Friday, January 30, 2009

Deaths in custody

On Jan. 14, after an anti-government protest in my city of Sofia was banned postfactum (see my Jan. 15 post), Police Department No. 4 was crowded with arrested people. Among them was Metodi Marinov (60) from the village of Banitsa.
It is still unclear why Marinov was arrested. The official version of the police (presented by Trud here and here) is that he had previous convictions and was detained as a suspected participant in a car theft ring. Some protesters detained at the same time claim that Marinov had on his jacket a sticker "Sergo go home" (referring to the Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev), which indicated that he had also been arrested as a protester. I wouldn't try a judgement here, because our police are habitual liers but my experience shows that witnesses in such cases also can say things very far from the truth. I find it more likely, however, that the official version here is accurate - I suppose that they at least don't (yet) fabricate criminal records.
Anyway, even according to the official version, the old man was kept for many hours in uncomfortable conditions - on a chair and then on a bench in the corridor, because the cells were packed with detained protesters. He declared that he had heart problems but declined (?!) medical examination and help. According to the official version, Marinov never complained, but some of the protesters later testified (here and here) that he several times said he didn't feel well and asked for medical help, but was neglected and even mocked.
Shortly after 1 AM at Jan. 15, the heavy breathing of Marinov finally alerted the policemen and they called the paramedics - to no avail. His death was said to be caused by myocardial infarction (details here and here). To me, it is noteworthy that nobody cites Marinov's attorney, which clearly shows that he had none.
A week later, on Jan. 22, another man died at the hands of police in Sofia. Plamen Kutsarov (29) was arrested as a suspected member of a kidnapping gang. Police claimed that he failed the lie detector test. Then, only hours after his arrest, he died of suffocation while being transported in a car, handcuffed and with a hood on his head. Kutsarov's relations and lawyer deny that he had any connections with the criminal world.
The official reaction was slightly different this time. In Marinov's case, the authorities fiercely denied any wrongdoing because he was (correctly or not) linked to the Jan. 14 rally, so government was eager to defend its right to use any degree of force against protesting citizens. However, Kutsarov's death resulted from ordinary police work, so the General Secretary of the police had to admit that his institution was partially (?) at fault. One or two police officers were removed from their positions but there are no reports that any have been charged. On Jan. 23, the Interior Minister Mikov said in the Parliament that "it is (just a) suggestion (vnushenie) that many people have died at the hands of police in recent time".
Meanwhile, 168 chasa weekly reported that a third pre-trial detainee, a suspected thief, hanged himself in his cell because of physical and sexual abuse but police managed to hide his case from the public. I cannot find in the Web any source confirming this information.

In the 1990s, arrested people were regularly beaten by police and some of them died. Fortunately, as Bulgaria was (at least de jure) moving to the civilized world, this trend slowly but steadily declining. Now, we seem to observe a chilling turn of the tide.
What particularly worries me is the unadequate reaction of the society. First, too much attention is directed to the personalities of the victims. Indeed, if Mr. Marinov has really been a protester, his death would mark a very sad precedent, because in the nearly 20 years of emerging democracy no one protester had been killed by Bulgarian police (or vice versa). However, ordinary Bulgarians seem to overlook the postulate that every person, not only the good and law-abiding but everyone, has a right to due treatment by police and fair trial; and that if these rights are today denied to suspected thieves and murderers, tomorrow every citizen can find himself in the same situation.
Second, the increasing brutality of police, when perceived by ignorant and murky heads, serves to obscure even further their understanding of the function and obligations of state and, hence, the ability of citizens to shape the state as it should be. I mean, when somebody blames the state for the current crime wave because of the impunity of criminals and the absence of police from hot zones, many people reply, "Don't talk nonsense, X wasn't killed by government (forces) so don't blame his murder on government." In other words, seeing the state kill people, ordinary Bulgarians forget its basic function to provide law and order and want it just to leave them alone. With this mindset, it is difficult for me to hope that things may improve in the near future.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Petition demanding justice for Martin Borilski

