Last Updated: Thursday, 10 July 2014, 16:05 GMT

2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Bulgaria

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 11 March 2010
Cite as United States Department of State, 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Bulgaria, 11 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b9e530d2.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2010

The Republic of Bulgaria is a parliamentary democracy with a population of approximately 7.6 million. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral National Assembly (Narodno Sabranie). The country is ruled by a minority government headed by a prime minister. General elections held in July were deemed generally free and fair but were marred by numerous reports of vote buying and late changes to the electoral system that were supported only by the previous ruling coalition. While civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of law enforcement organizations, there were some instances in which law enforcement officers acted independently.

There were problems with police abuse and mistreatment of pretrial detainees, prison inmates, and minorities; harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities; and official impunity. There were some limitations on freedom of the press; discrimination against religious minorities; and pervasive government corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The new government took initial steps to address corruption, and progress was made by year's end. Other problems included violence against women and children, and substandard education for Romani children; harsh conditions in state-run institutions for children; trafficking in persons; discrimination against persons with disabilities; and discrimination against minority groups.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

The government or its agents did not commit any politically motivated killings; however, during the year four persons in police custody died under unclear circumstances. Three cases involved accusations that the police did not provide adequate medical attention to seriously ill detainees. In the fourth case, prosecutors charged two police officers for placing a hood over a detainee who then suffocated during his transfer to another detention center.

On August 5, the military appellate court upheld the sentencing of former Blagoevgrad police officers who were convicted of beating to death Angel Dimitrov while arresting him in 2005. The case was pending a Supreme Court review at year's end. On August 10, more than 1,000 police officers and supporters protested in front of the courthouse in Blagoevgrad in support of the officers.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

Ransom kidnappings involving wealthy businessmen and their families remained a problem. In December police arrested more than 30 members of a kidnapping gang believed to be responsible for 17 to 19 kidnappings. At year's end the alleged leaders of the gang remained in jail awaiting trial.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, police sometimes beat suspects, particularly members of minority groups.

Police can detain persons for 24 hours without charging them. Human rights observers noted a continuing decline of cases where police arrested suspects for minor offenses and physically abused them to force confessions. However, there were reports that this practice was more widely used with Romani suspects. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that Romani victims have been more willing to lodge official complaints against the authorities.

Human rights groups continued to claim that medical examinations in cases of police abuse were not properly investigated and that offending officers were very rarely punished.

In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered judgments that found 11 violations by the government involving the prohibition against inhuman or degrading treatment under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions generally did not meet international standards, and the government did not allocate funds to make significant improvements.

Conditions in some prisons were harsh, with inadequate toilet facilities and insufficient heating and ventilation. The daily food allowance was approximately 2.5 levas ($1.85). NGOs received complaints about both the quality and quantity of food.

Overcrowding remained a serious problem. At year's end there were 9,071 prisoners in the country's 13 prisons, fewer than in the previous three years but still several times more than capacity. NGOs received complaints from prisoners about insufficient space and considered this a major factor contributing to brutality among inmates.

Guards' mistreatment of inmates continued to be a problem. On September 9, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) filed a claim against the Ministry of Justice on behalf of a prisoner who was beaten by another inmate in October 2008 in the Varna prison, accusing the ministry of providing inadequate guard supervision and failing to provide physical security to prisoners.

In February 2008 the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released the report of its 2006 visit to the country's prisons and detention facilities. The CPT noted that while the majority of persons with whom it met were treated correctly, numerous persons alleged physical mistreatment at the time of apprehension or subsequent questioning by police officers. Mistreatment consisted mainly of kicks, punches, slaps, and blows with truncheons or other hard objects. This abuse was combined with psychological pressure to induce a detainee to confess to a crime.

