Committee against Torture hears response of Bulgaria

10 November 2011

The Committee against Torture this afternoon heard the response of Bulgaria to questions raised by Committee Experts on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of that country on how it is implementing the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Responding to a series of questions raised by the Committee members on Wednesday, 9 November, the delegation, led by Dimiter Tzantchev, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, confirmed that the Ministry of Interior had investigated cases of torture, which had resulted in prosecutions. Provisions for compensation or rehabilitation for victims of torture and ill-treatment were embedded in law and in practice they resulted in financial pay-outs to the victims or their families. Measures taken to alleviate prison overcrowding and improve facilities were listed at length, as were the wide-ranging reforms to de-institutionalize State childcare, particularly for children with disabilities. The delegation also answered questions on solitary confinement, rehabilitation and training for prisoners, measures to fight hate crime, particularly directed at the Roma, domestic violence, judicial reform and the role of the Ombudsman in protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms.

The Committee will submit its conclusions and recommendations on the report of Bulgaria at the end of the session on Friday, 25 November, 2011.

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 next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Friday, 11 November when it will begin its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Belarus (CAT/C/BLR/4).

Response from the Delegation

DIMITER TZANTCHEV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that a comprehensive definition of the crime of torture would come from the Working Group in due course. The Bulgarian Constitution stated that the protection of human rights could not be abolished or suspended in any circumstances.

Bulgarian legislation stated that detainees must be allowed to see a lawyer in private within two hours of their arrest. The lawyer must be given access to his client within 30 minutes of arriving at a police station. A booklet which listed in detail the rights of detainees had been widely distributed, in nine languages, across police stations and some Government offices.

The Ministry of Interior investigated complaints of ill treatment and torture. For example, in 2007 there were 37 checks stemming from complaints against police officers; 35 cases were held and five policemen were convicted as a result.

The provisions for compensation and rehabilitation to crime victims, including those of torture or ill treatment, were established in the Constitution. The exact amount of compensation was decided by the national courts. A victim of a criminal offence, including torture, may file a civil suit seeking compensation for damages. If it was a criminal offence, and the aggrieved party had sustained grave bodily harm, the victim had another option: they could apply for national compensation under the new 2007 Victims of Crime Act. Financial compensation was provided on a one-time basis for offences committed after June 2005. If a victim had died the compensation would be paid to the closest relatives. The amount of compensation was up to 5,000 Bulgarian Lev (approx. US $3,500) if the victim was alive and 10,000 Bulgarian Lev (approx. US $7,000) if the victim was deceased.

There was no doubt that overcrowding in prisons was a problem that reflected negatively on all correctional institutions and meant that Bulgaria was not meeting the international standards set by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However prison overcrowding was not just a prison-related matter; overcrowding was a complex problem that was difficult to solve. Strategies were adopted for the period 2008 to 2015, which included one strategy adopted in 2010 on the improvement of prisons and all penitentiary institutions, which set aside 20 million Bulgarian Lev to fund prison improvements. From 2008 to 2010 prisons in Sofia, Bobov dol, Plovdiv, Bourgas and Vratsa underwent modernization. Plovdiv prison saw the greatest improvements, including new detention facilities. A new institution for 450 prisoners would be opened next to Bourgas prison in 2012, to reduce overcrowding in the latter, and the prison Razdelna, next to Varna, had also been reconstructed and would be in operation next year.

In 2010 over 1,300 prisoners took educational courses, and a further 610 prisoners underwent 56 different cognitive specialized programmes, including anger management, overcoming aggressive behaviour, conflict solution and personality development. There were also long and short-term programmes for drug addicts and alcoholics. The Government received assistance and training from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to implement those programmes.

More prisoners were being released on parole; in 2012 1,014 prisoners – over ten per cent of the total prisoners of Bulgaria - were set free. For the period of 2005 to 2009, increasing numbers of prisoners were given parole, and by 2009 almost 50 per cent of prisoners (16,000) gained parole. Other ways of decreasing the prison population was through amnesty; in 2010, 45 prisoners were pardoned. Another method of reducing the harmful effects of overcrowding was to allow all prisoners two hours per day in the open air. Young men under the age of 25 served their sentences in the juvenile institution at Boichinovtsi, while those under 21 were sent to more open juvenile detention centres.

