Krassimir Kanev: Many Bulgarians are Unaware of Their Human Rights Violation

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | February 2, 2003, Sunday // 00:00

Krassimir Kanev is director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. The Committee was established in July 1992 as an independent non-governmental organisation for the protection of human rights. The backbone of the committee's activities is systematic monitoring of the human rights situation in the country. The committee reports on human rights violations with a special emphasis on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, refugees and asylum-seekers, rights of the child, protection from torture and ill treatment, freedom of expression and association, problems of the criminal justice system. The BHC offers free legal help to the victims of human rights abuses. The committee also works in the sphere of human rights education, organizes conferences, workshops, public actions and other forms of public activities aimed at bringing the concept of human rights to the attention of the general public.

Mr. Kanev met Martina Iovcheva

Q: The Balkans and Bulgaria in particular have bad image regarding their human rights record? How far is Bulgaria in that field compared to the EU member countries?

A: There are lots of historical, political and cultural reasons why the human rights in that region are not at the level as in the other Central European not to speak of the Western European countries. This is a region with a traditionally mixed up population, different religions, and ethnic groups living in poverty, some of them in extreme poverty. A region, which has a long history of wars, ethnic conflicts. Not all the people in that region have defined their national identity.

So these are all reasons why the human rights in the Balkans are not as well as developed as in other European countries. And Bulgaria does not make an exception. Although the human rights situation in our country is not the worst in our region.

Q: In your opinion, which areas cause the greatest concern in our country?

A: There are lots of areas that are of concern. These areas include first of all the ethnic relations - the situation of the ethnic minorities and more specifically the Roma. There is a severe discrimination in almost all spheres of social life towards Roma population and these include education, housing, employment, municipal services. The development of the relationships between Bulgarians and Roma during the last year led to a further isolation of this community from the social life. The Roma neighborhoods became more and more isolated with the exclusion of electricity, the degradation of infrastructure in the Roma neighborhoods and with the lack of the government to take any measures to improve.

Q: What measure should be taken?

A: In 1999, the government passed the framework program for the equal integration of Roma in the Bulgarian society. It provided a number of measures for the improvement of the human rights and the social status of Roma such as passing a very comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, desegregation of Roma education, improvement of infrastructure and legalisation of the Roma neighborhoods, development of the Roma cultural life, improvement of Roma employment through encouragement of businesses that employ Roma. There were a number of other measures.

None of these measures have been implemented and none of these measures have started being implemented since 1999 when the framework program was adopted.

This government, when it came to power, issued its own version of a program designed to improve the inter-ethnic relations and particularly the situation of the Roma, which became part of a governmental program in October, 2001.

None of these measures that have been envisaged at that time were implemented either. These measures included passing an anti-discrimination law, evaluation of the framework program for equal integration of Roma in the Bulgarian society and designing a plan to implement the program as well as other measures designed to improve the human rights of other ethnic minorities such as the Turks and the other ethnic groups.

But as I said none of these was implemented since 1999, although some of the measures were supposed to be implemented by the end of 2001 already.

Q: Has the election of the new government led to any tangible changes in the country's human rights record?

A: The human rights record of this government has been mixed. There were some improvements. Last year, for instance, in December the government ratified Protocol 13 of the European Convention, aiming at the abolition of death penalty under all circumstances.

In September, the education ministry passed a guideline designed to start the desegregation of the Roma education.

There has been some development in drafting laws such as the anti-discrimination law that was drafted in July by the government together with the non-governmental organizations.

But, there were also some very serious negative developments and perhaps the most serious negative development was the continuous isolation of the Roma community from the social life, the continuous degradation of the infrastructure in the neighborhoods.

Since January last year the National Electricity Company started excluding Roma neighborhoods from electricity and we have now situations in most of them with either total lack of electricity or with substantial reduction of consumption.

In December, the government passed a religious denominations act, which was a really serious infringement to the right to practice religion. It envisaged a number of penalties specially designed to punish religious groups as well as the establishment of a special governmental body - religious denominations directorate, which in addition of its administrative functions has also extensive police functions.

None of these structures envisage dealing with non-religious groups. In this sense, this law is also discriminatory.

Q: Can you tell about the most alarming human rights violation cases that took place in Bulgaria over the past year but weren't made public?

A: Oh, yes. There are lots of cases that did not reach the public. I would say that most of them horrible cases that were witnessed and documented did not actually reach the public.

For instance, the death of the twenty-two inmates at the social care home at the Dragash Voivoda in the winter of 2001 and this continues also over 2002. A death that resulted from neglect and lack of medical care has not been reported and mentioned by anybody.

