Bulgarian criminal court convicts and sentences skinheads for racially motivated murder of a Romani man - Case report of the ERRC

15 July 1997

By Nikolai Gughinski

The Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project provided considerable assistance in the preparation of this article.


On April 4, 1997, a district court in Bulgaria convicted 5 youths, aged 15 to 17, for the racially-motivated assault and murder of Emil Trifonov, a 19-year-old Romani man. The perpetrators were convicted of the crime of murder, motivated by hooliganism and committed in such a way as to cause extreme suffering to the victim, as set forth in Article 116, sections 6 and 10, of the Bulgarian Penal Code. Two of the defendants were sentenced to six and-one-half years’ imprisonment, and the remaining three to imprisonment for six years. In addition, all five defendants were ordered to pay damages totalling 1.5 million Bulgarian Leva (equivalent to approximately 10,000 US dollars at the time the legal proceedings commenced).


On December 9, 1996, Emil Trifonov and Vladimir Vassilichki, both serving their military duty in the capital Sofia, headed home on leave. Shortly before 9 p.m., they arrived at the railway station in the town of Belovo in central Bulgaria. At the railway station, eight skinheads overheard the two men speak in Romanes (the Romani language). Five of the skinheads then attacked the two Romani men.

Vladimir Vassilichki managed to escape, but Emil Trifonov was forced to the ground and beaten on his head and all over his body. After the first assault, Trifonov man aged to stand up and run, but he was chased to the nearby rail lines, where the skinheads caught him and beat him to death. The perpetrators then fled the scene of the crime. The victim’s body was first found by Vladimir Vassilichki, who came back to the railway station to see what had happened to his friend. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and the death of the victim was subsequently established.

The investigation of the murder of Emil Trifonov commenced almost immediately. On the day following the killing, all five skinheads involved were arrested and detained. The five defendants have remained in detention ever since. In January 1996 the Human Rights Project, a Bulgarian NGO, hired one and then a second attorney to represent the family of the victim.


In recent years, foreigners and Roma have suffered an inordinate number of racially-motivated assaults in Bulgaria. Racial motivation has, however, consistently been downplayed during criminal and judicial procedure.

The failure to sanction racially-motivated crime is exacerbated by the problematic nature of the Bulgarian Penal Code’s racially motivated crimes provisions. Unlike the recently amended penal codes of some other Central and East European countries, the Bulgarian Penal Code does not adequately punish racially-motivated violence. The inadequacy of the racially-motivated crimes provisions of the Penal Code is most egregious in cases of extreme violence, including murder. The Bulgarian Penal Code does not specifically punish the crime of intentional murder motivated by racial hatred. Thus, the most serious punishment applicable for a racially motivated offence (under Article 163(3), which sets forth the crime of racially-motivated assault resulting in death) provides for a lesser punishment than that applicable for any type of murder committed in the absence of racial motivation. This paradox forces even well-intentioned prosecutors to choose between, on the one hand, highlighting and branding as socially unacceptable the racial nature of a criminal offence, and, on the other hand, achieving maximum deterrence by securing the most serious punishment for offenders.

In the case of Emil Trifonov, the prosecution sought to overcome this statutory conundrum. In order to obtain the strictest possible sanction, while simultaneously characterising the offence as racially motivated, the prosecution charged the crimes carrying the most serious penalty — murder causing extreme suffering and murder motivated by hooliganism— but framed the accusation so as to suggest, and subsequently argued to the court, that the offence was grounded in racial hatred. This strategy effectively introduced a racial element into the more serious (and, on its face, non racial) charge by contending that racial motives had driven the perpetrators to commit the crime of murder in the context of hooliganism.

Thus, the indictment explicitly stated that “... [The defendants] assaulted Trifonov because he belonged to another ethnic group” and that “...the reason for committing the crime by the defendants was their disrespect of the rule of law in the country and their modelling them selves upon the organisation called Skinheads.” The same argument was pursued by the prosecution and the victim’s representatives at the trial which took place on April 4, 1997.


The Bulgarian Penal Code does not contain adequate penalties for racially-motivated violence. This made prosecution of skinheads who killed a Rom more difficult but not impossible.

The court has not yet issued a written opinion explaining its reasoning. Accordingly, it is not known what weight the court attached to the arguments of racial motivation offered by the prosecution and the lawyers of the victim’s family. Nevertheless, this is the first (known) case in Bulgaria which resulted in the conviction of the perpetrators of racially-motivated violence against Romani victims. As such, the case demonstrates that, notwithstanding a history of prosecutorial failure to provide remedies in this area, law enforcement organs and the judiciary can be sensitised to the problem of racially-motivated violence. It thus may serve as a model for victims’ advocates to draw upon in other cases involving racially-motivated violence.

This case also illustrates the inadequacy of Bulgarian legislation in addressing racially-motivated violence, particularly in cases of murder. Here, a sensitive and sympathetic prosecutor, supported by persistent lawyers for the victims, was forced to characterise the racial motivation as hooliganism in order to ensure that the perpetrators received the maximum possible penalty. One step forward would be to pass legislation defining the crime of intentional murder motivated by racial hatred, and provide penalties at least equal to those for murder committed in the absence of racial motivation.

The case is not over yet. All defendants have appealed the first instance court decision. The attorneys for the family of the victim have suggested that, on appeal, the court’s finding that the crime was motivated by racial hatred will not be challenged. The ERRC awaits with interest the written opinion of the first instance court, and will follow closely the appellate process to insure that the results apparently achieved in this first round of litigation are preserved.


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