10/17/2018 | News release | Distributed by Public on 10/17/2018 07:29
17 October 2018
The Human Rights Committee today concluded its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Bulgaria on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Introducing the report, Yuri Sterk, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, outlined the improvements in the legal system since the country's previous review in 2011, noting in particular the setting up in 2013 of the National Coordination Mechanism on Human Rights to improve coordination among public authorities involved in the implementation of the tasks arising from Bulgaria's obligations and commitments in the field of human rights, which had, inter alia, approved in 2015 a legal mechanism for financial compensation under the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies on individual complaints. During its presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2018, Bulgaria had focused on the rights of the child, a dialogue on gender equality, and on countering stereotypes and prejudices against persons belonging to any ethnic, religious, linguistic or sexual minority groups. In order to overcome established violations in connection with freedom of association and refusal of national courts to register associations with 'political' objectives, the Commercial Register and the Register for Non-Profit Legal Entities Act had been amended, and any refusal was subject to appeal before the district courts. The Criminal Procedure Code was amended in 2017 to reduce the length of court proceedings and to avoid unjustified delays in the pre-trial period.
At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts commended Bulgaria's cooperation with the Committee's follow-up procedure, and went on to express great concern about the rise in hate, discrimination and violence on ethnic and religious grounds, which for the most part was not prosecuted. In this context, Experts mentioned hate crimes and racist discourse against Roma, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, and refugees. Welcoming the commitment to combatting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, Experts noted the continued discrimination against this population in the country's legal framework and inquired whether gender identity would be included as a ground for non-discrimination. Bulgaria, they continued, with the highest score on the intensity of violence experienced by women and in the non-reporting of such violence in the European Union, was far from eliminating gender-based violence. Experts also asked about steps to ensure that statute of limitations did not facilitate impunity for torture, and raised concern about the illegal wiretapping of politicians, magistrates and journalists, and a possibility under the 2016 Anti-Terrorism Act for the President to declare, with the approval of the National Assembly, a state of emergency after an act of terrorism and impose blanket bans on public rallies, meetings and demonstrations without any independent oversight.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Sterk said that Bulgaria remained committed to improving the human rights situation and would carefully study the Committee's views and opinions and take them into account in the national human rights policies.
Mauro Politi, Committee Vice-Chairperson, in his concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for a fruitful dialogue from which a clearer picture of the situation in Bulgaria had emerged, and appreciated the spirit of cooperation by the delegation to provide relevant answers.
The delegation of Bulgaria was composed of the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister, Ministry of Interior, Pleven Prison Chief, Ministry of Justice, National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, and members of the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
All the documents relating to the Committee's work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session's webpage. The webcast of the Committee's public meetings will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.
The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Friday, 19 October, to continue the reading of its draft General Comment no. 36 on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to life.
The fourth periodic report of Bulgaria can be found here: CCPR/C/BGR/4.
Presentation of the Report
YURI STERK, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, presented a number of improvements in the Bulgarian legal system since the country's previous review in 2011. In 2013, the Council of Ministers had decided to establish a National Coordination Mechanism on Human Rights, which aimed to improve coordination among public authorities involved in the implementation of the tasks arising from Bulgaria's obligations and commitments in the field of human rights. The Mechanism gave consideration to and proposed ratification of and accession to new international human rights instruments, and it recommended amendments to domestic legislation and adjustments to administrative practices. Its members were ministers, heads of State agencies, independent institutions, and non-governmental organizations. In 2014, the Government had adopted a decision for a one-time payment of compensation to all individual complaints as recommended by United Nations treaty bodies. The National Coordination Mechanism had approved in January 2015 a legal mechanism for financial compensation under the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies on individual complaints. In 2011, the Ombudsperson and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination had received B status accreditation under the Paris Principles. In 2017, the Ombudsperson had initiated a procedure for obtaining A status accreditation.
Further steps had been taken to strengthen the engagement with the human rights system and civil society, and to increase the transparency of the appointment and selection process. The National Parliament had adopted those amendments in 2018 and the application for the A status accreditation had already been submitted. During its presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2018, Bulgaria had focused on the rights of the child, in particular on improving opportunities for inclusive education of children with disabilities, ensuring the participation of young people in decision-making processes, and the protection of migrant and disadvantaged children. Bulgaria had also focused on dialogue on gender equality, and on countering stereotypes and prejudices against persons belonging to any ethnic, religious, linguistic or sexual minority group.