Martin Borilski was a Bulgarian student in France who in 2000, at age 24, was cruelly murdered in his home. French police gathered and provided to Bulgarian authorities compelling forensic evidence incriminating two young Bulgarian men. However, the Bulgarian judiciary first tried not to prosecute the suspects at all and then staged a parody of a trial only to acquit them. The reason: they are sons of high-ranking people, the sort of people who in Bulgaria are allowed to do whatever they wish, up to murder, while the victim was coming from an ordinary family.
You can read more about the case in English here, here and here.
A Web petition has been started demanding just sentences for the culprits and punishments for prosecutors and judges responsible for the outrageous acquittal. The photos on the petition page show, from top, the victim Martin Borilski, the alleged murderers and the judge who acquitted them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bulgarian authorities deprive disabled children of education

Two students in front of the "good" building of 2nd Auxiliary School in Sofia. Photo by Nadezhda Chipeva, copied from the site of Capital weekly.

I watched this story unfolding on TV news last year but unfortunately hadn't the opportunity to blog about it in real time. The Mogilino blog reports it properly and Bulgarian readers can go directly there. I'll translate now the most important moments.
In October 2008, Bulgaria lost in court after the Mental Disability Advocacy Center filed a complaint in early 2007. "Bulgaria is de facto depriving disabled children of their right to education. This was announced by the European Committee of Social Rights... The Committee found evidence that the Bulgarian government failed to provide education for up to 3,000 children with intellectual disabilities living in so-called ‘homes for mentally disabled children’. Only a small percentage of these children attend school, and the educational programmes carried out inside the institutions do not actually constitute education. Schools and their personnel are not ready to satisfy the needs of disabled children, and government does nothing to solve the problem." The story is reported in more detail in English at the Mental Disability Advocacy Center site under the title Bulgaria: right to education.
So much about the fate of those disabled children who are wards of state. What about the others who haven't been abandoned by their parents? In Bulgaria, most children with milder forms of mental retardations are educated in special, so-called auxiliary schools. I don't want to discuss here the controversy of educating disabled children in segregated vs. inclusive settings; I believe, however, that even the most passionate opponents of special education will agree that it is better than nothing and shouldn't be dismantled if this means simply throwing the kids out into the street. However, this is exactly what happened in my city of Sofia.
Let me translate the Sept. 26 Mogilino post Suspicious maneuvre of the Ministry of Education: "Capital weekly reports that the Ministry of Education wants to merge 5th and 2nd Auxiliary Schools in Sofia in the building of 2nd Auxiliary school because this building was allegedly better. At the site of Capital, you can see the damaged surface and the unkept yard of the "better building". You cannot see how it looks inside, because the Capital reporters haven't been let in, similarly to those of NTV channel before. It is noteworthy that the (building and land of) 2nd Auxiliary School is in the process of being returned to its rightful owners while the land of 5th Auxiliary School has been donated specifically to build a school. It seems that somebody wants very much the land of 5th Auxiliary School."
The story is continued in the Oct. 5 post Children in wheelchairs need not come: "Fifth Auxiliary School was closed last week by the Ministry of Education, against the law. The children were moved to the building of 2nd Auxiliary School, which for most of them means travelling additional 15 km in either direction. The Ministry promised transport for all (72) students but in reality provided a bus with only 8 seats. Children in wheelchairs were told that they didn't need to come to the new school because there was no way for them to be transported to it and the building itself wasn't accessible, wheelchairs couldn't even pass through its front door. A desperate mother wrote this letter which was published at the Capital site." (In it, the mother describes the illegal action of authorities, refuses to let her son be educated in awful conditions and vows to leave work in order to homeschool him.)
I watched the continuation of the story on TV news: Indeed, many parents of children formerly educated at 5th Auxiliary School refused to send them to 2nd Auxiliary School - either because it was not wheelchair-accessible or, in some cases, because parents feared it could collapse any moment. In a Catch 22-like turn, authorities accused these parents in depriving their children of education (!) and threatened them with punishments.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Police brutally disperse peaceful protest in Sofia, nobody cares

Photo: Moment from the Jan. 14 anti-government rally in Sofia. Copied from Simion Pateev's Observer blog, original source: Dnevnik paper.

