Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Releases 2017 Annual Human Rights Report: A Year of Deterioration

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For the first time since the democratic changes in Bulgaria, political parties, whose very behavior denies the basic principles of democracy and human rights, became part of the government in 2017. They entered politics through the use of hate speech and aggressive stances towards certain vulnerable groups in Bulgarian society. At the same time, the media environment worsened with the widespread use of fake news, slander and manipulation, which led to growing restrictions and the discrediting of civil society organizations dealing with human rights. These factors significantly influenced the direction of government policy towards the most vulnerable groups in our society - women, people with disabilities, LGBTI, ethnic and religious minorities, states the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s annual report, issued since 1992.

"2017 was a year of stagnation in human rights protection and the situation in several major areas deteriorated. The authorities and the public sphere in Bulgaria remained deaf to the rights and voices of the most vulnerable groups, while civil society organizations failed to grab their attention. This task is on the agenda in 2018," said Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the BHC.

BHC identifies the following main problems and improvements in the human rights situation in Bulgaria in 2017:

  • Bulgaria signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) in 2016, but following a slander campaign with regard to the content of the treaty at the end of 2017, the bill was not ratified. The Convention guarantees the highest standards for the prevention and protection of women against violence and its non-adoption represents a serious regression in the field of women's rights.

  • In 2017, forced evictions of Roma people from their only homes continued to be a serious problem. Evictions have become more frequent, partly because of racist incitements, which were either initiated or supported by ultranationalists involved in the government. For a sixth consecutive year, no measures were taken to implement the European Court of Human Right’s judgment Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria, concerning the demolition of Roma houses.

  • For another consecutive year, we witnessed increasing pressure exerted on media and journalists, marked by unprecedented political pressures, attacks, and threats to journalists and the media.

  • Lack of progress with the investigation of 238 deaths in the homes for children with intellectual disabilities, revealed as a result of a joint investigation between the Prosecutor's Office and the BHC in 2010-2011. In December 2017, the United Nations Committee Against Torture requested the Bulgarian Government to resume these investigations and report the outcome by the end of 2018.

  • The long-awaited reform in the juvenile justice system did not take place in 2017, as the draft law on the diversion of juveniles from criminal proceedings and the imposition of remedial measures was not introduced by the new government, although this was laid out in their agenda.

  • Deinstitutionalization continued to decelerate and stagnate, especially with regards to reforming care for children with disabilities under the age of three. The state is still far from meeting the projections for 2020 of reducing the number of children in formal care by 30%.

  • A growing tendency to allow, approve and even praise speech that incites hatred or violence against some of the most vulnerable groups in society. In October, the leader of the ultranationalist political party, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Valeri Simeonov, currently deputy prime minister and chairman of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, was convicted for his anti-Roma hate speech.

  • No progress was made with regards to the protection of religious freedoms. The United Patriots, an ultranationalist alliance part of the governing coalition, submitted a bill against "radical Islam," which, if adopted would result in a limitation of the religious freedoms of many denominations, including Muslims in Bulgaria. In 2017, we witnessed a series of anti-semitic acts of vandalism and attacks against Muslim temples.

  • The lack of refugee integration in Bulgaria continued for the fourth consecutive year. Asylum seekers have repeatedly reported incidents of verbal and physical aggression during the year, as well as direct attacks and robberies near centers, that remain uninvestigated. Bulgaria also saw a sharp decline in the number of asylum seekers due to draconian border measures introduced by Turkey.

  • No significant progress has been made on LGBTI issues, the most important of which are the violence and harassment against the community and the legal recognition of same-sex couples. It is worrying that homophobic and transphobic incidents go almost entirely unreported, and the Criminal Code still does not recognize hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • Serious problems persist with regard to the illegal use of force by law enforcement officials. Every fourth prisoner, interviewed by BHC, reported that he had been the victim of police violence during detention, which generally goes unpunished. In 2017, no measures were taken to implement the recommendations outlined in the 2015 public statement by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.

  • NGO access to closed institutions for the purpose of monitoring human rights was restricted. The BHC team were not permitted to access the country's correctional and socio-educational boarding schools, as well as psychiatric hospitals and homes for medical and social care for children. In the past, the monitoring missions of the BHC and other independent organizations have identified systemic violations in these institutions. They were only acknowledged when they became public.

  • At the end of the year, the number of ECtHR judgments pending implementation was lower than that at the end of 2016 - 262 versus 291. But the judgments that are no longer under review as of 2017 are relatively trivial. Those concerning serious structural human rights problems in Bulgaria continue to be under intensive supervision.

  • Conditions in prisons improved in 2017. Legislative changes were adopted, targeting the main problems in Bulgarian prisons related to overcrowding and poor material conditions and hygiene. The administration continued with important repairs and renovated and introduced new prison wings during the year in Varna, Sliven, and Belene. The possibilities of prisoners to challenge the actions of the administration, which affect them, have also widened.

The annual report will be available in English soon. Please, drop us an email at bhc@bghelsinki.org if you wish to receive a copy.