reason why police brutality continues to flourish is that so many of these kinds of abuse remain unpunished.
In a number of cases, the Strasbourg court found Bulgaria guilty of mismanaging the investigations, apparently aiming to cover up rather than establish the true sequence of events.
The authorities dispute this. Sofia’s Military Court of Appeal, for example, has released statistics noting that 55 Bulgarian police were sued for injuries in the last two years alone while 34 were sentenced.
But the Helsinki Committee remains skeptical. They say their research show relatively few police face any penalty for abuse, “especially when the victims belong to the Roma minority.”
One case on their files concerns a Roma man who was shot dead in the head by a policeman in March 2004.
Plovdiv’s Military Prosecution office then allegedly tried to stop an investigation on the grounds that the firearm was used legally. The courts have repeatedly returned the case for further investigation.
Another case involves a Roma man shot dead by a policeman in September 2004. In this case also, the Sofia Military Prosecutors office have tried to block any investigation, while the Sofia courts have pushed it forward.
In 2006, judges ruled: “It is clear that the Sofia Military Prosecutors have aimed at stopping the case without making any serious efforts to establish the truth.” In spite of this sharply worded court resolution, no indictment of the policeman was filed to date.
Apart from the fact that police crimes often remain unpunished, critics say a culture of brutality is encouraged by the ambiguities in the ministry of interior’s code of conduct.
“It does not clearly state the terms and conditions concerning the use of fire arms,” Ekimdzhiev says of the code on the website of his organization, Eurorights. “The law allows for the use of guns against unarmed persons who do not … [even] threaten anyone.”
As an example, he quotes the case of “Nachova versus the state”, which ended with a verdict against Bulgaria in Strasbourg in 2005. In it military police shot two Roma boys dead after they absconded from military service and tried to flee the patrol following them.
The Helsinki Committee agrees. “Many cases of lethal use of fire guns by police in the last years remained ineffectively investigated and were closed with the conclusion that the weapons were used legally,” it reported earlier this year.
“In at least one case a man has lost his life under dubious circumstances, after ending in police hands,” it added.
As the continuing pattern of police brutality over recent years is quite clear, the issue is whether the Strasbourg court will manage to force the Bulgarian police to change its practices and culture.
Snezhana Botusharova, a judge at the court for nine years, says decisions made by the court have helped to modify local legislation. She says the penal code has been changed as a consequence of some verdicts in Strasbourg, for example.
But not everyone agrees that the court’s sentences concerning Bulgaria have had a significant effect on the national judiciary. “We think it’s the other way around,” Yuliana Metodieva of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, says. “Our researches show that concerning police brutality, practice is regressing.”
Apart from general political indifference to the problem at a national level, one other factor diminishes the effect of Strasbourg Court’s decisions; when verdicts involve compensation, those are paid out of the state budget. No financial responsibility is sought from those who actually inflicted the damage.
“The government does what is easiest,” Ekimdzhiev says. “It pays compensations with taxpayers’ money and neither analyses the judicial problem which brought the verdict, nor acts adequately to solve it.”
Albena Shkodrova is BIRN`s Bulgaria country director. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.