Bulgaria Migrant Death: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Novinite Insider » OPINIONS | Author: Angel Petrov |October 18, 2015, Sunday // 18:23
Bulgaria: Bulgaria Migrant Death: Guilty Until Proven Innocent? Careful with the blurry lines between nationalism and activism, on the one hand, and the real life which doesn't unfold according to "ism"-s, on the other. Photo BGNES

Bulgaria has been attacked again. For yet another time. It was, however, for the first time since the Islamic invasion which the Euro-American media portray to us as “a refugee influx”, that Bulgaria has responded.” (A blog post by the chair of Vazrazhdane/Revival, a Bulgarian political organization - October 16, 2015)

Migrant shot dead trying to enter Bulgaria...” (hundreds of media outlets around the world - October 16, 2015)

A man died from his gunshot wounds inflicted by border police officers in Southeastern Bulgaria, late on Thursday, and he was a migrant – apparently an Afghan migrant. Everybody knows this now, since the Bulgarian government was good enough to report it. Reactions followed in a matter of minutes, ranging between “police brutality” and “courageous act of border protection” and somewhat dwarfing the volume of factual information we have.

Which is not much – even now that some light has just been cast on the man’s identity. We know it was the first killing of a migrant at the EU's external borders (so also the first one at, or in immediate proximity to, Bulgaria's borders), after several years in which the Southeastern European nations has, somewhat successfully, tested measures to halt the migrant influx. It started doing so at a time most Southern European member states weren't facing the migratory pressure they are facing now. Back then, Europe wasn't such a welcomer of mass migration into the bloc's territory – not the one we know nowadays. Back then, it was Europe that incited Bulgaria to boost border protection by telling it that whatever effort it was putting forth to carry out its EU duties was not enough.

Border Police: Guilty until Proven Innocent?

Theoretically it was quite natural for the Thursday incident or something like that to occur someday – despite tens of km of barbed-wire fence and despite the integrated border system. The reality is that, with people crossing illegally (this word doesn't and can't denigrate the plight or asylum seekers, but their existence hasn't yet revoked laws), one must be completely devoid of imagination to believe it is impossible for a law enforcement officer to act in case of perceived danger, out there in the dark, against a crowd of people. A world where a law enforcement officer would never shoot, even as a warning, is a world of science fiction we should all be awaiting but which has not yet come.

Only that we don't know what happened; and yet everybody was quick to use the death of a man to their own benefits – just like they did with three-year-old Aylan whose lifeless body, with all due respect, was used in a manner disrespectful to the thousands of migrant children who had already lost their lives out there in the seas between Europe, Africa, and Asia.

“When three patrolling police officers come across a group of 54 young people at night in the woods of Strandzha [it was in that mountainous part of SE Bulgaria where the development took place], the risk of a blunder is tremendously high,” Ruslan Yordanov, a journalist with Bulgarian daily Standart noted on Saturday. What the Interior Ministry's Chief Secretary Georgi Kostov said 24 hours earlier at the emergency press conference was basically the same. Imagine being a police officer in the woods and spotting 54 people approaching you and refusing to issue and adequate response to instruction. Another point he made which drew attention: the men detained were “in good shape”. Later on, Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova added they have a “peculiar” profile.

The Single Version of Events Known So Far…

What supposedly happened that night at least worth summarizing. The Interior Ministry put forward the following version: the integrated border protection system was triggered after it had detected the movement of a group of about 10 people near Bulgaria's common frontier with Turkey. This prompted border police to deploy several officers which tracked down the group's movement until arriving where a number of migrant groups (and this despite all measures!), after having crossed into Bulgaria, wait for smugglers to load them onto trucks, buses, etc. There, some 30 km away from the border (so nobody was shot “while trying to cross into Bulgaria”), police seems to have bumped into a bigger group of people: reportedly 54 migrants, possibly Afghans, but with no documents, hiding under a bridge. Sometime later a border police official produced a warning shot. The bullet rebounded off the bridge, hitting a migrant in the back of the neck, and he later died.

… Got More Interpretations Than It Deserved

This version has to be respected at least until it is the only legitimate one: authorities said post-mortem results suggest the victim was not directly shot at. Which is not tantamount to a choice between “justifying” and “condemning” someone for having fired a warning shot: It is just as barbaric to kill people as it is to praise them for having shot premeditatedly or by mistake. Border protection duties, however, have led to more than a single death throughout history, Europe included. Whether it was inevitable for border police to warn the migrants by shooting in the air – or against the bridge above their heads in this case – we are yet to see.

But Bulgarian politicians were impatient to react in the polarized manner that was quite expected. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) couldn't help using the incident to polish its EU, liberal image around the local elections (when it is traditionally embroiled in scandals) campaign and warn that “we can't greet with bullets” whomever is coming (even though “we” have never done so before). Others rushed to accuse the responsible border police officer of “murder” – and it was only Bulgaria’s tiny dimensions and importance in global politics that prevents such “pre-judicial” allegations from opening the floodgates of a bigger scandal.

At the other end were calls by the co-leader of Patriotic Front, a nationalist coalition backing the government, who suggested the border police officer that issued the warning shot should be awarded a medal of honor. This was echoed by Bozhidar Dimitrov, the head of the National History Museum (why should someone be awarded for just carrying out their duties?). Separately, fellow citizens of Valkan Hambarliev (this is the name of the border police officer who shot) started a petition (encouraged by Dimitrov himself) in support of his actions. The same reaction appeared on social media, with many portraying him as a patriot who defended the country from an enemy.

President Rosen Plevneliev, having had his share of a personal tragedy this year, was oddly cautious, but somewhat straightforward in his use of wording – despite his open commitment to a number of liberal values. He warned Sofia "should not overlook" its "responsibility to protect [Bulgaria's] national borders and sovereignty and the borders of a united Europe, in accordance with [its] commitments as a responsible European nation.”

Neither Nationalism Nor Activism Can Heal Wounds

EU leaders' reaction was quite vague, with both EU Council and EU Commission Presidents, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker respectively, saying Brussels “stands behind” Bulgaria after the incident – without elaborating. Is it not better to stand behind “the truth”, whatever it is, and try to find it if possible? Everything else means taking sides, and more lives being lost for nothing.  

Incidents like the one on Thursday remind us that when it comes to migrants, just as any other issue, both the barbaric kind of patriotism and the prejudiced kind of activism are failing to deal with the problem. So long as thousands-strong crowds were relatively smoothly crossing into and via Europe, bound for Germany, and their biggest challenge was to go through borders, it was easy to label a multitude as either “victims” or “terrorists”/”criminals”. Real life and its tragedies, however (any death being a tragedy), require the effort to make case-by-case judgment if wrongdoing, committed by any side, is to be prevented from happening again.

Moreover, in a democracy one shouldn't deny authorities their right to be right, otherwise we are turning it into populism. In a democracy, even the powers-that-be, and even their “inherently brutal” (as some allege) arms called law-enforcement officers are innocent until proven guilty. Unlike them, those who avail themselves of tragedies, deaths, incidents, call them whatever you like, are not, as long as they urge an end to reason. Whether they are from the “nationalist” or the “human rights” camp is of no importance. 

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Tags: migrant, migrants, Rumyana Bachvarova, Georgi Kostov, Afghan, bullet, border, turkey, Bozhidar Dimitrov, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, migrant crisis
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