Committee against Torture begins examination of report of Bulgaria

9 November 2011

The Committee against Torture this morning began its consideration of the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports submitted by Bulgaria on how it implements the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Dimiter Tzantchev, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the 1991 Constitution of Bulgaria prohibited acts criminalized in the Convention against Torture, specifically stipulating that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or to forcible assimilation”. Committing an act of torture was illegal and the Prosecutor’s Office had taken measures to combat impunity; any alleged crimes would be investigated independently. In April 2011 Bulgaria ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention. It also had two national human rights institutions: the Ombudsman and the Commission of Protection against Discrimination. The Government had a strong partnership with civil society, particularly in providing human rights training for law-enforcement authorities, and monitoring places of detention and social institutions, including child-care institutions. The Government was closing all child-care institutions within 15 years, and the closure of institutions for children with disabilities, and medical and social care homes for newborn to three year old children was a priority. Similarly there had been reform and deinstitutionalization of State care for adults with mental disorders.

Myrna Kleopas, the Committee Expert who served as Rapporteur for the report of Bulgaria, was pleased that Bulgaria had ratified the Optional Protocol and would complete its work on it within the one year time limit, and noted new targets for reform. Ms. Kleopas asked about the status of a draft bill for the criminalization of torture, and whether the Convention was ever invoked by Bulgarian courts. She also asked the delegation about reform of the justice system, excessive use of force and firearms by police officers, corporal punishment of children and early marriage for girls.

Other Committee Experts raised questions about the deaths of children in State childcare institutions, particularly children with disabilities, and the reform of the said institutions. Issues including juvenile justice, the rights of detainees and their access to legal assistance, and prison conditions, including the use of solitary confinement, overcrowding and violence, measures to prevent hate speech and human trafficking, and the provision of support to victims of gender-based violence were also discussed.

The delegation from Bulgaria included representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Human Rights Directorate, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of Cassation, the Migration Directorate of the Ministry of Interior, the Criminal Police Directorate, the Standing Committee on Human Rights and Police Ethics, the Directorate of Bulgaria at the European Court of Human Rights, the Ministry of Justice, the State Agency for Child Protection, the State Refugee Agency at the Council of Ministers and the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will hear the response of Sri Lanka to questions raised yesterday by the Committee. It will hear the response of Bulgaria to the questions raised on Thursday, 10 November at 3 p.m.

Report of Bulgaria

The combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Bulgaria (CAT/C/BGR/4-5) note that the Republic of Bulgaria is party to all international human rights instruments which guarantee the comprehensive and unconditional prohibition of torture, inhuman treatment and punishment. According to Article 287 of the Penal Code, any public official acting in an official capacity who, in person or through another person, employs unlawful means of coercion to obtain information, a confession, a deposition or a conclusion from an accused, a witness or an expert witness, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term of 3 to 10 years. Also, a new Criminal Procedure Code was adopted and entered into force on 26 April 2006, thereby bringing about a qualitative change in the criminal procedural legislation.
The Republic of Bulgaria was continuing its review of the relevant legislative and statutory framework and had made the following amendments to its penitentiary legislation: a number of provisions were included in the Enforcement of Penalties Act in 2002 aimed towards improving the regime of enforcement of the penalties of imprisonment and life imprisonment; a Prison Economy Fund was created; the de-militarization of prison staff was completed; inmates have been given the right to submit complaints and petitions to human rights bodies under the United Nations and the Council of Europe, which the prison administration has no right to open and check; prison labour has been regulated in accordance with the principles of the free-market economy; and provisions were included in the law to ensure religious support for prison inmates.
Aliens seeking or already granted protection, who claim that they had been subjected to and suffered torture in their countries are covered both by the general health care system and by a specialized rehabilitation centre for victims of torture, with which the State Agency for Refugees has an agreement of cooperation. As for the theoretical possibility for an officer of the State Agency for Refugees to commit acts of torture, such an officer shall become subject to administrative and penal liability in accordance with the existing procedure.

Presentation of the Report

DIMITER TZANTCHEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that the 1991 Constitution of Bulgaria prohibited acts criminalized in the Convention against Torture, specifically stipulating that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or to forcible assimilation”. The principle of absolute prohibition of torture was legally defined in the 2010 Law on Execution of Penal Sanctions and Detention in Custody. Under the Penal Code any official who, whether alone or acting through another, took unlawful coercive action in order to extort confession, testimony or information, would be punished by deprivation of liberty. The Penal Code stated that any alleged crimes by police officers should be investigated by magistrates, not other members of the police force, and the Prosecutor’s Office had taken measures to combat impunity, such as shortening time limits for the examination of cases in the pre-trial phase, regular reporting on cases of detained persons and training of magistrates in international human rights law.