We have such tragic events taking place in almost all psychiatric institutions of the country. These are institutions where nobody goes and where lots of serious human rights violations take place including deaths.

There were cases of people over the past years who suffered from shootings, ill treatment, and torture in the hands of the police. In February, there was one such case in a place near Svilengrad where one person was tortured and killed by the border police. Although this case was brought to the attention to the prosecution, no developments, no sentence so far has been passed against the perpetrators of this serious crime.

We continue to hear from prisoners and from inmates of other detention facilities of ill treatment, torture and many other abuses.

Talking about cases, I must also mention the two cases that have been decided by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in June. The case of Anguelova from Bulgaria - an old case for murder of a minor, a person who was apprehended by the police, apparently tortured and killed in one police station in the town of Razgrad. Later, the investigation covered this murder. In June, the European Court of Human Rights decided that the government violated the right of life of this person. His mother, the plaintiff in this case, got a substantial compensation.

Then, a couple of weeks later the European Court of Human Rights decided also the case of Daruish al-Nashif, a Palestinian who was expelled from the country in 1999 and this expulsion caused an infringement in his family life. He was permanent resident in Bulgaria since 1992. He was married here, had two children who were Bulgarian citizens. He was expelled as a threat to the national security. This threat was supposed to be his religious activities in the town of Smolyan. The government failed to prove that his religious activities were indeed something that can justify his expulsion. Therefore the court found a violation of his right to family life and also awarded a substantial compensation.

We have had lots of cases of people who were ill treated, held in inhuman environments in psychiatric institutions during the year of 2002 just as we have many such cases in previous years. This has been very well documented in a report that Amnesty International published in October last year exploring the situation in Bulgaria's mental health institutions.

Q: What happened with the Sanadinovo social home for mentally disabled?

A: The social care home in Sanadinovo was closed down by the government after a public campaign, started by our organization and continued by many other organizations, more specifically Amnesty International groups all over the world. It was closed down because it was an inhuman place.

Q: You personally visited it....

A: Yes, I have visited it several times and I have found horrible treatment of these women who were all with mental retardation and other psychiatric conditions. We have found at one point that some of them were held in metal cage. We have found also that the way they were treated in one of the buildings was similar to the way or even worse to the way one treats animals. We have found degradation in the infrastructure; lack of motivation in the staff and as a result of the campaign that we have taken part in, the government closed it down.
But this was not the only place, which has inmates like the women in Sanadinovo and which treats these inmates in the way that they were treated in Sanadinovo. We have visited most of the social care homes in Bulgaria and we have found there situations that are not much different from that in Sanadinovo.

Q: Do you think Bulgarians know how to fight for their rights?

A: Many Bulgarians know how to fight for their human rights, particularly those that are educated and better off.

But there are lots of Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians that are not aware that their human rights are violated despite the fact that their human rights are violated on a daily basis and they don't know whom to turn to. They don't know how to approach their situation and they are exposed to daily violations to lots of their rights.

This is a situation that is a result of a number of developments. One of them is the fact that education in human rights is not part of any curriculum in Bulgaria but also the fact that there are no institutions and there are no structures dealing with the protection of human rights. There are no governmental bodies such as what we have in some other countries like the ombudsman, like commissions dealing with different aspects of human rights violations such as racial discrimination, gender discrimination and so on. All this is lacking in Bulgaria and all this has been a concern of a number of international organizations during the past years but nothing happened. In this sense, the Bulgarian institutions structure is even less developed compared to the institutional structures in the other Balkan countries where they have many of these institutions.

Q: Do you think there are reasons to approach UN over the case with the six medics, charged with intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV?

A: The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations is in a position to deal with the situation of the Bulgarian medics, tried in Libya over infecting hundreds of children with HIV. Libya has ratified a protocol, which allows everybody who has suffered from human rights violations perpetuated by Libyan authorities to file a complaint.

I think that the Bulgarian citizens who are now under investigation and under trial in Libya have lots of reasons to approach the human rights committee. One of these reasons is their prolonged pre-trial detention and investigation, which is by any standard unreasonable situation. That is in violation to their right to personal liberty.

There are also allegations of torture and of extraction of confessions under torture, which if proved to be true is also a serious violation of their human rights. This is something else that should be brought to the attention to the UN Human Rights Committee. I understand that there is an ongoing investigation into these allegations and it needs to be seen what the Libyan authorities are going to do. And then if they don't do enough of course they can approach the UN Human Rights Committee.

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