Bulgaria Fails to Address Shortcomings in Treatment of Prisoners, Conditions of Detention - CoE

Politics » BULGARIA IN EU | March 26, 2015, Thursday // 12:24
Bulgaria: Bulgaria Fails to Address Shortcomings in Treatment of Prisoners, Conditions of Detention - CoE Sofia Prison, photo by BGNES

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has leveled serious criticism at Bulgaria.

In a public statement concerning Bulgaria made on March 26, the CPT draws attention to shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of detention of persons deprived of their liberty.

According to the press office of the CPT, as cited by the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, this is only the seventh time that the CPT resorts to such a step, with the previous occasions concerning similar problems in Greece, the Russian Federation (Chechnya, 3 times), and Turkey (twice).

The CPT points out that it has carried out ten visits to Bulgaria since 1995, with delegations visiting all but one prison, several investigation detention facilities (IDFs) and numerous police establishments in the country during that period.

According to the CPT, the delegations have identified major shortcomings during these visits, especially as concerns the police and penitentiary establishments, with recommendations being issued repeatedly over the last 20 years concerning these two areas.

The CPT underscores that the vast majority of these recommendations have remained unimplemented, or only partially implemented.

“In the course of the Committee’s visits to Bulgaria in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015, the CPT’s delegations witnessed a lack of decisive action by the authorities leading to a steady deterioration in the situation of persons deprived of their liberty,” the statement says.

The CPT reminds that in the report on its 2012 visit, the Committee expressed its extreme concern about the lack of progress observed in the Bulgarian prison system and stressed that this could oblige the CPT to consider having recourse to Article 10, paragraph 2, of the European Convention on the Prevention of Torture or Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This procedure was set in motion after the March/April 2014 visit; indeed, the Committee’s
findings during that visit demonstrated a persistent failure by the Bulgarian authorities to address certain fundamental shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of detention of persons deprived of their liberty.

The visit report highlighted a number of long-standing concerns, some of them dating back to the very first periodic visit to Bulgaria in 1995, as regards the phenomenon of ill-treatment (both in the police and the prison context), inter-prisoner violence, prison overcrowding, poor material conditions of detention in IDFs and prisons, inadequate prison health-care services and low custodial staffing levels, as well as concerns related to discipline, segregation and contact with the outside world.

According to the CPT, the responses of the Bulgarian authorities to the report on the 2014 visit and to the letter by which the Committee has informed the authorities of the opening of the procedure set out in Article 10, paragraph 2, of the Convention have not alleviated the CPT’s concerns.

The responses of the Bulgarian authorities are described as succinct, providing very little new information, and failing to address the majority of the Committee’s recommendations, usually merely quoting the existing legislation and/or explaining the lack of action by referring to budgetary constraints.

“Further, most of the information contained in the CPT’s report as concerns ill-treatment and inter-prisoner violence was simply dismissed,” the Committee states.

According to the CPT, the 2015 visit was aimed at assessing the progress in the implementation of its long-standing recommendations and to review, in particular, the treatment and detention conditions of persons held at Sofia, Burgas and Varna Prisons, as well as at Sofia IDF (located on G.M. Dimitrov Boulevard).

The CPT found that little or no progress had been achieved in the implementation of key recommendations repeatedly made by the Committee, meaning that it was left with no other choice but to make a public statement, pursuant to Article 10, paragraph 2, of the Convention.

As regards police ill-treatment, the number of allegations of deliberate physical ill-treatment of persons detained by the police did not decrease between the 2014 visit and the 2015 visit of the Committee’s delegation but was even on the rise in Sofia and Burgas.

“The alleged ill-treatment generally consisted of slaps, kicks, and in some cases truncheon blows. The delegation concluded that men and women (including juveniles) in the custody of the police continued to run a significant risk of being ill-treated, both at the time of apprehension and during subsequent questioning,” the CPT notes.

The CPT underscores the failure of Bulgaria to implement crucial recommendations regarding the legal safeguards against police illtreatment, with access to a lawyer remaining an exception during the initial 24 hours of police custody and the ex officio lawyers failing to perform their function as a safeguard against ill-treatment.

“Further, persons in police custody were still rarely put in a position to notify promptly a person of their choice of their detention, and were not systematically informed of their rights from the outset of their custody,” the statement says.