In April 2011 Bulgaria ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention, and the Ombudsman would perform the duties of a National Prevention Mechanism under that protocol. The institution of the Ombudsman had, since 2007, been inspecting places of detention, in cooperation with the Ministries of Justice and Interior. The Government also benefited from the strong and independent voice of civil society in all efforts aimed at strengthening the protection of human rights in Bulgaria. For over a decade there had been successful cooperation between law enforcement authorities and relevant non-governmental organizations, specifically in the field of prevention of torture and other human rights violations in places of detention. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee carried out monitoring visits not only to detained persons but also to social institutions, including child-care institutions. Its reports were public, and were followed up by the Prosecutor’s Office and the legislature.

The national human rights institutions; the Ombudsman and the Commission of Protection against Discrimination, along with non-governmental organizations and the Ministry of Interior, had carried out projects and programmes for training of officers in human rights and police ethics. The Government categorically believed that all child-care institutions must be closed within 15 years and replaced by a network of community-based services. The closure of institutions for children with disabilities and medical and social care homes for children from newborn to three years old was a priority. In the meantime conditions in State and municipal child-care institutions were being improved. Similarly there had been reform and deinstitutionalization of State care for adults with mental disorders, and a draft National Strategy was currently being publicly discussion.

Questions from Committee Experts

MYRNA KLEOPAS, the Committee Expert who served as Rapporteur for the report of Bulgaria, said that starting with positive developments, she was pleased that Bulgaria had ratified the Optional Protocol and would complete its work on it within the one year time limit. Ms. Kleopas also noted the new 2010 targets, but said the State party must not forget to implement existing targets as well. The draft bill for criminalization of torture by the State party as a separate crime was still pending: could the State party please explain the current status of that bill? Could the Convention be directly invoked by national courts, and had there been any cases where that had happened?

It seemed that access to a lawyer during the first 24 hours of police custody continued to be a reality only for those who could afford a private lawyer and hire one swiftly. She also noted that the police often failed to inform detainees of their rights, including access to a lawyer or legal aid.

Were the medical officers who carried out examinations of detainees, whether in police custody or prison, trained on recognizing signs of ill-treatment or torture in individuals, and how to bring that to the attention of an independent prosecuting body?

What measures had been taken by the State party to reform the justice and prosecution systems, in order to strengthen their efficiency, consistency and independence?

Excessive use of force and firearms by police officers was a serious stain on the Bulgarian human rights record, non-governmental organizations had reported. What measures had the State party taken to prevent the excessive use of force and firearms by law enforcement personnel, including review of legislation which allowed the use of firearms to arrest a suspect, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged offence or threat to other people?

Regarding the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, what measures had the State party taken in that regard, and did the State party intend to accede to the remaining pieces of international legislation? Was the current practice of transforming asylum seekers to detention facilities under review? The Committee had heard that in spring 2010, asylum seekers travelling to Bulgaria from Turkey were sentenced by a court for illegal entry, then detained in prison. That contravened the non-refoulement principle.

It was clear that incidents of domestic violence were very high in Bulgaria. The Human Rights Committee last year expressed regret at the low level of convictions of perpetrators of domestic violence; the Committee Against Torture believed that domestic violence, including marital rape, could amount to torture and should be treated as such by the State party. The widespread practice of early marriages in the Roma community, especially for girls under the age of 14, was a serious issue, despite the legal age of marriage being 18. The State party must adopt measures, including awareness-raising, on the consequences of early marriage and the rights of persons involved.

Corporal punishment of children was a serious concern, despite being prohibited by law. The Government must ensure the law was adhered to in all areas of life, including schools and homes, and instigate professional training on positive and non-violent forms of discipline.

XUEXIAN WANG, the Committee Expert who served as Co-Rapporteur for the report of Bulgaria, said he was deeply impressed by the beauty, reach and variety of Bulgaria during a recent visit, and appreciated the answers provided so far by the Committee. However, there were some questions still remaining: the first being training. A previous recommendation said Bulgaria should establish a methodology on training, including on the impact of training – had that been done?