Bulgaria's periodic report had been prepared in a transparent manner; all relevant authorities and institutions dealing with human rights had actively participated in the preparation of the document. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination and the Ombudsperson had also been actively involved in the preparatory process. In order to overcome established violations in connection with freedom of association and refusal of national courts to register associations with 'political' objectives, the Commercial Register and the Register for Non-Profit Legal Entities Act had been amended. With the changes in force since 2018, the associations were now registered with the Registry Agency, and any refusal was subject to appeal before the district courts. In the summer of 2017, the Criminal Procedure Code had been amended to reduce the length of court proceedings and to avoid unjustified delays in the pre-trial period. The assessment of the implementation of the deinstitutionalization of childcare reform showed a reduction of the number of children in specialized institutions by more than 90 per cent. Still, Bulgaria was aware that deinstitutionalization did not end with children leaving institutions. All children should be provided with constant support in the society, in order to develop into confident and independent young people. The Government planned to close all institutions for children by 2025 and to transition them to community-based services. Mr. Sterk noted that Bulgaria was mindful of the challenges that lay ahead and that it took targeted and effective measures to overcome them.
Questions by the Committee Experts
The Experts noted Bulgaria's timely cooperation with the Committee's follow-up procedure, as well as its heavy reporting workload in front of United Nations treaty bodies in the past two years. What was the process for preparing reports to treaty bodies and for follow-up and implementation of concluding remarks? The Committee Experts were disappointed with the low-level presence of civil society from Bulgaria during the dialogue.
Had there been cases in which domestic courts had applied the Covenant? The Experts welcomed the commitment of the Government to combat discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, but they raised concern about continued discrimination against this population in the country's legal framework. Did the State party plan to include gender identity as a ground for non-discrimination? How did the State party plan to combat discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in practice? Currently, the choice to investigate cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was left to prosecutors. How many investigations had been pursued and what had been their results?
Same-sex couples could not enter into any legally recognized union in Bulgaria. What were the plans to ensure equality for same-sex couples? Could the delegation respond to allegations of denial of access to the civil register to same-sex couples who had married overseas? What was the current process for gender reassignment? The Supreme Court had recently found that the Istanbul Protocol was contrary to the Bulgarian Constitution. What measures would the State party take to ensure the equal treatment of same-sex couples?
The Experts further flagged high unemployment among persons with disabilities, failure to recognize the inability to provide reasonable accommodation as a form of discrimination, and separation of children with disabilities in schools. The Experts also highlighted little progress in fighting stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. In society, HIV/AIDS was associated with homosexuality, drug use, and sex work. What measures had the State party taken to punish the failure of medical professionals to treat HIV/AIDS patients?
What remedies were available to individuals claiming that their rights were violated under the Covenant? What was the accessibility of such remedies? Was the training for judges and prosecutors also available to lawyers? Were the Committee's concluding observations disseminated to the public?
What steps had been taken to bring the Ombudsperson and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination in line with the Paris Principles? Did the State party intend to amend the law which established the Commission for Protection against Discrimination?
Referring to the case of Liliana Assenova Naidenova et al. v. Bulgaria, which involved the eviction of a Roma family, the Experts inquired about the developments in that case, which was under the follow-up procedure of the Human Rights Committee.
Could the President, with the approval of the National Assembly, declare a state of emergency after an act of terrorism, and impose blanket bans on public rallies, meetings and demonstrations without any independent oversight? How did the State party ensure that peaceful protestors and political opponents were not prosecuted under the terrorism provisions? Did the law permit administrative control measures, such as travel bans, to be order by the President of the National Security Agency or the General Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior against individuals suspected of preparing or planning a terrorist act? If property was damaged due to a peaceful protest, what oversight existed to ensure that organizers of such protests would not be prosecuted under the terrorism provisions?
What plans did the State party have to ensure that statutes of limitation did not facilitate impunity for torture, including torture that did not meet the threshold of war crimes and crimes against humanity? How many allegations of torture had been dismissed due to a statute of limitations defense? Was the State party planning legislation that criminalized torture in a manner that was in line with international standards?
The Experts referred to allegations of physical and psychological ill-treatment by law enforcement officials upon apprehension and during interrogations, as well as to 'punitive raids' and other incidents of police abuse against persons of Roma origin. Was there a national system to collect data on complaints, prosecutions and disciplinary and criminal penalties imposed on law enforcement officials related to ill-treatment? Did the Ministry of the Interior maintain information on the unlawful use of force? Were there any plans to establish an independent oversight in cases of criminal conduct by law enforcement officials?