On Jan. 14, between 2000 and 3000 people attended an anti-government protest in front of the National Assembly (the Bulgarian Parliament) in Sofia. Protesters were students demanding order and safety in the campus, conservationists protesting against a proposed change in the Forest Act allowing easy destruction of forests, farmers demanding the subsidies they are entitled to under EU legislation, and many other people united by their strong disapproval of current Bulgarian government. Among the thousands of peaceful protesters, a group of fewer than 50 young men attacked police and broke some windows, including one of the Parliament building. Police didn't make a serious try to control them.

However, anyone who thought that police wouldn't be active was soon to be proven wrong. Let me quote the BBC report Protesters fight police in Sofia: "When an anonymous bomb threat was received, the Deputy Mayor of Sofia, Yulya Nenkova, issued an order to break up the rally, local media reported. The police then used force to disperse the protesters, who were demanding the resignation of the Socialist-led government."

So much about the brutal and indiscriminate use of police force against a peaceful, allowed protest in a EU member state. The two other foreign media reports about the rally that I managed to find, by AFP and Reuters, don't mention that turn of the events at all. Among non-government activists, only the French conservationist David Morrand expressed support for the protesters.

Bulgaria media, despite giving undue weight to the mild and isolated acts of vandalism that accompanied the rally, did their job better. E.g. Dnevnik paper published a report titled Provocations and police force destroyed the protest. I am translating its initial part:

"Only an hour after its beginning, the united protest of students, conservationists and farmers was banned by the Municipality of Sofia after a demand by the police. Another hour later police dispersed by force the 2000 or more demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament and started chasing them over the streets of Sofia."

Participants and eye-witnesses say that protesters were given absolutely no order or warning, that they were beaten indiscriminately, including children, women (see photo), elderly people and people already lying on the ground, that police chased people to closed streets and alleys, presumably to prevent them from escaping unhurt. (This description fits the well-known pattern of behaviour that has been shown by Bulgarian police on many earlier occasions.) Questions are asked how can a rally be first allowed and then banned while taking place and why, if there had been indeed a call so conviniently delivering a bomb threat, police dispersed only the protesters and didn't evacuate the Parliament building. Bulgarian readers can see e.g. the above quoted Observer post and the blog post by opposition leader Martin Dimitrov (and the comments to it). In his post, Dimitrov claimed that his colleague Borislav Borislavov was injured while trying to protect old ladies.

It isn't quite clear how the arrested protesters were dealt with. The next day (Jan. 15), opposition MP Ivan Kostov announced in the Parliament that police had arrested minors and forced them to sign forms that they didn't want attorneys. The same day, BTV channel reported that detained people were tried using the short procedure and quoted a mother claiming that her son had been arrested in the street without having attended the protest at all.

After this rather impersonal description where I am trying to pose as an amateur reporter, because professional reporters don't seem to be doing their job, let me share my own thoughts.

The Jan. 14 events don't surprise me at all and so don't trouble me too much, because this is the Bulgarian reality as I know it. What is worrying me is the silence in foreign media and the indifference of international (esp. European) public opinion. In small, weak countries like Bulgaria, foreign criticism is a very important regulator of domestic policy. While I am staying aside of the current protests, I have taken part in many similar ones in the past. Generally, these rallies were better reported and the presence of cameras not only helped the achievement of good things in some cases but also served to guarantee, to some extent, the rights and safety of citizens in a country where police is regarded by the authorities mainly as a tool to quash dissent.

The situation has worsened much since Bulgaria joined EU in early 2007. Indeed, some media have done an excellent job to report the outrageous plight of our institutionalized disabled children. However, what Westerners don't seem to realize is that non-disabled, non-institutionalized adults in a formally democratic EU member state also can have very little control over their fate and be stripped of most basic rights. The only aspect of the situation in Bulgaria that is properly reported in European media is the rampant corruption. This makes sense, because this aspect of the Bulgarian situation directly empties the pockets of European taxpayers. However, people who love democracy should also think of the nascent civil society in Bulgaria which is struggling to survive. It needs help and after this help costs so little (just to spread the word), I don't see why it isn't being given.

In conclusion, while I had doubts about the wisdom of the Jan. 14 protest (for reasons that I don't wish to discuss here), it achieved something very important: it proved beyond any reasonable doubt that in Bulgaria the right to public protest, similarly to freedom of speech, exists only until somebody tries to use it.