The non-governmental organizations Bulgarian Helsinki Committee had reported that “Penitentiary institutions in Bulgaria, including investigative detention facilities and prisons, are largely obsolete, insanitary, overcrowded, and have substantial deficits in the provision of security and medical care”. In one prison cells allowed just one square metre per person; another had only forty beds, so inmates had to sleep on the floor space in between beds. The long-term investment programme aimed at improving prison facilities was welcomed, but urgent action needed to be taken to improve some of the serious and poor conditions. How many complaints about the conditions had been filed by inmates, and how many had reached the courts? Could the delegation provide statistics on deaths of detainees, as there were quite high numbers of deaths in custody? There was a serious shortage of prison staff in ratio to prisoners; in one prison one member of staff had to supervise 300 prisoners. While few people applied for vacancies to work in prisons, it was a serious situation and the State party needed tactics to recruit more staff. There had been a sizeable increase of violent incidents in prisons. What effective measures were being taken?

Mr. Wang expressed grave concern about the number of deaths of children with mental disabilities; 238 children had died since 2000. Over three-quarters of those deaths were described as avoidable, since they resulted from neglect, exposure to cold, long-term immobility, malnutrition, poor hygiene leading to infections and accidents. How many of those deaths had been investigated, how many cases reached court, and how many resulted in a conviction?

The narrow interpretation of domestic violence by courts was criticized by many parties: could the State party explain the situation? Furthermore, why did the issue of sexual violence remained ‘virtually unaddressed’? Forced early marriage, at the ages of 11 and 12 years, was against the law: so why had it not been stopped?

What was the Government’s response to a 2009 study showing that 34.8 per cent of respondees said corporal punishment was justifiable in certain situations? The same study showed that 10.9 per cent believed that corporal punishment was acceptable if the parent thought it would be effective. That showed a need for awareness-raising on the issue.

Bulgaria was a country with a variety of cultures, but the recent death of a young man, in December 2010, gave rise to some hate crimes. Some politicians even said the Roma communities were a ‘criminal element’ in Bulgarian society – such statements went too far and should have been punished. Even the High Commissioner of Human Rights issued a statement on the demonstrations, and the hate speech, not just by far-right parties but by many sectors. The Government should take a strong stance against hate speeches, and ensure police officers were deployed in sufficient numbers to protect Roma persons.

Could the delegation provide information on the number of cases of human trafficking, and on the sentences meted out to perpetrators, since 2008?

A Committee Expert asked about overcrowding in the remand facility of Plovdiv, where 11,000 prisoners were serving sentences, and what the situation there was today. There were plans to construct detention facilities in 45 police stations between 2010 and 2013, funded directly by the State budget. Had the resources been made available and had the project been initiated yet?

What rules governed the detention of a person in isolation? The report said that persons must not spend longer than six months in solitary confinement. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture issued a report on the subject in August this year, in which he said ‘solitary confinement used for the purpose of punishment could not be justified for any reason, as it imposed severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behaviour’. The Special Rapporteur urged States to prohibit use of solitary conferment as punishment or disciplinary tool. Where did Bulgaria stand on the use of solitary confinement?

As a member of the European Union Bulgaria must implement the harmonized system for asylum seekers; when an asylum seeker’s application was not admissible, for how long could they be detained and how did the system work?

An Expert recalled that when Italy closed its child-care institutions they had big problems with after-care, and noted that when a care system was deinstitutionalized, the State must take great care to ensure staff were properly trained. There had been many deaths of children in State care, and over 160 were being investigated, but would there be an investigation not only into the deaths, but also into the cases of maltreatment of children in institutions?

What support and psychological assistance was available to women and girls who had been victims of trafficking? Bulgaria was described more as a source of trafficking than a destination. While there were programmes to prevent babies being trafficked and sold, what prevention programmes were in place for women and girls?

Regarding justice for minors, the report said that criminal responsibility began at the age of 14, which was not in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The issue of anti-social behaviour needed to be set aside, as children who were in conflict with the law were still part of the future of Bulgaria, and the authorities needed to take responsibility for those children rather than bringing them to justice. The State party agreed in their written reply that police stations had iron bars, rails and chains, in order to chain those being held in police custody. What about the damages to persons chained up for 24 hours? Such chaining was an act that belonged to the past, and would cause physical and psychological damage. Were minors also chained up?

An Expert said that there was prison overcrowding the world over: if a democratic Government campaigning for re-election said their priority was to improve prison conditions, well, people probably would not vote for them. However, it was still an important issue, and part of the Committee’s remit to raise it. What was the status of prison reform in Bulgaria? How was it seen by society?

Concluding Remarks

DIMITER TZANTCHEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, thanked the Committee for their questions, and assured them they would be given due consideration. He hoped tomorrow the delegation would be able to reply to all of the questions, many of which had been touched upon in the report and on which the Government had already taken measures.

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