Protests over early parole to murder-convicted Australian and controversies over the upcoming election of the new Prosecutor General
The last few months in Bulgaria were hot and stormy, just like the county’s political scene. Although the National Assembly had a long vacation, Bulgarians were not given a break from scandals and bad news.
– The arrest of a 20-year-old Bulgarian cybersecurity worker made international headlines this summer, as he was arrested and charged with hacking the personal and financial records of millions of taxpayers on July 16th. Bulgarian police are still investigating the country’s biggest ever data breach, the Guardian reports. Bulgaria’s NRA tax agency is facing a fine of up to 20 million Euro over the hack, which was revealed a few days prior to the arrest and is thought to have compromised the records of nearly every working adult among the country’s population of 7 million – about 5 million people. The youngster was released only two days after his arrest, but the owner of the company that he was working for is still detained on charges of “cyberterrorism”.
– Looking back at the last month’s headlines, on September 12th, the newly appointed head of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), Nikolay Krastev, suspended Silvia Velikova, a journalist known for her coverage of the country’s graft-prone judicial system, claiming that she had violated her contract by while on air urging listeners to join a protest over the appointment of Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor.
Dozens of journalists at the state-run Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) staged a protest on September 13th in support of media freedom Reuters reports. Velikova’s suspension drew criticism from human rights groups and the Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists, who spoke of a “coup against journalistic professionalism” in a country that has the lowest ranking of press freedom among the 28 European Union member states. As the scandal unravelled, BNR took its news channel off air for five hours for “preventive maintenance”.
– On September 19th the state gas firm Bulgartransgaz signed a 1.1 billion euro contract with the Saudi-led group Arkad Engineering to build an extension of the TurkStream pipeline. Reuters reports that Bulgaria plans to have the pipeline operating in 2021 and expects revenues from transit fees at about 340-400 million Levs (170-200 million Euro) annually for 20 years. TurkStream resembles the failed South Stream project which was meant to bypass Ukraine in supplying Central Europe with Russian gas. “The Balkan Stream”, as the Bulgarian government calls the extension, will pass through Bulgaria and Serbia on its way to Hungary. Exactly two months before that signing, on July 19th, the National Assembly ratified an agreement for another big contract – the purchase of eight F-16 military jets from the US for $1.25 billion.
– On September 19th, Jock Palfreeman from Australia was unexpectedly granted parole after serving 11 years behind bars in Bulgaria. Palfreeman was sentenced to 20 years after he was found guilty of stabbing Andrei Monov to death back in 2007. Palfreeman has maintained that he acted in self-defence, stating that he was attacked after intervening to prevent Monov and a dozen other youngsters from assaulting two Roma men. The prosecution, however, alleged he had launched an unprovoked attack. The case has had wide social and political resonance from the very beginning, as football fans and nationalist groups recognised 23-years old Monov as one of their own. The victim’s father, Hristo Monov, was a high-ranking state official at the time of the accident and later member of the Parliament in 2013-2014. It is widely held that this has affected the publicity of the case. For instance, Monov’s funeral was attended by Chavdar Georgiev, a former legal advisor to the Bulgarian president, and Mihail Mikov, who became minister of interior affairs in 2008. Also present was the head of Bulgaria’s highest court of appeal.
– Amidst public protests against the court’s decision to grant Palfreeman parole, on September 24th, the leader of nationalistic political party Ataka, Volen Siderov, announced his plans to run for mayor of Sofia. Supporters of Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO), who together with Ataka from a coalition in the current government, also protested on October 7th when the Supreme Court of Cassation sat to hear the request of the Prosecutor General, Sotir Tsatsarov to suspend the release. According to Bulgarian law, however, the Court’s parole judgments are final and cannot be reversed. Nearly 300 Bulgarian judges signed a public letter in which they defend the ruling of the Court and call for the protection of the independence of the judiciary. Palfreeman remains detained in Busmantsi Immigration Detention Centre due to some unclear issues with his passport, which sparked diplomatic tensions between Bulgaria and Australia. The Supreme Court of Cassation will make its final ruling over the Prosecutor’s request to reopen the case within eight weeks.
On the evening of October 15th Jock Palfreeman was released from the detention center where he had been kept for 26 days over alleged lack of proper documents. Earlier that day, his passport had been confiscated by the police. Palfreeman is still not allowed to exit Bulgaria.
– The nomination of Ivan Geshev, head of Specialised Prosecution and currently deputy Prosecutor General, as Prosecutor General on July 22nd has prompted a wave of protests in Bulgaria. Geshev was nominated by the current Prosecutor General, Sotir Tsatsarov and the Prosecutors’ College of the Supreme Judicial Council, Bulgaria’s top judiciary institution, he appears to be the only candidate for the post.
As criticism from different political parties, activists and lawyers have grown based on Geshev’s questionable record as a prosecutor and on the general activities of the current General Prosecutor, he has been given unprecedented support by the some of the country’s police departments, intelligence agency and rectors of universities. On the day after his nomination, Geshev infamously said in an interview for the BNT that he does “not agree with the view […] that the legislative, executive, and judicial power must be separated.” The Supreme Judicial Council will decide on Geshev’s nomination on October 24th, only days before the local elections in Bulgaria. The Ministry of Justice, as the only other institution who can nominate, has abstained from nominating a candidate to the post.
– On September 10th the deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev announced that Nikolay Malinov, a former MP and president of the National Movement “Russophiles”, is officially charged with money laundering and spying for Russian-based organisations. On the same day the US Embassy in Bulgaria stated: “We are aware of the investigation by Bulgarian law enforcement into an alleged case of espionage. The United States fully supports Bulgaria’s efforts to defend its sovereignty from malign influence”.
– On October 9th the Bulgarian government published a “framework position” on the enlargement of the EU with respect to North Macedonia and Albania. The document supports giving North Macedonia a start date for accession negotiations, but it warns that “Bulgaria will not allow the EU integration of the Republic of North Macedonia to be accompanied by European legitimization of anti-Bulgarian ideology”. Sofia insists, among other things, on the removal of the term “Bulgarian fascist invader” from all WWII historic landmarks in North Macedonia and to recognize the “Bulgarian character” of the anti-Ottoman uprisings in Macedonia. Additionally, the Bulgarian government requires that the term “Macedonian language” should be replaced with the phrase “official language of the Republic of North Macedonia”. A group of intellectuals on both sides of the border has published their own declaration, savaging the document’s tone and content.