There was a very serious question on solitary confinement. Three kinds of solitary confinement were set in Bulgarian legislation; all of which were used as disciplinary methods, usually for 14 days. In 2002 only 26 persons underwent solitary confinement, so it was a rare punishment. The longest period of solitary confinement allowed was two months.

It was expressively forbidden to have rails in police stations to handcuff detainees to.

It was difficult to manage prison staff, and there were not enough candidates to fill all the job vacancies in prisons.

The figures showing disciplinary cases in prisons were possibly high because when a prison governor disciplined a prisoner he was obliged to show the legal grounds, thus legislating all small fights, quarrels and offending words, etcetera, although of course overcrowding inevitably caused aggressive behaviour.

The 2009 criminal case where a 19 year old boy died in a road accident, which triggered outrage among local residents, was mainly due to a feeling of impunity of a Roma person who perpetrated the incident, and his family. That person was arrested and pre-trial proceedings were underway. Tragically there were attempts to use the death in order to stir up ethnic intolerance, and that was condemned by the Government. An enquiry looked into ways to prevent that happening in the future, with particular regard to hate crime, racial violence and ethnic intolerance. Any person found guilty of those crimes would be sentenced to prison for up to two years and fined. That night over 100 persons were detained, and various charges brought against them, including hate speech and ethnically-motivated crimes.

The police worked actively with the Roma and other communities to prevent that happening in the future, all the while guaranteeing people’s freedom of assembly in Bulgaria. Other wide-ranging measures were being taken to protect the Roma from discrimination, and the Government’s policy was that education was one of the most effective future deterrents.

A member of the delegation who was not a Government official but represented the judiciary spoke at length about the Bulgarian judicial system and its reform. A key reform was the permissibility of evidence obtained through torture. Indictment could not rely solely on the testimony of a defendant. Despite the lack of specific statistics, the Bulgarian court did respect Article 15 of the Convention, and the delegate highlighted a recent acquittal by the Supreme Court of a person accused of conspiring to murder the President in the late 1990s because his testimony had been illegally obtained. Affirming the acquittal, the court said ‘this court cannot accept the fruit of the poisonous tree because violence had been used’.

The Ombudsman was elected by the National Assembly and mandated to defend citizens’ rights and freedoms. A recent example was of the institution of the Ombudsman acting to protect the best interest of a child, following complaints that media coverage of a court case involving minors was not in compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and published sensitive details about the minors. The Ombudsman found that the media coverage had indeed violated the Code of Ethics of the Bulgarian media, and took corresponding action. Another example of the Ombudsman’s work was his action following complaints of the violation of Roma citizen’s rights during an eviction from their place of illegal residence in ‘Sheker Mahala’; as a result of his intervention the eviction was prevented.

The law for the protection of domestic violence recognized the importance of combating domestic violence in the family, and made it clear that it was no longer a private concern, but a public concern. The law provided for some criminal procedures but remained principally in the stricture of civil procedures which meant less of the burden of proof was upon the victim. Protection orders from three to 18 months were available under the law, and in cases of serious threat to the life of the victim urgent 24 hour orders could be issued.

In June 2010 a project named Childhood For All was launched, which aimed to change the philosophy of institutional care of children with disabilities by providing residential care with a family environment for every child, and parallel healthcare services. Most importantly all new children’s residential homes – whether foster homes or small residential homes (with a maximum capacity of 12 children) would be situated in big cities with access to the best educational facilities and healthcare. Doctors made monthly check ups on children, and updated their movement, therapy and feeding regimes as needed. The Social Agency for Child Protection, with assistance from a British foundation, had introduced wider-ranging training on feeding, raising and working with children who had severe physical and mental disabilities, and 80 representatives from professional organizations had participated in that training.

Follow-Up Questions from Committee Experts

MYRNA KLEOPAS, the Committee Expert who served as Rapporteur for the report of Bulgaria, said that she maintained her position on the need for Bulgarian legislation to define and criminalize torture. She noted that the use of firearms by police was still in need of reform, and asked how the authority was able to exercise its universal jurisdiction as provided for in Article 9. There had been no answer on the problem of forced marriage of young children, those aged 11 and 12 years old. Could the delegation elaborate on the issue?

