Bulgarian Helsinki Committee's Annual Report for 2016 : Disturbing limitations on the rights of the most vulnerable groups in Bulgaria

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Sofia, 20 April 2016

In 2016, the global trends in human rights violations did not bypass Bulgaria. The fear of the potential impact of the refugee situation strengthened public support for nationalist movements and led to limiting citizens' rights and freedoms, minority groups and refugees being disproportionately  affected, states Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s annual report, issued since 1994.

"Among the main problems in 2016 was the stagnation in solving the problems of ethnic and religious minorities in Bulgaria. The past year has shown no progress towards the reform of the judiciary system and especially of the prosecution system. The freedom of expression also continued to collapse. Corruption, as in previous years, has continued to erode almost all spheres of society, and remained impenetrable. The most serious regress was in the area of public incitement of hatred, discrimination and violence, including by high-ranking politicians against Roma, migrants and Muslims, as well as violence committed by law enforcement officers and private individuals against these groups," said BHC's Chair Krassimir Kanev.

BHC identifies the following main problems and improvements in the human rights situation in Bulgaria in 2016:

  • The influence of several nationalist parties of neototalitarian type on the government led to amendments in the Electoral Code in the run-up to the presidential election, which introduced discriminatory voting conditions for Bulgarian citizens living outside the EU. A Counter-Terrorism Act was adopted, introducing a variety of measures, some of which could unjustifiably affect the right to privacy, the right to freedom of movement, and other human rights.
  • The situation with the public incitement of hatred, discrimination and violence based on race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation has deteriorated drastically. The spread of open lies and racist incitements in traditional and social media against Roma, Muslims and migrants and the organization of various public manifestations by racist groups reached an unprecedented scale. The inactivity of the Prosecutor's office against the rise of hate crimes has contributed to a climate of xenophobia and intolerance.
  • In 2016 the access to territory and protection in Bulgaria was not guaranteed. Persons seeking protection have continued to report illegal pushbacks, physical violence or robbery carried out by both border police  officers and by individuals and groups, or so-called "refugee hunters". The overcrowding of refugee camps in the late summer of 2016, as well as the number of incidents in the Harmanli camp, have once again demonstrated the deficits of the national asylum system.
  • There were no meaningful reforms in the Prosecutor's office that would lead to increased accountability and efficiency. Positive changes, albeit limited, were adopted in the Judicial System Act, including the creation of two colleges within the Supreme Judicial Council – judicial and prosecutorial, as well as the introduction of elements for self-government within the judiciary.
  • In 2016, progress was reported with regard to different spheres, the most important of which was the reform of the Penal Execution and Detention Act. They cover a wide range of legal relationships – the material conditions in prisons, the prison regime, the judicial review of acts issued by the prison administration, the prevention and compensation of prisoners due to inhuman and degrading conditions, early release. In all of them, the changes will bring about significant improvements.
  • As in 2015, no progress was observed with regard to the situation of religious freedoms in Bulgaria. The Law on the Restriction of Wearing Clothing, Covering or Hiding the Face restricts the right of Muslim women to freedom of religion and privacy on a discriminatory basis. In addition, a number of mosques in Yambol, Pleven, Karlovo and Medovetz, as well as the Chief Mufti's office in Sofia, were desecrated with racist and Islamophobic inscriptions. There was an arson attempt against the mosque in Silistra with Molotov cocktails being thrown at it. An attempted arson attack at the mosque in Plovdiv took place on 10 December 2015.
  • For another consecutive year, we witnessed increasing pressure exerted on media and journalists, severe censorship and self-censorship, strong political and economic dependencies, opaque ownership and financing of the media, the undermining of basic ethical rules, lack of clear distinctions between editorial and sponsored content.
  • In 2016 none of the specialized institutions for adults with mental health problems was closed despite the authorities’ plans for deinstitutionalization. We also witnessed stagnation in the processes of deinstitutionalization of children.
  • In April 2016, Bulgaria signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), an important political act by which Bulgaria commits to ensuring the highest standards of prevention and protection of violence against women. The Equality Act between Women and Men was also adopted, but it was heavily criticized for its declaratory nature, lack of substantive provisions, and its overall inability to achieve the stated goals.
  • The past year has shown no progress towards achieving equality for non-heterosexual and transgender people. Bulgarian legislation still does not recognise any form of same-sex couples or families. Under the current Criminal Code, the preaching or the incitement of discrimination, violence and hatred, as well as the use of violence on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression of the victim are not regarded as hate crimes.
  • There are still serious problems regarding the illegal use of force by law enforcement officers, which were not brought up for discussion. According to a BHC survey from 2016, 34% of all newly-interviewed prisoners declared that force had been used against them either during their arrest or inside the police station.
  • For a fifth consecutive year, no measures were taken to implement the European Court of Human Right’s judgement Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria , concerning the demolition of Roma houses. In 2016 the evictions of Roma houses continued (89 cases in Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, and Varna).

Read the full report here. [in Bulgarian]