Bulgarian Courts Find Discrimination against Roma
16 December 2004
Since the new anti-discrimination legislation came into force in Bulgaria on 1 January 2004, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), acting alone or together with Romani Baht Foundation (RBF) and/or the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), has filed a number of civil actions alleging discrimination against Roma. As of September 2004, not yet a year since the entry into force of the law, the ERRC and local partners have obtained five landmark judgements from Bulgarian courts.
- On July 12, 2004, the Sofia District Court issued a finding of indirect discrimination against the Bulgarian Electric Company in a case brought by the ERRC and local counsel on behalf of Mr Rumen Grigorov, a Romani resident of Sofia's Hristo Betov Romani neighbourhood. Mr Grigorov's case was filed after the Bulgarian Electric Company had repeatedly rejected his application for electricity supply over a five-year period, on the grounds that he was not hooked up to the network and that he had not signed a supplementary agreement with the company. Mr Grigorov put forth that he had refused to sign the agreement because only Roma were required to sign such agreements, which contain provisions unfavourable for the signatories – for example a provision stating that electric metres are to be installed on poles nine metres above ground – and is not in line with the company's regular practise. The Court found that the plaintiff has suffered indirect discrimination as defined by Article 4, paragraph 3 from the Law on Protection from Discrimination. On the basis of his ethnic background, the plaintiff was subjected to a practice that placed him in a less favourable situation compared to other individuals. The practice to which he had been subjected did not have a legitimate aim and the means for the realisation of this aim were not necessary and appropriate. Mr Grigorov's request for compensation was, however, rejected by the Court. Mr Grigorov appealed court's refusal of compensation. (BHC, ERRC, RBF)
- On 6 August 2004, in a separate case concerning an almost identical situation, the Sofia District Court ruled in favor of Mr. Kocho Kochev and five other Romani plaintiffs, all residents of "Filipovtsi", a segregated Romani settlement in Sofia, and in so doing found that the respondent state-owned electric company had committed an act of discrimination. Importantly, despite the fact that the new anti-discrimination law was enacted after this case had been filed, the court applied the new provision on the shifting of the burden of proof to the respondent and explained that being of a procedural character it was applicable to already pending cases as well as to those which have been filed following the entry into force of the new law. The court considered the plaintiffs' claim of discrimination as sufficiently substantiated to shift the burden of proof onto the respondent. The respondent ultimately failed to establish that other – non-Romani – consumers had been treated similarly or indeed that its actions had served any legitimate purpose. Accordingly, the Court found that the six Romani individuals had suffered discrimination, and ordered the company to remove the electrical metres and to re-locate them at a height where they would be accessible, as well as to pay the plaintiffs compensation.
- On 13 August 2004, the Sofia District Court adopted a decision in the case of Mr. Anguel Assenov v. Kenar Ltd. The lawsuit was filed in order to challenge the refusal of the company to allow Mr. Assenov to attend a job interview, solely due to his ethnic origin. Acting to test reports that the company in question pursued discriminatory hiring policies, Mr. Assenov, a young Romani man, placed a phone call to the office of the respondent company, a food producer and distributor, to inquire about a job announcement publicised by the respondent. One of the persons employed in the company answered the plaintiff's call and informed him about the requirements for the job. The employee of the company also asked Mr. Assenov to come for an interview. The plaintiff then inquired whether his Romani identity would be a problem for his application. In response, the employee stated that this was indeed a problem. Moreover, the plaintiff was told that there was consequently no need for an interview, since the company has a strict policy of not hiring Roma. The phone conversation took place through a loudspeaker, and was therefore heard by two other witnesses who later testified in court. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff requested a finding of discrimination, the award of compensation, as well as an order from the court obliging the respondent to refrain from similar hiring practices in the future. Ultimately, the Sofia District Court decided in favour of the plaintiff and in doing so granted all of the above-requested remedies.
- On August 19, 2004, the Sofia District Court ruled against the Sofia Electric Company, finding it responsible for indirect discrimination against Roma clients of the Company from the Romani neighbourhood "Fakulteta" in Sofia. The ERRC joined the proceedings as an "interested party", i.e. an intervener in the public interest. On 9 January 2004, a breakdown in the power grid in the segregated Romani neighbourhood of "Fakulteta", Sofia, discontinued the power supply to more than 100 Romani families. The provider refused to repair the network for more than two months, contending that many of the affected consumers had unpaid debts to the company. Along with the debtors, however, more than 30 Romani households with no outstanding debts had also been denied restoration of their power supply. The Court found that the failure of the Sofia Electric Company to repair the electricity grid for about a month, as a result of which the consumers from the Romani neighbourhood who had valid contracts with the Company have been deprived of electricity supply, constituted more unfavourable treatment. The Court judged that the Company failed to justify the need to discontinue the electricity in Fakulteta neighbourhood for a period longer than 48 hours – the maximum period for which, according to the Law on Electrical Supplies, electricity supply can be interrupted.
- On July 23, 2004, the Sofia District Court ruled against a company called VALI EOOD, and awarded 600 Bulgarian leva (approximately 300 Euro) compensation to Ms Sevda Nanova, a Romani woman, in non-pecuniary (moral) damages suffered as a result of having been discriminated against in access to services, solely on the basis of her race. Local council brought the case, acting on behalf of the ERRC and the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Romani Baht Foundation (RBF). Through its employees, VALI EOOD, which operates a clothing shop in a Sofia marketplace, refused to provide services to Ms Nanova and banned her from its premises. In doing so, the company's staff threatened Ms Nanova with violence and repeatedly resorted to extreme forms of verbal abuse with respect to her Romani origin. The Court found that such conduct amounts to direct discrimination based on ethnic origin and is therefore in violation of Bulgarian law. The ruling was the first by a Bulgarian court based on the country's new comprehensive anti-discrimination law.
(ERRC, RBF, BHC)