There seemed to be a direct correlation between access to legal assistance during pre-trial proceedings and the use of force by police officers. Those who had not had a lawyer from the outset of pre-trial proceedings had reported being victim to physical ill-treatment by police at the time of arrest and inside police stations twice as often as those who had had a lawyer.
The Experts further asked about the efforts to improve prison conditions and to prevent inter-prisoner violence. The number of persons serving life sentences without parole was increasing. How did the State party plan to decrease the frequency with which that sentence was imposed?
Hate crimes and violence against Roma, religious minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, and refugees were of great concern for the Committee because they were on the rise and they were often not prosecuted. The number of prosecuted cases had dropped from 16 in 2011 to only eight cases in 2013 and seven cases in 2015. Such crimes had been preceded by hate speech and racist discourse which had exploded in the media and on the Internet in 2013 against foreigners, Muslims, Jews, religious minorities and Roma. Did the Government plan to increase the number of investigations of such crimes, and to improve their efficiency? Did the authorities plan to collect disaggregated data on hate-based crimes? Would the State party raise citizens' awareness about diversity and racial discrimination, and would it strengthen the mandate of the Electronic Media Council?
Turning to gender equality, the Experts inquired about women's participation in public and political life. Women made up only a quarter of parliamentary representatives, and there was an absence of Roma women in local governments. What steps would be taken to ensure that women occupied high-ranking posts in State services? The gender wage gap was increasing and it stood at 14.2 per cent in favour of men. What measures did the Government envisage to reduce and close that gap? What legal provisions addressed discrimination in employment and sexual harassment at the workplace?
Trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation was the most prevalent form of trafficking in Bulgaria. The fight against trafficking in the country was difficult due to the unemployment rate, poor quality of services for victims, and judicial and financial barriers.
The Experts reminded that 51.3 per cent of Bulgaria's population were women and that the country was far away from eliminating gender-based violence. Bulgaria had the highest score on the intensity of violence experienced by women and in the non-reporting of such violence in the European Union. What measures had the State party adopted to prevent domestic violence and gender-based violence? What did the State party intend to do to prepare Bulgaria's accession to the Istanbul Convention? There seemed to be an absence of cassation proceedings and courts often interpreted only instances of physical violence as domestic violence. Most judges issued protection orders that were not commensurate with the scope and risk of violence. Courts also rarely imposed fines on perpetrators. How did the State party intend to overcome those shortcomings in court practice?
What public campaigns had been conducted to raise awareness about the damaging effects of domestic violence and about the importance of reporting it? What training had been provided to relevant authorities on violence against women? What was the current assessment of such training? What treatment options were available to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence?
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation explained that the National Coordination Mechanism for Human Rights always invited members of civil society to its meetings and it always took on board their opinions and recommendations. The mechanism was responsible for monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies. As for compensation as requested by United Nations treaty bodies, Bulgaria had paid compensation in three cases in 2014. Requests for compensation were reviewed by the Mechanism.
YURI STERK, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, noted that Bulgarian magistrates underwent training on how to invoke international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but could not provide statistics on specific court cases. Training for magistrates included general courses on human rights, risk of corruption, types of discrimination, aggression and conflicts, conflict resolution, and extremism and terrorism, among others. By virtue of the legal regime of Bulgaria, international treaties were directly applicable in the national legal order, Mr. Sterk stressed. It was a widely spread understanding that courts did apply international treaties in their decisions. Non-judicial remedies were also available to Bulgarian nationals or anyone else on the territory of Bulgaria.
As for the case of Liliana Assenova Naidenova et al. v. Bulgaria, the delegation informed the Committee that her eviction had been found to be illegal. The district administration had strictly adhered to the relevant recommendations, including those of the Ombudsperson, not to evict Ms. Naidenova until alternative accommodation had been secured for her.
The delegation assured the Committee that the principle of equality before the law and non-discrimination was of paramount importance in Bulgaria. Stereotypes and prejudices against persons based on their ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation were consistently fought. Between 2011 and 2015, the Protection against Discrimination Act had been amended several times to prevent any direct and indirect discrimination. There was no obstacle for judges to establish sexual orientation as a ground for discrimination.
