Bulgarian Judge Rules for Mitko in Landmark Case: a Bitter-Sweet Victory

By Jonathan Lee

In Bulgaria, racist hate crimes have become more and more the norm for Roma, refugees and other local minorities. Yet, this increased prevalence has only further relegated the issue of acknowledging and tackling racially motivated crime on judicial, public and civic agendas. In courtrooms, government offices, police stations and cafés across the country, “the invisible crime” has been the elephant in the room, which until very recently had been ushered discreetly into a cupboard, out of sight but not out of mind.

However, with a recent landmark decision from a criminal court, this may all be about to change. On Monday 11th July, the District Court of Pazardzhik found Angel Kaleev guilty of using ethnically motivated violence against a person (Article 162. para. 2, CC), and of inflicting minor bodily harm with xenophobic and ‘hooligan’ motives (Article 131. para 1, p 12, CC). This is the first time a criminal court has made a decision which acknowledges a racially motivated attack against an ethnic minority in Bulgaria. The potential ramifications are huge, and Mitko Jonkov’s case may well prove to be the benchmark for a flood of criminal cases which will seek to find justice for the victims of racist hate crimes.

"In Bulgaria we are used to seeing investigators and prosecutors ignoring racist crimes and, by all means refusing to recognize them as such so that the mere submission of an indictment for a racially motivated crime in this case is a big success. In this sense, the agreement reached in this case is a breakthrough and [we] hope that investigators and prosecutors across the country will adopt this practice" said Attorney. Margarita Ilieva, Legal Director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC).

Margarita Ilieva represented Mitko in the court proceedings and now intends to take the case to a civil court and claim damages for the attack on Mitko in April of this year. The perpetrator, Angel Kaleev, had abused and humiliated Mitko in the day leading up to the attack which he filmed on his mobile phone, sparking the ERRC’s #RomaAreEqual campaign of solidarity. In the course of the hearing, statements emerged that he had prohibited Mitko from walking into the village center. Later that day, Kaleev attacked Mitko for not respecting this "ban" and declaring himself, as a person of Romani ethnicity, to be equal. The boy was chased to his home and into a courtyard, where a relative prevented further violence. The next day, the perpetrator threatened the victim with further violence if he did not deny the attack to the media.

The decision to find Kaleev guilty of a racially motivated attack is immensely positive in terms of changing how racist violence is reported, investigated and prosecuted in the country, as Bulgaria’s record on reporting of racially motivated crime is truly woeful:

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights found Bulgaria in violation of the Human Rights Convention for failing to investigate a widely publicized attack on a Sudanese man in 2008 as a crime of racial hatred. Later in the same year, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance issued a report condemning the escalating incidents of hate crime and the lack of provision in the country’s criminal code to deal with it. This was further validated in a 2015 report by Amnesty International which concluded that "hate crimes in Bulgaria remain largely hidden and unacknowledged".

The problem goes beyond the judiciary and permeates into public life. Al-Jazeera investigated networks of Bulgarian activists who work with minority groups and their reactions to the reports were distinctly unsurprised.

"Such [hate] crimes are abundant, and the prosecution and the authorities rarely investigate them. I don't know of anyone who has been convicted for a hate crime" – Borislav Dimitrov, law school graduate and volunteer for Friends of the Refugees.

There is a perception that the public are fully aware of, and by inference, tolerate these hate crimes against minorities, creating a climate which allows the lack of impetus for progressive change in the judicial and legislative authorities to remain in place.

Whilst Mitko’s case represents a departure from this culture of ignorance towards hate crimes, the sentencing of Angel Kaleev still shows an institutional tolerance for these crimes to go relatively unpunished. The court, after an agreement between the prosecution and the defense, sentenced Angel Kallev to only 11 months imprisonment, which was deferred to a probationary period of three years with four months community service. In effect, providing Kaleev does not reoffend within his probation, he will not serve any of his sentence in prison, and will only engage in four months of community service for his brutal and unapologetically racist attack on a minor. Kaleev was also banned from approaching the victim and his home, or having any form of contact with him.

The pre-trial proceedings for the case were also accompanied by a number of racist outbursts, resulting in the BHC requesting the court physician and the investigating officer be removed from the case. In the medical examination of Mitko after the attack, the court physician stated before a lawyer from the BHC: "Between me and you – the mango is fine, mango is okay. He was kicked just a little”.  Mango is an ethnic slur for people of Romani ethnicity in Bulgaria. Furthermore, Bliznakov, the investigating officer, asked Mitko in the presence of a BHC lawyer and Mitko’s mother: "How do you [ethnically] define yourself - Bulgarian, Bulgarian citizen or mango?"

It is clear that the investigative and judicial process, like public perception, has a long way to come in terms of Roma rights equality. The intimidating, dismissive and racist attitudes of the pre-trial proceedings, coupled with the court’s leniency in sentencing, is demonstrative of the institutional racism towards Roma which still pervades Bulgarian society. Yet the very fact this case was raised at all, and that the decision was made to find Angel Kaleev guilty of charges relating to a racist hate crime, is incredibly encouraging. The case represents a successful step in the right direction in the fight for Bulgarian Roma’s legal rights, and sends the message across the country and the across the continent that truly, Roma Are Equal.

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