All prisoners have the right to work, and two days of work reduced the prison term by three days. In practice the prison administration offered work to only a limited number of prisoners in minimum-security prisons. Prisoners alleged that the system for determining what type of prison regime one received was corrupt and lacked oversight. Two members of an organized crime group specialized in kidnapping, arrested on December 16, reportedly had participated in illegal activities while completing a previous work program. As a result, the interior minister requested an internal review of the work program.

Citing financial constraints, prison authorities acknowledged difficulties diagnosing and treating the increasing numbers of drug-dependent inmates and limiting their access to narcotics. According to the prison administration, approximately 1,200 prisoners or 13 percent of the prison population were drug dependent.

In 2008 the ECHR found that the government violated the rights of prisoners with substandard conditions of detention. The government took some measures to improve the conditions in detention centers. Prisoners reported substandard conditions to the prison administration, the ombudsman, and the court system. During the year prisoners filed 1,062 complaints with the prison administration claiming poor conditions and denial of rights.

At year's end there were 1,024 detainees in the country's 43 pretrial detention centers.

Foreign prisoners serving longer terms were held in a separate prison in Sofia to provide easier access to consular services. Men and women were held in separate prisons and generally treated the same.

During the year the government generally permitted independent monitoring of prisons by independent observers, including the CPT's December 2008 visit to the country's detention facilities, as well as the BHC's periodic visits. The CPT reported severe overcrowding and understaffing, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient medical facilities.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered judgments that found 40 violations by the country of the right to liberty and security as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, there were reports that police at times ignored these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

The Interior Ministry is responsible for law enforcement. On October 1, the government created organized crime task forces focused on complicated, high-level organized crime and corruption.

In November the parliament passed a high-profile bill to reform the State Agency for National Security (DANS), clarifying its law enforcement role in relation to the Ministry of Interior. The bill removed organized crime, drugs, dual-use goods, and transborder crime from the agency's jurisdiction and prohibited DANS from conducting controlled delivery and undercover operations. DANS is now strictly responsible for domestic intelligence analysis. During the year media and NGOs continued to criticize DANS for lack of results and for the apparent politicization of high-profile disputes in the agency that led to the dismissal and resignation of several senior civil servants. In August the newly elected government appointed new leadership to head the agency.

The National Intelligence Service and the National Protective Service, which answer to the president, continued to operate in the absence of judicial, executive, and legislative oversight.

Impunity remained a problem. NGOs claimed that military judges, who were responsible for all military and Ministry of Interior appeals, were vulnerable to influence, as the defense minister had the power to confirm their appointments as well as to promote or demote them in rank. However, there were no specific reports of such pressure during the year.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment While in Detention

While not required, police normally obtained a warrant from a prosecutor prior to apprehending an individual. Detainees were generally informed promptly of the charges against them. Police may hold a detainee 24 hours without charge, and a prosecutor may authorize detention for up to 72 hours without charge. Prosecutors could not arrest military personnel without the defense minister's approval. A court must approve detention for more than 72 hours; such detention could last up to two years for the most serious charges.

The law provides for bail, and bail was widely used.

The law provides for the right to counsel from the time of detention; however, police often failed to inform detainees of this right, and detainees often lacked timely access to a lawyer. The February 2008 CPT report of its 2006 visit stated police effectively denied suspects the right to counsel during initial interrogations.

The law provides state-funded legal aid for low-income defendants, but a lack of coordination hindered the program's implementation.

Long delays awaiting trial were common, and there was a large backlog of outstanding investigations. Tough statutorily mandated time limits for investigations often resulted in hasty indictments that were returned by judges for additional investigation.

On April 22, the country passed an amnesty law that terminated pending cases and released an estimated 400 convicts. The amnesty law granted a reprieve for all types of crimes due to "negligence" for which the maximum penalty was five years in prison that were committed prior to July 2008. In practice this meant that for crimes punishable by up to five years in prison, prosecutors could only bring to court those guilty of "intentionally" committing a crime, a standard that was difficult to prove. Prosecutors complained the law effectively barred investigations of abuse of public office. The new government was challenging the constitutionality of this law in the constitutional court at year's end.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered 25 judgments that found violations by the country of the right to a speedy trial.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary; however, political influence, widespread corruption, inefficiency, and lack of accountability were problems.