Ms. Kleopas referred to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges, who said the judiciary of Bulgaria appeared to be under-staffed and under-resourced, and was concerned about the independence, efficiency and accountability of the entire judicial system. Did the State party intend to establish an independent body to deal with judicial reform?

XUEXIAN WANG, the Committee Expert who served as Co-Rapporteur for the report of Bulgaria, said he did recognize the achievements of the State party: the positive aspects would be duly acknowledged, but the Committee’s role was to investigate the problems. Mr. Wang asked that the delegation provide specific examples, rather than detail of policy and legislation. He asked about 26 ongoing cases of complaints about prison conditions. He also asked about the deaths of mentally-disabled children – had any persons been indicted over their deaths, which were directly caused by negligence?

Hate speeches were a great cause of worry among Committee members, especially those by political leaders: had any person been indicted for making hate speeches? Also could the delegation comment on harassment of journalists?

What was the age of criminal responsibility, and the state of the juvenile crime system, including punishment by imprisonment?

A Committee Expert raised the issue of access of non-governmental organizations (NGO) to detainees, and specifically why the NGO Helsinki Committee needed prior permission to visit persons in police custody as well as the authorization of the prosecutor to visit detainees in remand custody – those pending trial – when they were allowed access to visit convicted prisoners?

An Expert asked about the use of solitary confinement as a punishment, as medical studies had shown solitary confinement could be psychologically devastating to a person. The State party said they used progressively stricter forms of solitary confinement, which went from 14 days, to two months, and even six months as the strongest punishment. Solitary confinement could directly cause depression, anger, perceptual and psychological distortions, paranoia, psychosis, self-harm and finally suicide.

What had been done to prevent deportees being from tortured upon return to their country? There had been a case involving two Palestinian men. Bulgaria received 977 applications for asylum in the last 12 months. What measures did the State party take to protect those applicants from being tortured?

Response by the Delegation

The delegation said that the penal code stated that minors could not be held criminally responsible under any circumstances. Persons between 14 and 18 were able to hold criminal responsibility so long as they understood and could control their behaviour and its consequences. The assessment was always made by a psychiatrist. Custodial sentencing for juveniles was always transferred from a prison to a juvenile boarding home. As of July 2011, 65 minors were serving their sentence in prison, which was less than 1 per cent of the entire prison population.

The law had to be changed to allow non-governmental organizations to visit persons in other types of custody, but it was difficult to decide who to allow in. Not every non-governmental organization in Bulgaria had the expertise and capacity of the Helsinki Committee, which was a very important civil society partner to the Government.

The criminal investigations into the deaths of children with disabilities in State institutions were being handled by the Prosecutor’s Office, and no, there had not yet been a successful conviction. Admittedly, the numbers were not very persuasive: there were 191 investigations currently underway, and of those 54 investigations were terminated and 117 were still pending. Unfortunately no person had been brought to court so far and thus nobody had been convicted. It was difficult to prove the reason of death a few years on, especially in children with disabilities who sometimes had terminal illness – it was a hard job to prove it, but 117 cases were still pending. One conviction did come to court, but it was in the late 1990s, and resulted in an acquittal.

Early marriage was forbidden under the penal code, but there had been over 800 cases, of which 100 were terminated and 55 suspended; the numbers showed that the Bulgarian prosecution did not neglect its duties to apply the law. Perpetrators were investigated and brought to court, despite the lack of support and approval of local ethnic communities who actively approved the marriage of their children.

The delegation had no information on the particular case of the Palestinian asylum seekers, especially if they were not sure whether they were from Lebanon, or if they were from Palestine; they could even be stateless. The Government had funded a new resource centre for asylum seekers and refugees, in which they were collecting information on countries where refugees could be returned to.

Regarding violence against journalists, an explosive device was recently set off under the car of a private journalist, who managed a TV station. The Government strongly condemned the attack and had started an investigation.

Domestic violence was always a crime, whichever family member committed the violence. Marital rape or the deprivation of liberty carried a punishment of 3 to 10 years imprisonment, while the punishment for murder of a family member carried a very high sentence, of 50 years.

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For use of the information media; not an official record