Torture is defined as any action carried out against an individual with the purpose of inflicting serious physical or emotional harm or pain, either directly or with the explicit or tacit consent of a public figure. This is done with a specific goal in mind, such as coercion, obtaining information, carrying out a punishment or threat, or simply discrimination. Torture is a severe, intentional form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
A treatment is considered cruel or inhuman when it inflicts intense physical or psychological suffering, even if it is not to the extent one sees in the case of torture. It may include:
  • Physical abuse;
  • Interrogation using psychological pressure tactics;
  • Cruel or barbaric detention conditions;
  • Threatening a person with torture if the threat is real and immediate;
Degrading treatment refers to a type of behavior that undermines the personal dignity of an individual and provokes fear, torment, or feelings of inferiority. The point at which a given type of treatment becomes degrading depends on a number of factors, including the duration and nature of the act as well as the gender, age, vulnerability, and health of the victim.
According to BHC data taken from several representative studies conducted between 2015 and 2021, one in three individuals detained by the police in Bulgaria have been mistreated during their detention or while in a police institution. Almost everyone who is detained by police faces the risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Detained individuals coming from positions of vulnerability are at a higher risk than others. As is the case with all human rights violations, those who are poor or belong to a social group facing discrimination are more likely to encounter torture or cruel, inhuman treatment and have fewer means of protecting themselves. In Bulgaria, these individuals are often members of certain ethnic groups (Roma, for example), children, and those who have committed certain crimes.
International law prohibits torture and inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment and does not permit any exceptions to this rule. Those who carry out serious, intentional forms of these acts must be prosecuted; in the case of torture, there should be no statute of limitations for such persecutions. At the same time, inflicting bodily harm on individuals through the use of violence as part of a lawful arrest or in a situation of unavoidable defense is permissible and does not qualify as torture or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
Over the few last years, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has received a substantial number of claims from detained individuals in Bulgaria of intentional physical mistreatment by police officers, such as slapping, punching, kicking, and hitting with clubs or other hard objects. In 2015 and 2021, the CPT made two public statements announcing similar instances in police institutions, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and care homes for individuals with mental disorders in Bulgaria.
For years, BHC has been investigating the terrible conditions in prisons, pretrial detention facilities, children’s institutions, psychiatric hospitals, and social care homes and has found overcrowding, dilapidation, bad hygiene, a lack of activity, and inadequate access to medical services. There has also been no progress whatsoever in the investigation of the 238 deaths that took place in homes for children with intellectual disabilities, which were uncovered during a joint inspection done by BHC and the prosecutor’s office in 2010-2011.
BHC fights to regulate, on a legislative and practical level, the following areas:
  • Formulating a criminal statute for torture in the Criminal Code;
  • Effective access to a lawyer, medical assistance, and the right to have a third-party informant for every individual detained by police;
  • Prohibiting “unofficial inquiries” during detainment by police without a lawyer present;
  • Effective monitoring of all prison institutions by an independent party, as well as by independent human rights organizations;
  • Oversight of police officers’ compliance with the law in their detainment of individuals, for example through video surveillance in police institutions;
  • Creating an effective mechanism for filing complaints from individuals who have suffered abuse at the hands of public officials;
Every year, BHC tracks and documents violations related to police brutality, offers legal assistance to victims, and organizes advocacy campaigns and activities aimed at changing laws and practices. BHC periodically tracks the levels of police brutality in Bulgaria through interviews with incarcerated persons deprived of liberty.
In addition to conducting field work and strategic litigation, BHC also organizes advocacy campaigns and activities. In 2011, BHC launched the campaign “Policy Violence: Stop Now!” which led to implementation in 2012 of the “absolute necessity” standard for the use of arms, physical force, and instruments by police authorities.
In January 2017, significant progress was made in the protection against torture and inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment in Bulgaria. A bill was passed amending and supplementing the Execution of Punishments and Pre-Trial Detention Act, which aims to reform the system of executing punishments. The amendments modified living conditions, prison regimes, prisoners’ rights, and the ability to challenge administrative acts made by the prison administration. They also created a preventative, compensatory system for protection from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
BHC periodically prepares alternative reports on the mechanisms for reviewing Bulgaria’s obligations according to international agreements made by the UN and the Council of Europe. We also conduct oral interventions before the responsible authorities in accordance with these procedures.
BHC leads strategic litigation with the aim of completely reforming the penitentiary system. Our organization represents complainants or provides submissions as a third party in key cases that have led to systemic reform in Bulgaria, such as the pilot case Neshkov and others v. Bulgaria in 2015. This case prompted the European Court of Rights to issue a judgment that led to important legislative changes and major improvements in living conditions.