DEYANA KOSTADINOVA, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva, reminded that Bulgaria was outlining a second national action plan aimed at improving the quality of life of persons with disabilities. The authorities were also preparing a new law on the rights of persons with disabilities, focusing on their social inclusion. The drafting of the bill was conducted in a fully transparent manner, involving representatives of the organizations of persons with disabilities. Their rights would be protected in a way that safeguarded their human dignity and that assessed their individual needs. The National Council of Tripartite Cooperation was currently holding a discussion on the draft bill.
As for stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, the delegation explained that the Government was committed to improving their situation by joining all major European and international initiatives. The authorities aimed to ensure that 90 per cent of patients knew about their diagnosis and that 90 per cent of those who wanted to receive treatment could access it. The Ministry of Health was taking strict measures to ensure the safety of donated blood, free treatment for HIV positive patients, and to raise awareness.
On the enhancement of the mandate of the Ombudsperson, the delegation noted that legislative amendments to the Ombudsperson Act had been taken to increase the transparency of the selection and appointment process.
The Academy of the Ministry of the Interior provided various courses and training sessions on human rights and on the use of force and weapons. All international and European treaties related to human rights were part of the basic training for law enforcement officials. The Academy had recently built a new training facility with support from the Swiss Government. It had developed different training materials and it actively worked with non-governmental organizations, especially in the area of the protection of detainees.
The Anti-Terrorism Act was fully in line with other legal acts in Bulgaria and with international standards. The amendments to the Criminal Code had extended the scope of the crime of terrorism to include incitement to terrorism, financing of terrorist activities, recruitment for the purposes of terrorism, and terrorism at high seas.
Moving on to the issue of torture, the Ministry of Justice had conducted an in-depth review of Bulgarian laws on the prevention of torture. Bulgaria had accepted relevant recommendations of its Universal Periodic Review, and it would come up with laws which included an explicit definition of torture.
A standing committee on police ethics and human rights had been functioning within the Ministry of the Interior since 2002. Among its main activities was the introduction of a code of ethics for the Ministry of the Interior, which covered the rights of detainees. Since 2017 there had been a clear trend in the number of citizens who had addressed the standing committee. The average number of detained persons annually ranged from 55,000 to 60,000, whereas the number of complaints of police violence had been submitted in 0.06 per cent of all cases.
Police officers had to issue an arrest warrant and the declaration of the rights of detainees. In the declaration, detainees indicated the exercise of some or all of their rights in the presence of a witness. Detainees had the right to contest the lawfulness of detention before a court, and to receive defence by a lawyer from the moment of arrest. The law provided effective remedies for inmates to complain to courts and receive compensation. Inmates had at their disposal units of four square meters, and they served their sentences close to their places of residence. A significant number of prisoners were released earlier. Bulgaria had received 24 million euros for the comprehensive renovation of penitentiary facilities. Prison hospitals were Government hospitals financed according to a dedicated set of regulations. They did not provide a full range of specialist services.
DEYANA KOSTADINOVA, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva, noted that gender equality was one of the priorities for the Bulgarian Government. The main document in that respect was the National Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2020, with specific annual implementation plans. Ms. Kostadinova stressed that Bulgaria's average gender pay gap of 14.2 per cent was lower than the average in the European Union, which stood at 16.2 per cent. She added that the rate of unemployment among women in Bulgaria was lower than that of men. The Ambassador also underlined the high-level of participation of women in public and political life, and she named several high-raking positions in the country held by women. Bulgaria ranked first in the European Union with the number of girls and women in the information and communications technology sector with 27.7 per cent, whereas the average rate in the European Union stood at 16.1 per cent.
Turning to hate crimes and violence against Roma, the delegation cited the National Roma Platform as an example of a project which aimed to facilitate dialogue with the Roma communities and to achieve their social inclusion in cooperation with all relevant stakeholders.
Bulgaria was primarily a country of origin for trafficking in persons, and to a lesser extent a country of transit. It was one of the pioneers in Europe in adopting specialized anti-trafficking legal acts, and it applied stringent punishments when the victim was a child. The National Referring Mechanism for Victims of Trafficking aimed to provide security, safety and confidentiality for the victims of trafficking. Bulgaria addressed trafficking from a multi-sectoral point of view, focusing on prevention and protection, and enhanced investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. Judges received specialized training on combatting trafficking, and Bulgarian law enforcement officials worked closely with Europol in that respect.
Responses by the Delegation
Responding to questions raised on measures taken to counter domestic violence and gender-based violence, the delegation said that in July 2018, Bulgaria had declared the Istanbul Convention anti-Constitutional. Nevertheless, steps were being taken to draft legislative amendments to ensure full protection for victims of violence, including domestic violence. Those drafts, currently under discussion in a dedicated working group, included the criminalization of domestic violence and expansion of the definition of bodily injury in order to criminalize all forms of domestic violence, and amendments to the definition of a number of specific acts of violence, including domestic violence, unlawful detention and threats of violence. It was hoped that those steps would change the societal attitude which currently saw domestic violence as something confined to the home and private sphere. Furthermore, because of the advent of digital technologies, bullying online would be criminalized, and the burden of proof would be removed from the victim of violence. Bulgaria was also working on introducing a crime of failing to enforce a court judgement and raise the level of sanction, which would include a failure to enforce a protection order for victims of domestic violence issued by courts.
Funds had been earmarked to finance non-governmental organizations working on raising awareness on domestic violence and implementing various projects in this sphere, including a project to raise the competence of magistrates to rule in cases of domestic violence in 2014; to introduce services helping the perpetrators of domestic violence to correct their behaviour, and to increase the competence of those responsible for the protection of victims in 2015; while in 2016, a project to raise the sensitivity of adolescents to domestic violence had been financed.
Bulgaria had further adopted guidelines on the structural organization of prosecutorial services to enable the gathering of data on cases of domestic violence or threats of domestic violence, and had set up a uniform mechanism for timely response to domestic violence and a mechanism to monitor the cases by registering them in a single registry kept by the Office of the Prosecutor. The first report was due at the end of 2018.
Another delegate said that the number of protection orders during the 2009-2017 period had doubled, from 1,253 to 2,440. There were 24 crisis centres, 18 for children and six for adults with a capacity of 250 places, whose activities were funded by the State. The crisis centres had served 584 people in 2017, of whom 183 had been women victims of domestic violence and the rest had been children. A permanent hotline for victims of violence had been functioning for more than 20 years, and during this period over 30,000 calls had been received.
Questions from the Experts
In the next round of questions, a Committee Expert noted with satisfaction that Bulgaria had taken a number of positive measures to improve the protection of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, including by amending the Asylum and Refugee Act and the establishment of the statelessness determination procedure. However, concern remained about its so-called preventive policy and the steps taken to prevent refugees and asylum seekers to enter the territory, including by erecting a three-meters-high wall and by summarily and forcibly expelling and pushing back third country nationals without giving them an opportunity to apply for asylum. What steps had been taken to investigate all deaths that had occurred in the context of forced expulsion and push back on the borders and to ensure that all foreigners had a meaningful opportunity to request international protection?
The Committee was also concerned about apparent discrimination against Afghani nationals, which had seemed to worsen after the 2016 riots in the Harmanli reception centre; the reduction in the assistance allocated to asylum seekers; and apparently indiscriminate, indeterminate and systematic detention of asylum seekers. According to the State Agency for Refugees, there were 3,700 applications for international protection in 2017, of which 440 had been by unaccompanied minors, the Expert noted, raising concerns, inter alia, about the lack of an age determination procedure and the circumvention of the June 2018 amendment to the Law on Foreigners which prohibited the detention of unaccompanied minors during the identification procedure, and asked about the steps taken to strengthen the identification, treatment and protection of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children.
The Expert then turned to the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers during peaceful demonstrations and asked about steps taken to ensure the implementation in practice of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
On attacks on and censorship of journalists, the Expert remarked that Bulgaria was the lowest-ranking European Union member on the World Press Freedom Index, and inquired about the measures taken to reduce political influence over the media, ensure the protection of journalists and effectively investigate all allegations of violence against them, and to implement numerous Universal Periodic Review recommendations concerning the protection of journalists.
Bulgaria allowed total or partial limitation of legal capacity of persons with disabilities, another Expert said, noting that a draft law on supported decision-making had been proposed in 2016 while the efforts to deinstitutionalize persons with disabilities still seemed to favour the establishment of smaller homes rather than giving the individuals a possibility to decide where and with whom they wanted to live. Raising concern about violence and abuses against persons with disabilities detained in psychiatric centres and institutions, the Expert asked whether Bulgaria was ready to set up an independent monitoring mechanism and what it had done to prevent all forms of ill treatment.
