European Court issues two judgments against Bulgaria

Bulgaria found liable for police abuse of Roma on two separate occasions.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Budapest, Hungary

On 26 February 2004, the European Court of Human Rights announced its judgment in two cases, Tzekov vs. Bulgaria and Ognyanova and Choban vs. Bulgaria. The applicants in both cases, Mr Tzeko Tzekov and Ms Zoya Ognyanova and Giulfere Choban, all Bulgarian Roma, were represented by lawyers for the European Roma Rights Centre, in cooperation with the Human Rights Project.

In the first case, Tzekov v. Bulgaria, Mr. Tzekov who was 29 at the time was travelling in a horse-drawn cart full of maize and was ordered to stop. When he did not stop, the police chased the cart and then fired four shots, one of which hit the applicant in the back. The applicant was arrested and taken to the hospital to undergo surgery. No criminal charges were ever brought against the applicant. Neither were charges brought against the officers. The applicant brought a civil action which was dismissed on the basis that the shooting was in conformance with law. The application before the European Court of Human Rights was lodged in 1998.

The Court found a violation of the positive obligation of the Government to adopt adequate legislation under Article 3 of the Convention. The Court was concerned that regulations of the use of firearms under domestic law allowed use of a firearm to arrest a suspect even for minor non-violent the offences. Therefore, at the time, the legal framework of Bulgaria was insufficient. Further, in the specific case there was no evidence that the police believed the persons had done any violent crime or were dangerous; therefore, the use of firearms was not justified. The court also held that the investigation into the incident by the government was not thorough and effective because the authorities only looked at whether the police complied with the legislation not whether the legislation complied with human rights. Thus Article 3 was violated both in substance and procedure. The Court rejected the applicant's claim of a violation of Article 2 (right to life) as the force used against him was not of a type to threaten his life. The applicant was hit by a special plastic bullet, which was designed to immobilise the target and fired from a specific distance could not threaten life.

In the second case, Ognyanova and Choban v. Bulgaria, the Applicants were the wife and mother of Mr. Stefanov who was arrested for allegedly participating in thefts and burglaries. Mr. Stefanov died on the following day, allegedly from a fall from the third floor of the police station. In the investigation and autopsy, numerous injuries were found on his body. The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 17 November 1998.

The court found a violation of Article 2 (right to life) as the Government failed to provide a plausible explanation of the incident that caused Stefanov's death. There were inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the medical reports, witness testimony was not reliable and there was no reason to believe that Stafanov had committed suicide or been drunk. The investigation was also inadequate because of possible pressure on witnesses and omissions in the work which indicated a lack of objectivity and thoroughness.

The court likewise found a violation of Article 3 (freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment) because it was unlikely that the injuries were caused only from the fall nor were they accounted for in the medical reports. Since the government could not explain the injuries obtained after taking Mr. Stefanov into custody, there was a violation of Article 3.

The court found a violation of Article 5.1 because there were no facts or documents about why Mr. Stefanov had been taken into custody in the first place. Since there was no effective criminal investigation, there was no effective remedy and Article 13 was also violated. Unfortunately the court did not find a violation of Article 14 (discrimination) finding that no concrete indication of racist attitudes had been shown.

For further information on the case, please contact Dianne Post ERRC Legal Director at +36-1-413-2221 (dianne.post@errc.org).

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