European Court of Human Rights Hears Bulgarian Police Abuse Case

27 January 2000

On Thursday 20 January 2000, the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg heard a case filed by the European Roma Rights Center on behalf the widow of a Romani man who died at the hands of police in Bulgaria in 1994. The Human Rights Project (HRP), a Bulgarian Roma rights organisation, had steered the case through the Bulgarian domestic courts. European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) counsel Yonko Grozev represented the applicant at the hearing in Strasbourg.

Slavcho Tsonchev, a Romani man, died in the Pleven Police station at 2 am on 25 September 1994 of injuries sustained after brutal beating, about twelve hours after he had been taken into custody. The European Court of Human Rights will deliver their decision in due course.

At 2 pm on 24 September 1994, two uniformed police sergeants brought Mr Tsonchev from his aunt's house to the Pleven Police Department to answer allegations of cattle theft. According to police testimony, Mr Tsonchev

was too inebriated to be questioned. At approximately 7 pm, the police requested medical assistance for Mr Tsonchev. A physician and a para-medical assistant came, conducted a cursory examination, then left, at which point Mr Tsonchev was placed in a lock-up. Shortly after midnight the police requested medical help a second time. At around 2 am on 25 September, the same physician arrived and pronounced Mr Tsonchev dead.

At 2.30 am the Regional investigator arrived and examined the body noting only a 'bruise' 'on the right side of the face' and '[b]ecause of the dark color of the skin" other visible injuries of the body.' In violation of Bulgarian criminal procedures, the inspection record was not signed by any of the witnesses present, but only by the investigator.

A criminal investigation was subsequently opened on 25 September 1994. The report of an autopsy conducted that morning documented numerous bruises all over the body which the initial inspection had failed to record, including a hemorrhage under the right lower eyelid, bruises on both sides of the face, the lower jaw and the chin, 'massive' bruises on both arms, and three long bruises on the buttocks. The report concluded that death was caused by 'acute anemia', resulting from the 'huge and deep hemorrhages' on the body.

In the ensuing three years and five months, the authorities conducted an inadequate investigation which shed no light on the causes of Mr Tsonchev's death. In the process they denied the applicant access to civil remedies and persistently obstructed her efforts to obtain information about the course of the investigation.

On 12 May 1995 and again on 28 February 1996, HRP counsel Dimitrov filed requests with the Office of the Bulgarian Chief Prosecutor asking for the investigation to be expedited.

On 19 March 1996, well beyond the time limit established in the Criminal Procedure Code, the Regional Prosecutor suspended the investigation on the ground that it was impossible to determine where the victim had been beaten, and who - the police officers or the owners of the cattle Mr Tsonchev was alleged to have stolen - was responsible. In an order of 8 July 1996 the Office of Chief Prosecutor granted Counsel's appeal and ordered that the investigation be reopened. The 8 July order found that the investigation to-date had not been thorough or complete and directed that further specific steps be taken to determine liability for Mr Tsonchev's death and for the failure to provide adequate medical assistance during detention.

In January and again in May 1997, HRP counsel filed renewed written complaints with, respectively, the Pleven Regional Prosecutor's Office and the Office of Chief Prosecutor, alleging that contrary to the 8 July order, no investigation was taking place. On 17 August 1997, counsel received by mail a copy of a letter dated 3 June 1997 in which the Pleven Regional Prosecutor's Office explained to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor that no further investigation was possible, and that the investigation should again be suspended.

The ERRC is unaware of any decision or action taken by the Office of Chief Prosecutor since then. As a result, with the investigation still languishing, there is no reason to believe that the Bulgarian authorities are any closer today than they were in September 1994 to providing legal remedies for the death of Mr Tsonchev.

In view of the above, on 8 May 1998, the widow of the victim, Mrs Tsoncheva,
represented by counsel, submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that several rights under the European Convention of Human Rights had been violated, including the following:

Article 2: violation of the right to life. The applicant claimed that Mr Tsonchev died whilst in police detention after the police inflicted fatal injuries on him and/or they had failed to provide him with adequate medical care. Further, that the authorities had failed to carry out an effective official investigation to determine the cause of death.

Article 6: violation of the right to a fair trial. Under Bulgarian law and practice, the authorities' failure to carry out an adequate criminal investigation culminating in formal charges has deprived Mrs Tsonchev of her civil right to sue in court for the purpose of establishing civil liability and recovering damages.

Article 13: violation of the right to an effective remedy. Mrs Tsonchev has been denied an effective remedy for the murder of her husband.

Article 14: violation of the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, in conjunction with articles 2, 3, 6 and 13. Mrs Tsonchev submitted that her husband's death at the hands of the police and the inadequate investigation which followed were in large part the result of her husband's and her own Romani ethnicity.

Article 25: hindrance of access to the European Court of Human Rights. To date, despite numerous requests, the applicant and counsel have, without explanation, been refused permission to examine portions of the investigation file in this case. The denial of access to potentially significant documents concerning the nature and scope of the investigation has hindered the effective exercise of Mrs Tsonchev's right to petition to the Secretary General in accordance with Article 25.


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