Discrimination against Roma in the Bulgarian Criminal Justice System

According to information provided to the ERRC by the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project (HRP), Bulgarian law enforcement officials apply misdemeanours legislation, namely the Decree on Petty Hooliganism, in a discriminatory way where Roma are concerned.

Following a request for information by the HRP, on December 8, 2003, the Regional Directorate of the Ministry of Interior in Pazardzhik reported that for the period January 1 through November 25, 2003, out of eleven decisions of the Pazardzhik District Court under the Decree, six decisions were against individuals who have their residence registered in the all-Romani neighbourhood Iztok of Pazardzhik, i.e. individuals who are presumably of Romani ethnicity. According to the same data, out of twenty-four individuals convicted under the Decree for the same period, fourteen were residents of Iztok Romani neighbourhood. According to the data provided by the Regional Directorate of the Ministry of Interior in Pazardzhik, about 60 percent of the decisions of the local court in Pazardzhik under the Decree are made against Roma, while Roma do not constitute more than 6 or 7 percent of the local population in Pazardzhik.

Furthermore, according to ERRC/HRP analysis, the Decree on Petty Hooliganism itself calls into question the respect for the fair trial guarantees contained in Article 6(1) and Article 6(3) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Decree's failure to respect these guarantees is demonstrated by the following two cases, reported by the HRP:

At around 7:00 PM on November 17, 2003, 60-year-old Mr Joseph Argirov and his 29-year-old son Ivan, Romani residents of the Iztok Romani neighbourhood of the central Bulgarian town Pazardzhik, were charged in accordance with the Decree on Petty Hooliganism after being beaten by police officers outside the premises of the local hospital in Pazardzhik, while mourning the death of their spouse and mother Zlatka. On the same day, Mr Argirov signed the charge against himself and his son Ivan in accordance with the Decree. Inspecting the police document charging Mr Argirov, the ERRC/HRP established that, in violation of the Act on Administrative Offences (Article 42(5)), the document did not mention under which Article of the Decree on Petty Hooliganism the two were charged. The text of the police document was made in one copy only and there is no evidence that a copy of it was given to Mr Argirov or Ivan, who were released from custody at around 1:00 AM on November 18.

On November 19, Mr Argirov received notice to appear in court at 10:30 AM the next day. At around 9:15 AM on November 20, Mr Argirov met an attorney hired by his family. The hearing started at 10:30 and lasted approximately forty minutes. Two police officers gave eyewitness testimony, as well as two hospital security guards who were on duty at the time of the incident and Ms Popova, sister to Joseph Argirov. Despite large discrepancies between the accounts of prosecution and defence witnesses, the court did not hear third-party witnesses to clarify the factual situation. The court also did not give weight to Ms Popova's statement because "[...] she is the sister of the offender Argirov and is trying to give evidence acquitting him," according to the court transcripts. Mr Argirov was sentenced to three days imprisonment at the Pazardzhik Police Station where he was taken directly from court. At around 4:15 PM on the same day, Mr Argirov fell ill and after being given two injections to lower his high blood pressure, he was released from custody due to aggravated health condition at 7:30 PM without serving the rest of his sentence.

In an earlier incident, again involving residents of the Romani neighbourhood Iztok in Pazardzhik, at around 6:00 PM on September 6, 2003, eighteen-year-old Romani man Mr Shteryo Georgiev got into a fight in the Iztok Romani neighbourhood and Mr Yanko Angelov, another Romani man from the neighbourhood, intervened. According to the testimony of Mr Angelov to the HRP, at about 9:00 PM, two police vehicles arrived and police officers arrested Mr Georgiev, Mr Angelov and a third unknown man. During the arrest, the officers beat Mr Georgiev, inflicting numerous injuries on his head and body. All three men were taken to the Pazardzhik Police Station where they were charged with petty hooliganism in accordance with Article 1 of the Decree. Mr Angelov testified that officers did not allow him to call a lawyer, though he requested one. On the following day, a Sunday, the three men appeared before the Pazardzhik District Court early in the day. The trial lasted not more than one hour. Mr Angelov testified that he did not have a lawyer and he was not allowed to bring witnesses in his defence or examine the evidence against him. According to Mr Angelov, the court gathered witness testimony from the officers only. The three Romani men were sentenced to fifteen days imprisonment at the Pazardzhik Police Station, the maximum punishment allowed under the Decree.

The defendants in the two cases described above were subjected to a criminal punishment - prison sentence - without being able to access the minimum rights guaranteed under the ECHR. In particular, 

  • One defendant was not allowed to have access to a lawyer (contrary to Article 6(3c));
  • One defendant was not allowed to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses in court (contrary to Article 6(3d));
  • Law enforcement officials failed to adequately inform the suspects of the charges against them and have refused to allow the defendants to examine the evidence against them (contrary to Article 6(3a)); and
  • Defendants did not have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence - cases have been brought before courts within 12 to 14 hours after the individuals have been charged or summoned to court (contrary to Article 6(3b)).

Finally, the convicted individuals have been denied the right to an effective remedy guaranteed by Article 13 as ECHR court decisions under the Decree are not subject to appeal.

On December 12, 2003, the ERRC and the HRP sent a letter to Mr Ognian Gherdjikov, Chair of the Bulgarian National Assembly, and to Mr Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, urging them to ensure that the allegations of human rights violations against the Romani individuals are properly investigated and the responsible law enforcement officials brought to justice; that the Decree on Petty Hooliganism be abolished and new legislation in conformity with the ECHR is adopted; that the allegations that individuals of Romani ethnicity have been disproportionately subjected to punishments under the Decree on Petty Hooliganism be investigated and a broader investigation into the respect for the human rights of the defendants of Romani ethnicity in the criminal procedure be launched; and to undertake immediate measures to prevent discriminatory treatment of Roma by law enforcement and judicial officials. (ERRC, HRP)

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