The CPT also stresses that the existing specific rules as regards medical confidentiality and the recording of injuries continue to be routinely ignored in practice.

“Injuries observed on persons admitted to IDFs were usually not recorded in the medical documentation. Medical screening prior to the admission of detained persons to IDFs was extremely cursory (consisting merely of an interview, without a proper medical examination) and it was performed in the presence of police officers, with detainees usually being handcuffed,” the CPT states.

As regards detention in the Ministry of Justice’s establishments, the Committee informs that the situation as regards physical ill-treatment of prisoners by staff remains alarming in the
three prisons visited in 2015.

The CPT informs that the omnipresence of inter-prisoner violence at Sofia and Burgas Prisons during its 2012 and 2014 visits was still a fact during the 2015 visit, with frequent occurrences of inter-prisoner violence also reported at Varna Prison.

“As described in the reports on the visits carried out in 2012 and 2014, and as acknowledged by the Bulgarian authorities, corruption remains endemic in the Bulgarian prison system,” the CPT declares, drawing attention to numerous allegations of prisoners being asked to pay custodial, administrative, and/or medical staff for many services provided for by the law or for being granted various privileges.

The CPT emphasizes that overcrowding remains a very problematic issue in the Bulgarian prison system.

To illustrate the point, the Committee informs that the vast majority of inmates at Burgas Prison have less than 2 m? of living space in multioccupancy cells, while at Sofia Prison most inmates have just a little more than 2 m? of living space per person.

The material conditions at Sofia, Burgas, and Varna Prisons remain characterised by an ever-worsening state of dilapidation, according to the CPT.

“Most of the sanitary facilities in these three prisons were totally decrepit and unhygienic, and the heating systems functioned for only a few hours per day. The majority of prisoners still did not benefit from ready access to a toilet during the night and had to resort to buckets or bottles to comply with the needs of nature. The kitchens at Burgas and Varna Prisons (and the dining hall at Varna Prison) remained filthy and unhygienic and infested with vermin, with leaking and over-flowing sewage pipes, and walls and ceilings covered in mould. Most parts of the establishments visited were unfit for human accommodation and represented a serious health risk for both inmates and staff,” the CPT states.

Besides, the vast majority of inmates (including almost all the remand prisoners) in the three prisons visited in the course of the 2015 visit still had no access to organised out-of-cell activities and were left in a state of idleness for up to 23 hours per day.

Regarding health care, the accessibility and quality of the medical services in all the prisons visited (and the IDF in Sofia) were as poor as they had been in the past and at some places the the quality of medical recording had even worsened.

No progress was observed during the 2015 visit as regards other issues of concern to the CPT, such as prison staffing levels, discipline and segregation, and contact with the outside world.

In its concluding remarks, the Committee informs that the findings of the 2015 visit demonstrate again that little or nothing has been done to improve the situation of persons placed in the custody of the police, or held in establishments under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice.

“This state of affairs highlights a persistent failure by the Bulgarian authorities to address most of the fundamental shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of detention of persons deprived of their liberty, despite the specific recommendations repeatedly made by the Committee. The CPT is of the view that action in this respect is long overdue and that the approach to the whole issue of deprivation of liberty in Bulgaria should radically change,” the Committee declares.

The CPT recommends developing a comprehensive prison policy, instead of concentrating exclusively on material conditions (which, as should be stressed, have only improved to an extremely limited extent).

“Having in place a sound legislative framework is no doubt important. However, if laws are not backed by decisive, concrete and effective measures to implement them, they will remain a dead letter and the treatment and conditions of persons deprived of their liberty in Bulgaria will deteriorate even further,” the CPT argues.

“As regards the treatment of persons detained by law enforcement agencies, resolute action is required to ensure the practical and meaningful operation of fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment (including the notification of custody, access to a lawyer, access to a doctor, and information on rights),” the CPT states.

Bulgaria’s Justice Ministry has responded to the criticism, stating that it is developing a package of measures, including short-term and long-term measures, which are to be presented to the CPT shortly.

The measures include a bill on amending and supplementing the Law on Execution of Penalties and Detention, the restructuring of the General Directorate for Execution of Penalties, repair works at prisons, better monitoring of the appointment and career development of prison workers, and inspections on corruption tip-offs.

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