BHC: Human rights were not a priority in Bulgaria in 2021, a year of elections  

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee revealed its key findings from the annual report Human rights in Bulgaria in 2021. One big part in the field of human rights in the past year was occupied by the COVID-19 pandemic and the approaches by the two regular and two caretaker governments to contain it. Along with the anti-epidemic measures, the year was marked by the ongoing escalation of unsanctioned hate speech, which in 2021 grew into a series of attacks on the LGBTI community. The ECtHR's decisions in cases against hate speech used by a politician in the course of his active political campaign last year however give hope for a change in these trends.

In general, in 2021 human rights were left outside of the attention of the Bulgarian government, which was mainly engaged in the preparation and conduction of the three parliamentary and one presidential elections. Cooperation with local human rights organizations continued to be low in 2021.

The vaccination process against COVID-19 in Bulgaria and human rights

2021 worldwide was marked by the effort to vaccinate as many people as possible against SARS-CoV-2 in order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison to the over 75% vaccination coverage of the adult population in the EU by the end of the year, Bulgaria has clearly failed in this effort.

As a result of the discriminatingly structured National Vaccination Plan against COVID-19 and the bad practices in its implementation, by the end of 2021 only 35% of Bulgarians over the age of 60 have completed the vaccination cycle against COVID-19. This led to a complaint against the country, filed with the European Committee of Social Rights, for violation of Art. 11, § 2 and 3 of the European Social Charter. Communication on the subject was saturated with fake news and misinformation, including on the topic of what discrimination means in the context of measures to increase vaccination coverage.

Children's rights in the context of the pandemic

According to UNESCO, our schools were completely or partially closed for 47 weeks in the period from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of December 2021. During these periods, children's opportunities for activities outside school, such as sports, arts, even therapeutic and rehabilitation activities for children with special needs, are restricted. No other institutions of the public life have worked in such restricted regime for the same period. In the autumn of the 2021/2022 school year, schools were the only public institutions in the country that remained inaccessible even to people with a green certificate. This approach to tackling the epidemic peaks caused unnecessary suffering to children, violated their right to privacy, restricted many of them from accessing education, and put others at increased risk of violence.

The rights of LGBTI people

In 2021 the regression in the status of LGBTI people in Bulgaria continued. The country's first LGBTI community center, Rainbow Hub, and another community space, The Steps, have been the target of threats and vandalism, and in one case, an assault on an employee. The community has also been targeted by a number of discriminatory messages during the election campaign during the year, which remained unsanctioned. The Constitutional Court ruled that in the Bulgarian constitution the term "sex" has only a biological meaning. Later in the year, the EU Court of Justice ordered Bulgaria to issue identity documents of a child of same-sex parents.

Police violence during police detention

In 2021, the BHC conducted a representative survey among 1,010 prisoners on the conditions of their police detention and pre-trial proceedings. 1/3 of the respondents reported that they were physically abused during their detention or inside the police station. Some reported torture using electric shocks. In most cases this happens during the so-called "intelligence talks", which are held en masse without the participation of a lawyer. Detainees' access to independent medical expertise after detention is also inadequate. The study did not reveal any positive dynamics compared to similar studies conducted in 2015 and 2017.

Other Key findings in human rights in Bulgaria in 2021:

• Three justice ministers so far have demanded the resignation of the chief prosecutor and conduction of disciplinary proceedings against him.

• The Inspectorate of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) remains illegal as the Parliament did not find time to elect a new Chief Inspector for the second year in a row.

• The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe sharply criticized Bulgaria for the lack of measures against police violence.

• With only one mayor's order, 428 people were left homeless and without a formal permanent address. This is an obstacle for them to obtaining an ID card. Between 130,000 and 250,000 people do not have access to identity documents due to the lack of a permanent address in Bulgaria.

• Bulgaria ranked 112th in the Reporters without Borders ranking for media freedom. According to this indicator, our country is located between Brazil and Indonesia.

• The Sofia City Court convicted a journalist and a media for defamation and insult for disseminating completely true information about a judge-candidate to head the Sofia City Court. The case has all the characteristics of SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) and is one of the most striking cases in a series of such cases in our country.

• The ECtHR condemned Bulgaria for refusing Bulgarian courts to sanction Volen Siderov for his political statements, publications and books containing hate speech against Roma and Jews.

• The SAC condemned Krassimir Karakachanov for his remarks "Gypsies have become extremely insolent". Only half a year earlier, the SAC had confirmed the CPD's refusal to establish the discriminatory nature of the same statements on complaints from another complainant.

• During the presidential campaign, Rumen Radev reaffirmed his position against admitting refugees in Bulgaria to exercise their right to asylum.

• Unaccompanied children under the age of 14, were quarantined in isolation in locked rooms for the entire quarantine period, regardless of their age.

• From January to September 2021, the 24 most influential media in Bulgaria published 577 articles in which the main sources were doctors-politicians, actively spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

• Bulgaria has failed in its obligation to protect the right to life and the right to health of its citizens - excessive mortality increased by 88.2% in November 2021 compared to the average mortality from 2016 to 2019.

• The authorities still don't collect any official information on cases of femicide. Media figures show that at least 22 women died by gender-based violence in 2021.

• The number of pre-trial proceedings for protection from domestic violence is three times higher than in the corresponding period before the pandemic.

• Maternal mortality in Bulgaria is above the EU average and is reported incorrectly - this was established by a large-scale report commissioned by the NHIF after a series of signals from the BHC.

• According to a new report by the Council of Europe's Committee against Torture, punishment by hand and stick are a well-established practice for controlling patients in Bulgarian psychiatric institutions.

• In 2021, there were no closed social institution for adults with mental health problems.

• By the end of 2021, 215 young children continue to live in institutions, most of them with disabilities.

• Between 35% and 40% of children in Bulgaria live in the "pockets of poverty", and for Roma children the percentage is almost twice as high.

• 1 in 3 children has been a victim of violence, most often "at home".

• Despite the huge number of attacks and hate speech against LGBTI people, by the beginning of 2022, no legislative changes were introduced to qualify such discriminatory crimes in the Penal Code.

The full report is published on the BHC's website. Version in English will be available soon: