Human Rights Committee considers report of Bulgaria

Human Rights Committee
14 July 2011

The Human Rights Committee has concluded its consideration of the third periodic report of Bulgaria on the measures undertaken by that country to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Presenting the report, Dimiter Tzantchev, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that during the period covered by the report, Bulgaria had undergone tremendous changes, both in legislation and practice. They believed that these changes, which were inspired by their membership in the Council of Europe and the preparation to join the European Union, had brought about a stricter implementation of the provisions of the Covenant. The process of improvement continued as they tried to enhance their legislation and ensure the independence, impartiality and effective functioning of the judiciary; to improve the response of the executive to challenges in the field of human rights such as the protection of persons in vulnerable situations; the update of their integration policy; and the strengthening of mechanisms for control by civil society over the work of law enforcement authorities.

Mr. Tzantchev went on to say that during the last months the Government had extensively reviewed its policy aimed at fostering the equal integration of the Roma in their society. This was done through elaborating an overall European Union framework for national action plans to improve the situation of Roma. The problems of the Roma in Bulgaria, like in most Central and European countries, were predominately of a socio-economic nature. Mr. Tzantchev stressed that all Bulgarian citizens of Roma origin enjoyed all the rights provided for in the constitution and domestic legislation which were based on the principles of non-discrimination and equality. In this sense, persons belonging to the Roma community had equal access to all public services and facilities, but they had to avail themselves of these services. The Government had undertaken various measures to increase the awareness of the Roma people in this regard.

Over the course of two meetings, the Bulgarian delegation answered questions posed by Committee members relating to a number of issues, including the application of the Covenant by the courts in Bulgaria and its place in domestic legislation in the country; the independence of the judiciary; corruption in the law enforcement system, including among judges, police officers and prosecutors; hate speech, anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance in the country; the use of special surveillance methods such as wiretapping and how this was governed and used; and allegations of excessive use of force by police officers in certain situations.

Committee Experts expressed numerous concerns about human trafficking, gender neutral domestic violence legislation in the country which could undermine the situation of women; childcare institutions that did not meet European and international standards; conditions in prisons and other places of detention; the treatment of the Roma community; and the right to free assembly and association.

The delegation from Bulgaria included members from several governmental departments and ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the Council of Ministers, the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of Cassation, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will hold its next public session this afternoon at 3 p.m. when it will begin consideration of the initial report of Kazakhstan (CCPR/C/KAZ/1).

Report of Bulgaria

The third periodic report of Bulgaria (CCPR/C/BGR/3) notes that in the period covered by the present report there was an ongoing process in Bulgaria to further improve the democratic system. In particular, further substantive progress was achieved in the sphere of protection of civil and political rights. A number of additional measures were taken with a view to harmonizing domestic legislation with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as with other international human rights instruments. These measures include not only domestic legislation, but also the judiciary and administrative practices. The principle that all persons in the Republic of Bulgaria are equal and shall not be discriminated against is enshrined in article 6, paragraph 2 of the Constitution. It prohibits any discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, ethnic self-identity, sex, origin, religion, education, opinion, political affiliation, personal or social status, or property status. This constitutional principle has been incorporated in domestic legislation.

Freedom of association is guaranteed to every citizen in the Republic of Bulgaria. There are many legal political parties, citizens associations, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), cultural organizations, clubs, etc. Ethnic, religious and linguistic communities freely conduct their activities in accordance with the Law on Individuals and Family. Concerning freedom of expression, slander can no longer be punished by imprisonment and the level of possible fines was reduced by the National Assembly. 19. The National Council of Radio and Television is empowered by law to protect the freedom of expression, the independence of Radio and TV operators and public interest. The National Council diligently monitors whether the principle of pluralism in the Bulgarian National Television and Radio is complied with. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in conformity with international standards, which is recognized by most confessions and non-governmental organizations in the country. A new Law on Religions has been adopted in 2002.

Bulgaria has confirmed its resolve to improve conditions in prisons in compliance with international requirements. Conditions in prisons and correctional facilities have been steadily improving, though there are still some problems, such as overcrowded cells, the quality of meals and sanitation conditions. Concerning preliminary arrests conditions in some detention facilities still seem to be not fully satisfactory. Also, a number of NGOs have come up with reports on police violence in the period following the last periodic report. They also allege that complaints against the actions by law-enforcement officials claiming brutal treatment of those arrested are not always investigated thoroughly.

The Constitutional Court (established in 1991) has an important role in the sphere of human rights protection. It is not part of the judicial system proper. The main function of the Constitutional Court is to provide mandatory interpretations of the Constitution and to rule on the constitutionality of the acts of the National Assembly, including whether the said legal acts are in conformity with the human rights provisions contained in the Constitution. The Constitutional Court also rules on whether the laws of the country are compatible with the generally accepted norms of international law and with the international instruments to which Bulgaria is party. Thus, the Constitutional Court is one of the guarantees of the fulfillment of the obligations accepted by Bulgaria with its accession to international human rights instruments.

Presentation of the Report

DIMITER TZANTCHEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, presenting the report of Bulgaria, said that it had been many years since the presentation of the second periodic report of Bulgaria. Indeed, in the preceding decade Bulgaria had delayed its reports to the competent United Nations treaty bodies in the field of human rights. During that period, Bulgaria had made tremendous efforts to synchronize its domestic legislation with European Union norms and principles, including in the field of human rights protection. This process had required substantial legislative reviews and amendments, establishing new mechanisms for implementation and monitoring and, last but not least, building up the necessary administrative capacity. It should be noted that Bulgaria had already submitted consolidated versions of all its pending reports and the Government was determined to cooperate closely with the various United Nations treaty bodies in the field of human rights.

Mr. Tzantchev said that one example in this regard was the increased cooperation with the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council. In May 2011 Bulgaria was visited by Ms. Gabriela Knaul, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and just yesterday Ms. Gay McDougall, the Independent Expert on minority issues, ended her visit to Bulgaria. The Working Group of the Human Rights Council had finished the first Universal Periodic Review of Bulgaria. Of the 113 recommendations, they were able to accept 108 and the difficulties with the remaining 5 were linked mostly to constitutional constraints. The Universal Periodic Review was a unique exercise, which they went through with a lot of self-evaluation and self-criticism.

During the period covered by the report, Bulgaria had undergone tremendous changes, both in legislation and practice. They believed that these changes, which were inspired by their membership in the Council of Europe and the preparation to join the European Union, had brought about a stricter implementation of the provisions of the Covenant. The process of improvement continued as they tried to enhance their legislation and ensure the independence, impartiality and effective functioning of the judiciary; to improve the response of the executive to challenges in the field of human rights such as the protection of persons in vulnerable situations; the update of their integration policy; and the strengthening of mechanisms for control by civil society over the work of law enforcement authorities.

Mr. Tzantchev went on to say that during the last months the Government had extensively reviewed its policy aimed at fostering the equal integration of the Roma in their society. This was done also by elaborating an overall European Union framework for national action plans to improve the situation of Roma. The problems of the Roma in Bulgaria, like in most Central and European countries, were predominately of a socio-economic nature. Mr. Tzantchev stressed that all Bulgarian citizens of Roma origin enjoyed all the rights provided for in the constitution and domestic legislation which were based on the principles of non-discrimination and equality. In this sense, persons belonging to the Roma community had equal access to all public services and facilities, but they had to avail themselves of these services. The Government had undertaken various measures to increase the awareness of the Roma people in this regard.

In addition, amendments were introduced to the penal code to strengthen the response to hate speech and hate crimes, and the Ministry of the Interior had increased its cooperation with relevant international bodies to enhance its capacities in this regard. The Government had also continued its efforts to close all child-care institutions within the next 14 years and replace them with a network of community-based services similar to a family environment. The closure of institutions for children with disabilities and of medical and social care homes for children aged 0 to 3 years was also a priority. In the meantime, the conditions in these state and municipal childcare institutions had been improved.

The head of the delegation said that in April 2011 Bulgaria had ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and the ombudsman had expressed willingness to perform the duties of a national preventive mechanism under this protocol. New legislation was passed on the creation of a special court system to deal with cases of organized crime and corruption and a completely new unified election code was adopted which they believed would increase the safeguards for free and democratic elections.

Mr. Tzantchev said that partnerships with non-governmental organizations had increased, as several ministries had decided to avail themselves of the monitoring mechanisms of civil society to enhance effectiveness. For example, the Ministry of the Interior had established cooperation with the Open Society Institute to monitor the implementation of projects related to the preparation of Bulgaria to join the Schengen area. The Open Society Institute was also engaged with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy on elaborating benchmarks to measure the effects of the integration policy. The independent human rights institutions, the ombudsman and the Commission on Protection against Discrimination had applied for accreditation before the International Coordinating Committee in accordance with the Paris Principles.
Questions Raised by Committee Experts

A Committee member said that Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union was significant because this implied a high standard of human rights and the expectation that a country would fulfil its commitments under the Covenant.

Was the Covenant recognized by the judiciary in Bulgaria? If not, was this because they had become a part of the European Union and the Council of Europe and these laws thus overshadowed the International Covenant which had taken a backseat to European Union law? The Committee Expert quoted from a recent court ruling that said that international instruments were binding on the State, but not the courts. Was this in fact the case?

What legal reforms had been undertaken in the run up to the country joining the European Union, both on the normative side and the judicial side? How did Bulgaria handle the sensitive issue of judicial oversight and the balancing of judicial independence and judicial discipline? How did Bulgaria handle corruption in the justice system, not only with judges, but also with police officers and prosecutors? What damages could be awarded for someone who sued the State for a lack of proper functioning? What were the grounds for the deprivation of liberty? There were reports that mentally ill people, aliens and school children could be deprived of their liberty without due course. How was the juvenile delinquency act applied? Could the delegation elaborate on alleged cases of police brutality? What remedies were available to people who had been illegally deprived of their liberty?

Another Committee Expert raised questions about counter-terrorism measures and their impact on the enjoyment of human rights and how judicial decisions or court decisions were communicated to the public and disseminated to the citizenry?

Bulgaria had adopted strategies to address many issues, but strategies were not changed and were not the reality. So Bulgaria had some way to go in making these strategies a reality and the courts seemed to be a little lost in the application of obligations undertaken by the State in the form of treaties and international instruments. What powers of enforcement did the national commissions have? There seemed to be a lot of “passing the buck” among institutions, all of them saying it was not their responsibility to enforce these obligations. The courts passed the responsibility on to a commission which then passed it on to another department.

There did not seem to be any laws in the penal code related to torture that was in line with international norms and standards and this concern had already been voiced by the Committee against Torture and the European Court of Human Rights. Another issue of great concern to this Committee member was the issue of domestic violence. Domestic violence victims faced many hurdles, including pressing charges against perpetrators. In Bulgaria, did criminal prosecutors fulfil their mandate and try these perpetrators and could the delegation provide statistics on cases prosecuted on a civil basis? The Expert also asked for more information on human trafficking and what was being done to combat this. Also, was corporal punishment criminalized in the country?

Gender stereotyping in the press could undermine efforts to achieve equality between men and women. Could the delegation provide examples of complaints that had been submitted to a committee on gender equality and the outcome of any such complaints? Turning to domestic violence legislation in the county, a Committee member said that he was surprised that the law on domestic violence had been formulated in gender neutral terms. From a practical perspective, how was this applied? How many complaints received related to women and how many were filed by men? The Expert called on the State to reconsider its stance on domestic violence in light of developments in international law that saw domestic violence as a violation of the rights of women.

Response by the Delegation

The Bulgarian delegation said that with regards to the Covenant, it was applicable in the country although there was no record of any such application in court cases. This was probably because judges were more likely to apply the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe. International treaties were part of internal legislation and created equal rights and obligations for all subjects in the country.

The law on confiscation had not been adopted, but it was under discussion and in its first reading in the parliament. This law would allow the confiscation of ill gotten gains from organized crime.

Corruption under Bulgarian law was a crime and disciplinary and administrative measures could be taken against members of the judiciary who were found to be corrupt. As far as the Supreme Judicial Council was concerned this was regulated by the Judicial Powers Act which entered into force in 2007. The Supreme Judicial Council was created in 1991 and consisted of 25 persons, 11 of them elected, 6 were judges, 4 of whom were prosecutors and 1 of whom was an investigator. Terms of members were five years and they could not serve consecutive terms. This Council was now a permanent body and they had two commissions: one for professional capacity and another for ethical questions and questions of corruption. Ten members of the Supreme Judicial Council made up each commission. Magistrates had to declare their incomes and property before the National Audit Office and they had to file conflict of interest declarations. Magistrates also could not resign if they had charges levelled against them; they had to wait until the proceedings were completed and the findings made public. Another measure to combat corruption was the timely exchange of information between the permanent commissions of the Supreme Judicial Council and the representative of non-governmental organizations for any allegations of corruption crimes. There was also a permanent interaction between the Supreme Judicial Council and non-governmental organizations concerning disciplinary cases of magistrates.

From 2007 to 2011 there were 192 disciplinary cases filed against magistrates with the following results: 1 was reprimanded, 1 was censured, 16 had a reduction in pay, 11 had a demotion in rank, 7 of them were barred from office and 6 were placed on disciplinary leave. Magistrates were also not immune from criminal charges and from 2007 to 2011 23 such cases had been filed with various outcomes ranging from dismissal to acquittal.

The National Institute of Justice, a body of the Supreme Judicial Council, was responsible for the education of judges, including continuing education.

The Council for Electronic Media was responsible for monitoring radio and television broadcasts, music videos, commercials, films and other electronic media. Citizens could lodge complaints directly with this body and the procedure for complaints was accessible to all free of charge. There were other organizations active on issues of gender stereotyping that monitored the media for instances of gender stereotyping and they also worked on awareness-raising campaigns to shed light on such issues.

With regard to human trafficking, the delegation said that combating this phenomenon was a priority for the Bulgarian Government and they worked on the international, regional, national and local levels. The Bulgarian penal code prohibited all forms of trafficking and the minimum sanctions for this offence had been increased in 2009. Getting victims of trafficking to cooperate with police was a major problem and they were all eligible for free medical care, accommodation in a shelter for up to 30 days or the end of criminal proceedings and other assistance. Data from 2010 showed that there were 316 investigations, 112 indicted persons, 106 convictions and 432 registered victims, of which 394 were woman and 7 were children. Bulgaria and Greece cooperated a great deal to combat human trafficking.

Turning to corporal punishment, the delegation said there was a legislative ban on such punishment.

Domestic violence was clearly defined in Bulgarian legislation with the Protection against Domestic Violence law which was adopted in 2005. There were restraining orders which prohibited abusers from going near the home or workplace of victims and abusers could be forced to leave the shared home. In 2009 an amendment was made to the penal code which established punishment for non-compliance with protection orders for domestic violence.

Since its founding, 838 complaints had been made to the Commission on Protection against Discrimination. The draft law for equal opportunity for women and men was currently under consideration. It had been sent back to the relevant bodies after it was found to have too much overlap with non-discrimination laws.

On the issue of excessive use of force by police or security forces, the Ministry of the Interior had taken measures to combat the root causes of alleged violations by security officers. There was a mandatory and compulsive procedure whenever there were allegations of excessive force or abuse of power. There was a code of ethics for police officers and this was enforced by the Permanent Commission on Human Rights and Police Ethics. Magistrates conducted investigations into allegations of abuse, not police officers. Detained persons had to be informed immediately of their rights to legal counsel, medical assistance, free choice of lawyers and the reasons for their detention. They also had a right to receive visitors and parcels and their right to consular services and interpreters if they did not speak the language.

Under the Bulgarian criminal code there were specific provisions for the corruption of judges, investigators, policemen and these were seen as aggravating circumstances. Regarding the criminalization of torture, the prohibition under article 7 of the Covenant was covered under the Bulgarian criminal code.

Turning to the Roma community, the delegation said the Government had undertaken numerous measures and policies for the inclusion of Roma, including a special commission on the integration of Roma. Any land evictions that had taken place had taken place only after lengthy legal procedures which often took years and allowed parties to find appropriate accommodations. Structures could be condemned if they posed a health risk such as a lack of water and sanitation or were built on land that was rightfully owned by someone else.

Questions by Committee Experts

A Committee member asked when corruption against a judge became a criminal matter versus an administrative matter. Would a conviction on corruption charges lead to automatic dismissal of a judge? How many corruption cases had been brought against police officers, prosecutors and other actors in the criminal justice system? Were there other penalties for judges other than administrative when they were found guilty of wrongdoing, such as fines?

Could the delegation provide more information on cases prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws? There did not seem to be very many. Another Committee member expressed concerns about the criminal code’s handling of domestic violence and prosecution of this crime. Providing shelters and hotlines was not enough and perpetrators had to be prosecuted. The delegation was asked for more detailed information about human trafficking and what was being done to combat the phenomenon.

The next speaker asked what aspects of Bulgaria’s law on excessive use of force were not consistent with European or international standards and whether this played a role in the fact that no findings of excessive use of force had been reached in the country. Could Bulgaria explain why protection against domestic violence laws was gender neutral and what impact this had on women? Violence against women was seen by the international community as discrimination against women and something to be eliminated.

Did judges have to declare their property and what were the ways and means of monitoring this and did they have to explain the sources of the property? If a judge was accused of corruption, what was the procedure for charging them? Another Expert had serious concerns about article 26 and its impact on the enjoyment of civil and political rights.

Response by Delegation

On the issue of juvenile crime and delinquency, the delegation said that the need for change had been established by the Government and several projects had been completed such as the establishment of a working group to prepare proposals for amendments to the relevant legislation such as the criminal code, the law on child protection and the law on the judiciary. All of these changes would be included in a new juvenile justice approach as recommended by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. There was also discussion of changes to the law on the protection of children where the measures for prevention and support of children and their families would be included. With the help of the United Nations Children's Fund, judges and lawyers were being trained in this regard. There was also a long-term goal to establish a children’s court, but currently they had to use existing legal structures.

Turning to the definition of domestic violence in Bulgarian legislation, the delegation said the legislature had chosen a broad approach that did not specify gender in the definition so that any members of the family subjected to domestic violence could access legal remedies. This would not be the case if domestic violence was defined solely as being against women.

International treaties that were ratified, published and had entered into force became part of the law of the land and all provisions were directly applicable in Bulgarian courts and all subjects of the domestic law were bound by the provisions and obligations of these treaties and entitled to the rights contained therein.

The delegation said that they were unsure whether nine cases referred to by a Committee member had been dealt with under anti-terrorism laws or other provisions of the criminal code. Turning to high-level corruption cases, currently there were 12 pending cases of corruption against ministers and deputy-ministers of the previous government. Four of these cases had been brought to court and were pending while the other eight cases were currently under investigation by the prosecutor’s office. In addition there were another 22 cases pending against high-level state officials such as mayors, local governors and high level policemen.

The delegation said that perhaps the working group on legal reform would consider adding a definition of torture that met United Nations standards. Turning to corruption, Bulgaria recently established an analytical and preventive body specializing in corruption and they were also party to European Union conventions on the subject. High-level officials had to declare their assets every year under the law and the process and information was very transparent in that it was published online on the website of the national auditing office and the Supreme Judicial Council. They had to declare income and property as well as the source of all assets. Regarding immunity of judges and prosecutors from criminal proceedings, when the constitution was amended in 2007 immunity for these people was abolished and they no longer enjoyed any immunity for criminal offences. Judges, prosecutors and investigators did enjoy functional immunity which meant they could not be punished for their work, for example court decisions they had handed down or investigations prosecutors conducted. This was to prevent retaliation against law enforcement officials for carrying out their duties. They were also prohibited from engaging in activities, such as political activities, that could affect their independence or pose a conflict of interest. Judges had to declare any activities that might pose such a conflict. Judges did not bear civil or financial responsibility for any errors resulting from their work.

On the issue of depravation of liberty of minors, the delegation responded that there were no special juvenile courts but there were special rules governing crimes perpetrated by minors that every judge, investigator and prosecutor had to follow. People were specially trained in these rules and not everyone could try or investigate juvenile cases. Minors received mandatory legal representation, including court appointed lawyers for those who could not afford representation. Concerning the law on juvenile anti-social behaviour, there were 13 sentences that could be imposed including assignment to a boarding house or reform school.

In 2010 there were 97 cases of excessive force against police officers, which resulted in 27 convictions, 3 acquittals and 30 cases dismissed as baseless. The criteria for using force by police officers were laid out in legislation and they could use fire arms only in extreme cases of danger and threat and after the use of fire arms they had to file a written report.

Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members

Had the State party considered alternatives to imprisonment such as electronic monitoring, an Expert asked?

The State had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, but it had not acceded to it. When would this happen? Had non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations participated in the preparation of the report? How was the work of the Committee disseminated to the public as well as awareness of the Covenant and its direct applicability in the legal sphere?

What was the mechanism for dealing with communications alleging violations under the Covenant?

The conditions in childcare institutions were a source of concern for a Committee member who said that there were allegations they did not meet international standards. What was being done to integrate these children into society and what was the timetable for closing some of these institutions?

What had been done about the 20 May 2011 attack on a mosque? In the last two decades there had been 110 attacks on Muslim places of worship. There had also been an attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses. What was being done to address this? Despite laws to combat hate speech and anti-Semitism, reports said that these were worrying trends and 17 incidents related to anti-Semitism had been reported between 2009 and 2010. Anti-Semitic books were sold in bookshops and served to incite hatred in general and anti-Semitism in particular. The writers of these books made money from them and were not subject to criminal prosecution. What measures had been adopted to combat this? It seemed that some television channels also disseminated programmes that incited to hate and anti-Semitism. Some stations had been fined, but these fines had been reduced by the courts and the channels continued the anti-Semitic broadcasts. The criminal code did not consider anti-Semitism an aggravating circumstance.

What had been done to implement the decision of the European Court on the registration of non-governmental organizations and political parties? There had also been arrests during peaceful assemblies. Could the delegation address these concerns about the rights to peaceful assembly and association?

Could the delegation also address reports of early marriage among Roma children?

Did all religions enjoy the same rights under Bulgarian law or did members of the Russian Orthodox Church enjoy greater rights for freedom of religion?

Response by Delegation

The delegation reiterated that all childcare institutions should be closed by 2025 and replaced with foster care and alternative care situations similar to a home-based environment. In 2010 a national strategy was adopted for the de-institutionalization of children that was elaborated with 23 non-governmental organizations and the United Nations Children’s Fund. This national strategy was updated every year and had financial resources allocated to it.

Religious rights and freedoms were guaranteed under the constitution in article 13. The necessary pre-trial proceedings were underway for attacks that had taken place on Jehovah’s Witnesses and seven people had already been charged under various laws and the political party that incited the attacks was also under review. The attack on the mosque in Sofia on 20 May had been widely condemned by the parliament and other areas of society and the political party that had incited it had been denounced in parliament and had isolated itself. An investigation had been opened into the incident and they were identifying all participants who would be brought to justice.

People who performed underage marriages were subject to prosecution.

Special surveillance means were used on very rare occasions. Their use was legally regulated in the criminal procedure code and courts had to authorize their use. Amendments were made to the law to bring it in line with European Union rules and to strengthen rules on the destruction of the tapes when the material was no longer needed and the protection of people’s rights. Earlier this year a roundtable discussion took place that focused on two main issues: how to make more effective use of special surveillance in court proceedings and how to strengthen the protection of personal inviolability.

The delegation then turned to the issue of hate speech. The Government was committed to battling hate speech and the spread of racial hatred. The State, in cooperation with citizens, planned, organized and performed activities to prevent and stop the use of hate speech and to confront any displays of any kind of xenophobia, racism or intolerance. Hate speech in the media was illegal and perpetrators could be fined. The monitoring body for journalism ethics also monitored the media for any signs of public incitement to racism, intolerance or xenophobia.

The State had taken measures to improve conditions in prison such as the action plan to address issues such as overcrowding in prisons. They were also exploring alternatives such as early release from prison, amnesty, electronic monitoring and probation to alleviate overcrowding. Foreigners were entitled to free legal aid, including refugees.

Amendments to the criminal code on 27 May allowed for racist and xenophobic motivations to be considered as aggravating circumstances in certain crimes such as homicide and bodily injury. Instances of anti-Semitism were covered under the definition of racial and xenophobic motivations. Seventy per cent of all criminal cases were resolved in three months in Bulgaria so the hearing of cases in a reasonable time was very important in the country and observed. The new civil and criminal procedural codes aimed to improve this number further. There were also discussions of whether to establish financial remedies for people whose cases were not heard in a reasonable time. In addition, there were discussions of how to address the summoning of the accused and witnesses and the possibility of hearing a case in the absence of the accused if they did not appear before the court on the appointed date. This was one of the things that slowed down judicial procedures so they were trying to address this issue as a way of ensuring that cases were heard in a reasonable time.

Alternatives to imprisonment were an important tool to solving prison overcrowding. Probation had been instituted to an alternative and in 2009 52 per cent of sanctioned people were given probation and without this the prisons would be even more overcrowded.

Sexual relations with a minor were criminalized under Bulgarian law.

Additional Questions by Committee Members

In an additional round of follow-up questions, an Expert asked whether the procedural safeguards for refugees and asylum seekers were sufficient under Bulgarian law and in keeping with European Union and international standards. There was also a question about missing Bulgarian sailors who were on a ship that sank in the Black Sea in 2004 and there were questions surrounding the official story of this accident. What had been done to follow-up on this matter?

In the case of early marriages, most of these were not performed before a judge, but rather were performed under customary or traditional law and thus were harder to track. What information could the delegation provide on prosecutions of these cases?

The Committee members said the answers to these questions could be submitted in writing.

Response by Delegation

The delegation said that refugees and asylum seekers enjoyed the same rights as Bulgarian citizens, including the right to free legal assistance and the right to an interpreter to translate all documents and proceedings. Unaccompanied minors also received free legal assistance.

Concluding Remarks

DIMITER TZANTCHEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, in concluding remarks, thanked Committee members for their interest and questions. The interaction between the delegation and the Committee was very useful as it allowed them to provide a better picture of the situation in the country and allowed them to get a better picture of where they could make improvements. They believed that they had done their best to answer the Committee’s questions over the two day review.

ZONKE ZANELE MAJODINA, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for their comprehensive oral and written replies which had given the Committee insight into Bulgaria’s compliance under the Covenant. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination seemed to be doing good work and the laws on the use of force by law enforcement were being revised to comply with European Union standards and national action plans for the integration of the Roma had been instituted. Areas of concern included the independence of the judiciary and the training of people in the legal profession on the provisions of the Covenant, the definition of torture, issues relating to discrimination, and freedom of expression and religion. The issue of corruption was consistently a matter of concern and had to be combated at all levels of government.

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