The Supreme Judicial Council appoints, disciplines, and dismisses judges, investigators, and prosecutors; investigates complaints of judicial misconduct; and recommends disciplinary action. Observers noted that the council was slow to exercise its authority and implement internal discipline. From January to October, the council dismissed seven magistrates for professional misconduct. During the year NGOs alleged that the council's decisions to replace a large number of magistrates were not merit based.

Cases are reviewed through a three-tier court system, which consists of regional courts, district courts (which act both as trial and appeals courts), appellate courts, the Supreme Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Administrative Court. Administrative courts hear citizens' appeals of actions taken by the central and local government.

Judicial and investigative backlogs remained a serious problem in some jurisdictions. Despite modest improvements, long delays awaiting criminal trials were common. According to practitioners, the law did not sufficiently reduce the opportunities for delaying cases. Prosecutors continued to dismiss criminal charges when the statute of limitations had been reached. From January to June, prosecutors dismissed approximately 70,000 cases. In 2008 more than 235,000 cases were dismissed.

The courts often granted continuances to defense lawyers, which delayed hearings and sentencing, particularly in organized crime cases. One particularly notorious organized crime case has been postponed 27 times since 2006.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered judgments that found eight violations by the country of the right to a fair trial as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Trial Procedures

Defendants are presumed innocent and are allowed ample time to prepare a defense. All court hearings are public except for cases involving national security, endangerment of public morals, and the privacy of juvenile defendants. There are no juries. In cases involving serious crimes, the professional judge is joined by two lay judges. If a crime may entail imprisonment for more than 15 years, two professional judges and three lay judges hear the case. In such circumstances, verdicts are determined by majority vote Defendants have the right to be present at their trials. A defense attorney is mandatory if the alleged crime carries a punishment of 10 or more years in prison for juveniles, foreigners, persons with mental or physical disabilities, or for trials conducted in the absence of the accused. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses, to examine evidence, and to present their own witnesses and evidence. The law provides for the right of appeal, which was widely used. Trial procedures apply equally to all citizens.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered judgments that found 25 violations by the government of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to length of proceedings.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters; however, civil cases were plagued by the same long delays as criminal cases. Allegations of human rights abuses may be filed with courts and also with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, which may impose sanctions on violators.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered judgments that found 21 violations by the government of the right to an effective remedy as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Property Restitution

In May the Jewish community was able to regain possession and physically occupy a formerly state-run hospital in central Sofia. The hospital management's appeal of the court's ruling remained pending at year's end.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these provisions in practice.

During the year following the 2008 investigation of DANS, the parliament established an oversight committee for DANS that determined the organization had acted on the orders of the former DANS chairman when it obtained telephone records and possibly voice recordings of calls by members of parliament and journalists. The committee referred the case to the prosecutor general and recommended launching an internal investigation.

NGOs reported that in some poor rural areas local authorities denied government services, including employment and scholarships, to individuals who lacked proof of membership in the local ruling political parties.

In 2008 the ECHR delivered judgments that found seven violations by the government of the right to respect for private and family life as provided by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, there were reports that individuals with political and economic interests intimidated journalists. NGOs reported that journalists practiced self-censorship, or took money from political and business leaders and organized crime to plant positive stories about them.

Individuals criticized the government freely without reprisal. However, in rural areas offering fewer employment opportunities, individuals were more hesitant to criticize local governments.

Media organizations and in a few cases political parties freely published a variety of newspapers. Private television and radio stations provided a variety of news and public interest programming. However, NGOs complained that recent acquisitions of a number of media outlets by groups affiliated with business and political interests had led to a partial monopolization of the private media and limited the variety of views available in print and on television. Both print and electronic media were susceptible to economic and, to a certain degree, political influence. Although the state-owned media presented opposition views, observers believed that the law was inadequate to protect their programming independence and left these media vulnerable to government pressure.

