Bulgarian Politicians Deny Police Brutality, Call for Harsher Measures against Roma “Disorderliness”
14 February 2018
By Swain Uber
Over the past several days, three separate-yet-interrelated scandals in the small town of Ihtiman have shed light on the presence of institutional racism and the systemic abuse of Romani communities in Bulgarian law enforcement. According to the police, on February 6th, officers attempted to stop a car and carry out a check. The driver did not stop and a short chase ensued, resulting in some damage occurring to both the police vehicle and the individual’s. Later, police officers found the car in front of the registered address, and tried to arrest the driver. The police claim that in the course of the arrest they were surrounded by a group of 60 - 100 people from the neighborhood, and were “pushed, pulled, and hit” as the group “attempted to prevent or hinder the arrest”. Two of the officers claim to have been injured, resulting in “the inside of their mouths being cut, swollen hands, ‘hurt’ shoulders’, and torn uniforms”.
The family refutes this story, claiming that no one attacked or harmed the officers. They say that, in fact, it was the other way around. The father of the arrested was pushed and verbally derided at the time of arrest, and both the mother and the father of the arrestee were also taken into custody, where they were allegedly beaten. An independent medical investigation has confirmed the father sustained two broken ribs and the mother other injuries. The family argue their son fled from the police out of terror, knowing the abuse he would suffer if he were to be arrested and taken to the police station.
On the same day, a short video clip was also sent to a national news station, in which a visibly intoxicated Romani man in police custody was made to perform degrading actions for the entertainment of police officers. The director of Ihtiman’s police force confirmed that the clip was indeed taken inside the station, that the Romani man was in their custody, and that those humiliating him were Ihtiman police officers. He did not say when the clip was taken, but stated that an investigation would be undertaken.
Two days later, on February 8th, a 64-year-old man was killed in an early morning police raid conducted in the same neighborhood, with the support of the Bulgarian gendarmerie. According to both the police and people from the neighborhood, the raid was unconnected to the former events. The police were apparently searching for four young men from the area, and violently entered multiple houses, yelling, pushing, and hurling racial slurs and abuse. According to the family, the elderly man who was killed was sitting by a window looking onto the street when the gendarmerie arrived. He told them ‘the boys’ weren't there and only children and sick old people were inside the house. According to their account, the police then pushed him off his chair and to the ground where he died shortly after. The family say when they demanded the police call an ambulance to help the man, they simply grinned and left.
Police brutality, particularly against Roma, is rampant in Bulgaria. A recent study by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee found that nearly 30% of all arrestees are beaten or abused by the police, either in the process of arrest, after arrest in the station, or both. The same study found that Roma are disproportionately affected by this abuse. Yet the response from politicians has been to deny claims of violence and respond with hostility.
Bulgarian law enforcement immediately convened a meeting including ministers, leaders of the police union, and other officials to discuss how to deal with the “significant and noticeable uptick” in “violence perpetrated against the police”. Union leadership called for “harsher punishments” for anyone found guilty of such crimes.
The Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister for Public Order and Security, Krasimir Karakachanov published a statement on the recent events on his personal Facebook page. He denied any police wrongdoing and condemned human rights organizations for previous litigation and advocacy surrounding police brutality which he claimed “demotivates” police forces. He argues that human rights activists seeking to hold abusive police to account incite greater “instability” and “disorder” amongst Romani communities. He linked the events in Ihtiman to another police raid that involved indiscriminate violence towards Romani people in the village of Kamenar, where an investigation on behalf of the ERRC and its partners is still ongoing.
Karakachanov is a member of the far-right “United Patriots” coalition and leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO-BNM), an ultranationalist party. In a recent appearance on a national television station he stated his position on the matter clearly: “If I have to believe ‘these people’ or the police, I will believe the police. I say that as a citizen. As Deputy Prime Minister for Public Order and Security, I will say that it can become clear - whether it is [as they described or as the police described] - after the prosecutor’s investigation is concluded.”
The Ministry of Interior has also denied any implication that the actions of the gendarmerie were the cause of death, stating that they only had “visual” contact with the deceased. The Regional Office of the Prosecutor, however, is investigating the matter as a possible “intentional homicide."