The Expert raised the issue of the monopoly of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, noting with concern the adoption in 2016 of a law which restricted the wearing of certain garments, including those covering the face, the adoption of which had been preceded by Islamophobia, and hate speech and crimes against certain religious groups. What was being done to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion for all and in particular to repeal the discriminatory ordnances which restricted the rights of minority religious groups in some municipalities.
The Surveillance Means Act authorized the monitoring of telephone conversations, said another Expert, raising concern about the illegal wiretapping of politicians, magistrates and journalists, including for the purposes of intimidation.
The 2016 Anti-Terrorism Act allowed for wiretapping of people suspected of 'preparing terrorist acts' for up to three years without any periodic juridical review, noted the Expert, asking about the criteria used to determine that someone was suspected of 'preparing terrorist acts'. What was the definition of terrorism in the national legislative framework? Did the Anti-Terrorism Act permit the President to declare a 'state of emergency', with the approval of the National Assembly, and impose blanket bans on public rallies, meetings and demonstrations?
The new Anti-Corruption Commission had the power to use secret surveillance to target 'corruptive behaviour' even though the results would not be admissible in court. The use of surveillance based on vague terms, without a clear and lawful purpose, was an issue of concern, the Expert stressed, and asked about the efforts to combat corruption within the justice system and implement the Integrated Strategy for Combatting Crime and Corruption. In this context, the delegation was asked to comment on the appropriateness of the statement by the Prosecutor General that it was unlikely that the killing of journalist Viktoria Marinova on 6 October was related to her role in investigating corruption, even before the crime was investigated, and to explain steps taken to ensure the safety of journalists reporting on corruption.
In 2017, the Expert continued, the European Union Commission had found that progress in tackling high-level corruption had continued to be a challenge and that Bulgaria had a very limited track record of concrete cases leading to final convictions in court. According to the Venice Commission, the Prosecutor General was 'essentially immune from criminal prosecution and was virtually irremovable by means of impeachment for other misconduct'. How was Bulgaria implementing the Venice Commission recommendation to establish an independent body capable of conducting its own fact-finding during investigations into the alleged misconduct by the Prosecutor General?
The delegation was asked about the linguistic barriers preventing ethnic minorities from participating in election processes, and in particular about the implementation of the Venice Commission recommendations concerning the use of minority languages in election campaigns.
The Experts addressed the issue of juvenile justice and asked about the status of the special act on diverting juveniles from criminal justice and whether it been submitted to Parliament, steps taken to amend the Juvenile Delinquency Act, intentions concerning the creation of specialized juvenile courts, and whether Bulgaria would withdraw the notion of anti-social behaviour and focus on support and rehabilitation instead. The majority of inmates in juvenile detention centres were Roma boys - could the delegation comment?
Turning to the institutionalization of children with disabilities, the Experts noted that their number had decreased by almost two thirds since 2010, from 7,587 to the current 731, and raised concern about the 292 deaths of children in care aged zero to seven during the 2010-2014 period. In 2017, there were still over 3,000 children separated from their families, of which one in three was under the age of three. What was the role of the Ombudsmen and other independent mechanisms in monitoring the situation of all children in care, and particularly those with disabilities, including in homes, foster care or family-type accommodation? What were the results of investigations of violence and abuse against children in care?
The judicial system in Bulgaria, Experts continued, was considered to be corrupt and partial and did not enjoy the trust of the population. In fact, 56 per cent of Bulgarians were in favour of the European Union institutions exercising direct oversight over the judiciary, while the Venice Commission had issued caution that the amendments to the Judicial System Act concerning the election of the Supreme Judicial Council were contrary to the European Union regulations. What was being done to reform the judiciary, including the Constitutional Court, and to strengthen its independence, professionalism and integrity?
The Committee was concerned about the increased segregation in schools, particularly for Romani children, as well as the continued forced evictions without prior notice which disproportionately affected Roma. Early marriages and the significant number of babies born to juvenile mothers, disproportionately affecting Roma girls, was also flagged.
Responses by the Delegation
Responding, the delegation said that no cases of pushbacks along the Bulgaria-Turkish border had been identified. There had been cases in which groups had attempted to cross into Bulgaria but were still in Turkey. In cooperation with the Turkish authorities, those groups had been detained while still in Turkey, which was different from pushbacks. All cases of alleged pushbacks had been investigated, insisted the delegation, stressing that all border police were properly trained and briefed, including on human rights. Since the outset of the refugee crisis in 2015, joint patrols between Bulgarian border officers and Frontex officers had been set up; they patrolled the border and this was a further guarantee of respect of human rights.
