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Strasbourg Court Sanctions Bulgaria for Failure to Bring Perpetrators of Racist Killing to Justice

3 August 2007

States should use existing legal arsenal in fight against racism and deal effectively with racially motivated offences, says Court

On July 27, 2007 the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in the case of Angelova and Iliev v. Bulgaria concerning the racial killing of a Romani man by a group of teenagers on April 18, 1996 in Shumen, Bulgaria and the official investigation which followed. The Court held that Bulgaria was responsible for breaches of the procedural aspect of the right to life (Article 2), in conjunction with the prohibition of discrimination (Article 14). The applicants (the mother and wife of the victim respectively) were represented by lawyers acting for the European Roma Rights Centre in cooperation with the Human Rights Project in Sofia.

On April 18, 1996, the victim, twenty year old Mr Angel Dimitrov Iliev, was attacked, beaten severely and stabbed by a group of seven teenagers (all but one of whom were juveniles). The Romani man died from his wounds the following day. The police immediately tracked down the group of teenagers, who were detained and questioned in relation to the incident. Six of the teenagers were released whereas the seventh (suspected of having stabbed the victim to death) was remanded in custody to face a murder charge.

In their statements, the teenagers expressed their hatred of Roma as well as other minority groups and immigrants and testified that on that day they were looking for a Rom to attack. The initial official investigation was conducted speedily and concluded that only six of the seven teenagers had taken part in the attack against the victim. Following the completion of the investigation, five of the teenagers were indicted for "hooliganism of exceptional cynicism and impudence". On June 14, 1996, the local Prosecutor's Office dismissed the charge of murder against the teenager who was remanded in custody on suspicion of murder and ordered his release. He too was subsequently indicted for "hooliganism of exceptional cynicism and impudence".

For the next nine years the investigating authorities failed to do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice. As a result, on March 18, 2005, the Shumen Regional Prosecutor's Office dismissed the charges against the five juveniles because the statute of limitations in relation to them had expired. It sent the case back for further investigation in relation to one of them, with instructions that he should be indicted for "murder stemming from an act of hooliganism". The only other person who has been indicted was the one member of the group who was an adult at the time of the offence and was not covered by the statute of limitations.

The Bulgarian government contended that the application should be dismissed since proceedings were pending against two of the perpetrators of the crime. The European Court noted that the investigation into the incident had been unduly protracted and considering that 11 years had passed found it "questionable' whether either of the two remaining defendants would "ever be brought to trial or successfully convicted."

The European Court noted that although under Bulgarian law there were no criminal law provisions explicitly dealing with racially motivated crimes, this did not mean that the investigation authorities could not and should not make use of readily available provisions in order to attach a particular weight to racially motivated crimes. In this case, the European Court noted that the domestic authorities did recognise the particularly heinous nature of the crime yet ultimately failed to conduct a prompt and effective investigation into the incident. Consequently, the European Court held that Bulgaria was in breach of the procedural aspect of the right to life (Article 2).

Secondly, the European Court considered it "completely unacceptable" that, notwithstanding the fact that the domestic authorities were from the initial stages of the investigation aware of the racist motives of the perpetrators, they failed to bring the perpetrators to justice promptly. As a result, the charges against four of them were dropped while the remaining two defendants had not been brought before a court, a full eleven years after the killing. In the eyes of the Court, this inefficiency on the part of the domestic authorities, together with the authorities' failure to charge the perpetrators of the crime with any racially motivated offence and the widespread prejudice and violence against Roma, could severely undermine the Roma minority's trust in the authorities' willingness to investigate and punish racially motivated crimes. As a result, the European Court held that failing to making a distinction between the particular nature of the offence in question and other non-racially motivated offences constitutes unjustified treatment, in breach of Article 14 in conjunction with the procedural aspect of Article 2 of the Convention. The Court awarded 15,000 Euros jointly to the applicants and 3,500 Euros in respect of costs and expenses.

The ERRC believes that, together with the Court’s judgment in the Cobzaru v Romania case that was delivered on the same day (see http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2853), the judgment in Angelova and Iliev v. Bulgaria clarifies states’ obligations when investigating racially motivated offences. The European Court has made it abundantly clear in its judgments that the fight against racism requires further action and that authorities should place particular emphasis in investigating such offences. Finally, as in the Cobzaru case and earlier judgments on Roma victims of violence, the European Court relied on reports by NGOs and IGOs on the situation of Roma when assessing whether the authorities have adequately addressed systemic problems encountered by Roma.

Read the full text of the judgments here:  View it (Acrobat pdf format)!.

Further information on the case is available from: Yonko Grozev, tel./fax +35929873838, email at ygrozev@gmail.com

Theodoros Alexandridis, ERRC Staff Attorney, tel.: +36-1-413-2250, email:
theodoros.alexandridis@errc.org.

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