The Case Rusi Stanev v. Bulgaria – The Road to Ruse Passes through Strasbourg

| Aneta Genova,

Rusi is from Ruse. He has long since left youth behind. He has had good years and bad years, as well as years he cannot remember – or does not want to remember. In 2002, his life took a downward tumble that seemed to have no end. He developed a psychiatric disorder, became homeless due to a conflict with his sister and perhaps to the deviousness of certain family members. He took to drink and eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital. A court decision declared him legally incapacitated – which meant that he was stripped of the right to make his own decisions and was placed under interdiction. From the moment this judgment was handed down, he would never again be able to make his own decisions, at least not until the court decision was rescinded. An employee of the municipality who had never had contact with him was appointed his guardian. She submitted a request that he be placed in an institution, and the request was granted. The institution is located hundreds of kilometers away from Ruse, in the village of Pastra, yet not actually in the village itself, but outside it beneath a reservoir wall. The institution, called the Home for Adults with Psychiatric Disorders, was hidden in the mountains and was invisible even to those who passed by the winding, pot-holed road leading to it. There was nothing for kilometers around. A wasteland.

But Rusi didn’t give up easily. Despite the isolation, he managed to find work. Every day he traveled for kilometers to reach a restaurant on the road to Rila Monastery. He established contact with the people from the village. But this wasn’t his life, it wasn’t his city. His freedom was gone.

In 2005 he began his struggle to repeal his interdiction and to leave the institution. This struggle brought him once to the District Court in the city of Dupnitsa and twice to the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.

In November 2009 he received a date for an open hearing before the ECHR. Later the case was sent to the Grand Chamber. The hearing took place on February 9, 2011. At that session, Rusi asked to take the floor to tell the court how painful it is to be deprived of your freedom and to live in isolation and degradation day in and day out. The court did not allow him to deliver his statement personally, but allowed me, as his lawyer, to say everything he would have liked to say within the framework of my pleading. I did this in my closing statement to the court. With my whole heart I wanted Rusi’s words to reach the court just as he had told them to them, because these words had shaken me. “I’m not an object,” he had said to me. “I’m a person. I need my freedom.”

How does it come about that a person can be locked up for years in an institution where he is forced to live out his life being treated like a soulless and impersonal object?

One of the reasons can be found in the shortcomings of the Bulgarian legal system in the sphere of interdiction. The legal norms are such that they do not guarantee that people with psychiatric illnesses and mental disabilities receive any real defense in the procedure for placing them under interdiction or afterwards. In this way, placing a person under interdiction has become an easy mechanism for depriving someone of freedom, for robbery, for violating the right to a personal life for victims of this problematic legal act.

The Bulgarian government, for its part, tried during the whole proceedings before the ECHR to make the argument that an individual placed under interdiction has many opportunities to defend his or her rights. From our point of view, this is an absurd claim, given the fact that individuals placed under interdiction can never conduct any legal actions on their own. Bulgarian legislation imposes a series of obligations and gives rights to a circle of people in such cases, but when it comes to the interdicted person himself – the party most interested in these actions – the law refuses to give him or her the right to act, to make demands and to be active. Depending on the degree of the illness or the degree to which he is isolated from society, the person placed under interdiction could insist that any one of those individuals empowered by the law take action on his behalf, including requesting that the interdiction be repealed. However, he (or she) currently cannot receive effective access to the courts. And this is precisely the reason why Rusi could not receive access to justice in Bulgaria. The case before the District Court in Dupnitsa was not what he deserved. It was a legal proceeding that followed a poorly structured procedure that could not possibly lead to the repeal of an interdiction order – the Regional Court must decide on such questions, but Rusi did not receive access to it. The various legal arguments we presented to the European court in defense of Rusi Stanev make for a very long story. Only the future will tell which of them the court will accept and which it will reject.

With Rusi, however, several unusual things have happened. And only some of them are connected to his journey to France and his participation in the court hearing. A few days ago, just when he had once again resigned himself to the inevitability of an isolated existence, the Agency for Social Assistance offered to return him to Ruse, where he could begin living in a protected group home. That is not exactly Rusi’s idea of life within society, but after years spent in an institution, he truly does need a transition. Only the future will tell how quickly this will come about. And whether the group home will be just another institution, albeit in his hometown, or whether it will be a true step towards freedom. We remain concerned that his interdiction has not yet been lifted and that he still cannot control his personhood and make his own decisions. Because isn’t it precisely control over our actions that makes us the owners of our own lives, which makes us persons? We still don’t know when Rusi will finally reach the end of his road to the freedom that is so necessary for his personhood. But we do know that when you read this article, he will already be living in Ruse. And with that one of the dreams of his recent years will already have come true.