In September 2008 four men severely beat and critically injured Frognews editor in chief Ognian Stefanov. Authorities suspected that Frognews was affiliated with the Web site opasnite.net, which was closed for reportedly publishing classified information. Following the incident, Frognews editors complained of multiple death threats. An investigation into Stefanov's beating continued at year's end.

Libel is punishable under the law. Usually the courts interpreted the law in a manner that favored journalistic expression. Many defamation cases were prompted by reporting about corruption or mismanagement, and the most frequent plaintiffs were government officials or other persons in public positions.

In 2008 the prosecution service determined that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Volen Siderov, leader of Attack, a far-right nationalist party, for a February 2007 incident when he and a group of 50 supporters, angered by press reports about the sources of their party's funding, broke into the offices of the 24 Hours daily and 168 Hours weekly newspapers and threatened employees.

In 2008 there was one suit before the ECHR alleging denial of freedom of expression.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the Internet penetration rate was an estimated 35 percent. However, many less-developed rural areas did not have the infrastructure to support Internet services.

In December 2008 the Supreme Administrative Court struck down a January 2008 decree that allowed security services to gather data on Internet users' activities. The court ruled that the decree lacked limitations on the data that the services could access.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Assembly

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The law requires groups requesting a permit for gatherings to give 48 hours' notice (five days' notice for a demonstration). Mayors can prohibit, dismiss, or suggest an alternative site for a gathering they regard as posing a threat to public order, security, or traffic.

On January 14, police arrested more than 150 protesters participating in an antigovernment rally. The mayor of Sofia shut down the demonstration after police received a bomb threat. Opposition parties and civic organizations called for the interior minister's resignation, alleging police used excessive force to disperse the crowd. The prosecution service declined to investigate these allegations, claiming that police responded properly to protesters who were throwing rocks, bottles, and firecrackers.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The law prohibits groups that endanger national unity or promote racial, national, or religious hatred; violate the rights of citizens; or seek to achieve their objectives through violent means. The government generally respected the rights of individuals and groups to establish their own political parties or other political organizations.

Political parties based on religious, ethnic, or racial affiliation are illegal. In practice the prohibition did not appear to weaken the role of some ethnic minorities in the political process; a number of parties in reality represented various ethnic minority groups. NGOs may not engage in political activity.

The law requires a political party to have 5,000 members to register officially.

During the year the government continued to prevent the Macedonian activist group Ilinden from registering as a political party, despite a 2005 ECHR judgment against the cancellation of the group's original registration. During the year Ilinden members continued to complain of hostile treatment by local authorities, including police questioning members about their affiliation with the group. During the year the Sofia Appellate Court upheld the decision of the Blagoevgrad Regional Court, which refused to register the Nikola Vaptsarov Macedonian cultural and educational society. The court decided there was no separate Macedonian ethnicity in the country, and some of the organizations' goals, as outlined in the statute, inferred the existence of such an ethnicity.

c. Freedom of Religion

Although the constitution provides for freedom of religion, the law and the government restricted this right for some religious groups not registered by the courts. An estimated 85 percent of the population was Orthodox Christian. Muslims comprised the largest minority, estimated at 13 percent. According to the Council of Ministers Religious Confessions Directorate, there were approximately 150,000 evangelical Protestants, up to 30,000 Armenian Christians, and 3,000 Jews. The law designates the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the "traditional" religion and requires other religious groups to register with the government to operate and be recognized as legal entities or to conduct religious activities outside of their places of worship. By the end of the year, there were more than 100 religious groups registered. The state budget allocated approximately 3.3 million levas ($2.5 million) for registered religious groups, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Protestants, and other groups. An estimated 2.8 million levas ($2.1 million) was allocated for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, mostly for renovating and maintaining church property. Human rights organizations criticized the law's preferential treatment of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and expressed concern the requirement that groups submit a statement of their beliefs constituted an infringement on freedom of religion.

