'Bulgaria defies human rights'
Trouw, 22 juli 2010

The man in the photograph stares frightened into the camera. His right eye is swollen. At other pictures he shows bruises on his hands, arms, buttocks and back. They are the result of five hours of 'interrogating' by the Bulgarian police, his attorney Menko Menkov said. All the while Mr. Menkov didn't have access to his client. The police simply denied he had been arrested. ,,Afterwards a doctor determined he'd been beaten with batons and been kicked in the back.''

The Bulgarian police have a bad reputation. According to the Bulgarian branch of the Helsinki Committee, in 2009, nearly a quarter of the prison population had experienced physical violence during police interrogations. And the situation is deteriorating, said Mr. Menkov. Alexander Kashumov, an attorney working for an ngo that advocates the right to information and press freedom, feared the same. Mr. Kashumov has acted in many trials against over-zealous policemen, taking some of the cases as far as the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In order to fulfil European Union and US demands to make court proceedings more efficient and less time consuming, Bulgaria recently amended it's criminal code. Police are now allowed to interrogate suspects, without the presence of a lawyer or magistrate. While verdicts can be based on anonymous testimonies and on evidence unknown to the defence lawyers.

,,We are talking about very serious violations of the rights of suspects. These amendments are in breach of all international human rights treaties'', Mr. Menkov said. ,,This is a very disturbing and dangerous development.''

Organisations like the Bulgarian union of lawyers are contesting the amendments before the constitutional court. Remarkable is, however, that the European Commission in a progress report on Bulgaria, published on Tuesday, describes the amendments as ,,an important move ahead''.

The amendments are made with the right intentions but not well-considered, said Mr. Kashumov. The real problems in the judicial system are being ignored. Like the tremendous workload judges face, the corruption in the system and the inclination to pass on difficult cases.

,,There is strong pressure from Europe to reform criminal justice, but this is the point where it becomes controversial'', Mr. Kashumov explained. ,,The fight against organised crime is a good thing, but it's not necessary to change the law for this. Europe should stop behaving like a colonialist and leave it up to us to solve out problems by ourselves.''

Menkov: ,,The government wants convictions to show to Brussels. How it gets them, doesn't matter.'' Menkov handles some of the biggest fraud cases involving European money and counts ,,the full elite of the previous government'' amongst his clientele. According to him the amendments are no sign of progress. ,,Politicians in Bulgaria think they can stay in power forever and that they can do whatever they want. But when there term is over, the current government will be welcome in this office as well.''

Back to the pictures lying in front of him on the table. After two months the man was released because of lack of evidence. Menkov wants the officers involved to be prosecuted. ,,But there is no judge willing to take up this case. And that's the real problem in this country.''