With regard to the conditions in reception centres and the support provided to refugees and asylum seekers, Bulgaria had deployed its best efforts in this regard and was continuously working to improve the living conditions there. The whole set of basic services was being provided to all those in reception centres, and no deficiencies in this regard had been identified. All refugees and asylum seekers were entitled to and indeed received free legal aid. All migrants had the right to file an asylum application at any moment in time and at any point, including on the border or in the reception centre. The delegation was not aware of any cases to the contrary, nor on discriminatory treatment of citizens of any country.
As for questions raised on unaccompanied children on the move, the delegation stressed that the best interest of the child was used in the determination of all measures. Bulgaria was working hard to ensure their social inclusion and inclusion in the educational system, protection from violence and discrimination, and expert psychological assistance. They were placed with their family, relatives, foster family or in specialized institutions. There was a protected zone for unaccompanied minors in the Sofia reception centre, and work was ongoing on the creation of a new centre for temporary accommodation of unaccompanied minors.
A careful investigation into the allegations of excessive use of force during the protests in front of Parliament in July 2013 had found that only the absolutely necessary amount of force by the police had been used and that no evidence of the use of mass repressive treatment against the protestors had been found.
The violent murder of Viktoria Marinova had generated a wide public outcry, in Bulgaria and abroad, said the delegation, noting that the preliminary investigation and evidence gathered so far did not suggest that the crime was connected to her journalistic activities. The investigation was continuing and a suspect, detained in Germany, was being extradited today. The delegation noted positively the public pressure and the reactions from the public which were a reflection of the maturity of the Bulgarian society when faced with deplorable violent crimes against women.
As for the freedom of the media and the freedom of information, Bulgaria firmly adhered to this principle which was a cornerstone of democracy, continued the delegate, and said that a requirement had been introduced for all print media to identify the owners of the media.
With regard to the deprivation of legal capacity of persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, the delegation said that following the ratification in 2012 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, steps were being taken to fundamentally reform mental health institutions and harmonize the national legislation with the Convention. The bill on the rights of persons with disabilities represented a shift towards supported decision-making, as it eliminated the deprivation of legal capacity. Supported decision-making was now viewed as an instrument enabling an individual to participate in social life and exercise their rights, which could not be limited. The support measures foreseen would in no way limit the rights of persons with disabilities, and special procedures would be introduced to determine the appropriate set of supportive measures by the court.
Responding to questions raised on the right to religious freedom, the delegation stressed that according to the law, all religious denominations had equal rights and the incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence on religious grounds was criminalized. All persons belonging to ethnic minorities had the right to fully participate in public and political life. According to the Electoral Law, the election campaign must be conducted in Bulgarian, which did not prevent any discussion on any issue related to religious minorities.
The definition of terrorism in the Anti-Terrorism law was the one contained in the Penal Code, explained the delegate.
Turning to the juvenile justice reform programme, the delegation explained that the juvenile justice bill aimed to promote the legal conduct of minors in conflict with the law in order to support them to become fully integrated in society. In compliance with international standards, the system of secondary and tertiary prevention had been introduced, which meant that the system of sanctions and punishment would become a thing of the past. A new unit would be set up to replace the current Juvenile Committee and all re-education centres would be closed.
Bulgaria was firm in its position that the institutionalization of children represented a violation of children's rights and it had prioritized deinstitutionalization and child care reform. Steps were being taken to support the social integration of Roma, and in particular to prevent early marriages of Roma girls. In this context, the delegation stressed the positive role of Roma health mediators, and said that this best practice had been extended and Bulgaria had now introduced Roma job mediators to support the search for employment. All stakeholders were working together in the framework of the recently set up mechanism for the prevention of school dropouts, which was not fully functional and would continue to operate indefinitely.
YURI STERK, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, thanked the Experts for their interest in Bulgaria and regretted that the delegation did not have time to cover in the interactive dialogue all questions raised. Bulgaria remained committed to improving the human rights situation and would carefully study the Committee's views and opinions and take them into account in the national human rights policies.
MAURO POLITI, Committee Vice-Chairperson, thanked the delegation for a fruitful dialogue from which a clearer picture of the situation in Bulgaria had emerged, and appreciated the spirit of cooperation by the delegation to provide relevant answers. The Vice-Chair congratulated Bulgaria on their election to the Human Rights Council.