On January 22, the ECHR ruled that the government violated the rights of the Alternative Orthodox Synod when it expelled members from their parishes in 2004. The court gave the parties three months to negotiate mutually agreeable compensation. As of the end of the year, the parties failed to reach an agreement on compensation. The ECHR ruling on the amount of compensation was pending.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were some manifestations of public intolerance of nontraditional religious groups and religious minorities.

Since 2008 there were 110 cases of vandalism against mosques, including an October 7 fire that completely destroyed the Nokopol mosque; authorities determined the fire was arson. On October 8, the government announced that it would provide 25,000 levas ($19,230) to repair this mosque and another mosque that was also damaged in a fire believed to be accidental. The investigation into the arson continued at year's end.

According to the Jewish organization Shalom, anti-Semitism was not widespread, but there were increasing reports of anti-Semitic incidents prior to the July 5 national elections. On June 24, vandals broke a memorial slab in Blagoevgrad, in the southwest, before its unveiling. The memorial was dedicated to Jews from Aegean Thrace who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. On July 13, several Molotov cocktails were thrown at the former synagogue and the Jewish school in the coastal city of Burgas. In 2008 a Jewish cemetery in Shumen was desecrated; the youths were caught and ordered by the court to attend an educational program In January anti-Semitic slogans, including "Juden Verboten" (Jews forbidden), were painted on the Holocaust memorial in Plovdiv. Jewish organizations expressed concern over the lack of public reaction to these incidents from the government and the lack of successful prosecutions.

On May 21, the Sofia municipal council decided to name one of the capital city's streets after Bogdan Filov, a prominent scholar and former prime minister. As prime minister, Filov's government passed anti-Semitic legislation, advocated the country's alliance with Nazi Germany, and deported approximately 12,000 Jews from present-day Macedonia and Greece to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. In response to local and international outrage, then Sofia mayor and now Prime Minister Boyko Borissov submitted a report to the Sofia City Council calling for the annulment of this decision. On October 2, the Sofia City Council annulled the decision, returning the street to its original name.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and law provide for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it in practice.

Protection of Refugees

The law provides for asylum or refugee status. The country is a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedoms would be threatened. The UNHCR claimed that the risk of genuine refugees being rejected was limited. Nonetheless, observers remained concerned about the institutional capacity of the government to process requests and transfer applicants to shelters. According to lawyers, the practice of sending asylum seekers who enter illegally to the Center for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Busmantsi resulted in their being treated as illegal immigrants, subject to potential deportation. In Busmantsi there were numerous reports of guards mistreating detainees and of stays exceeding six months. Detainees also complained of poor living conditions and inadequate access to legal counsel. The May 15 amendments to the Foreigners Act set a maximum six-month period of detention.

The law requires that persons seeking refugee status file an application within "a reasonable time" after entering the country.

On October 6, Hassun Albaddj, a rejected asylum applicant from Syria, died in the Busmantsi detention center. He was in custody since 2006 and was reportedly one of two individuals not released after the amendments to the law. A preliminary review found no evidence of physical abuse. However, witnesses claimed that guards ignored repeated requests for medical attention. At year's end human rights groups were waiting for a response to a formal inquiry sent to the Interior Ministry requesting information on Albaddj's immigrant status and medical condition prior to his death.

The government reported that the number of refugee applicants had been steadily decreasing, except for a slight increase in 2007 following EU accession. As of December, the government granted asylum in 39 cases and denied it in 358 cases of a total of 689 applications during the year. Most applications came from citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, Algeria, and the Palestinian territories. As of December, the government also provided temporary protection, described by the law as "humanitarian status," to 216 persons who may not qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

The UNHCR expressed some concerns about the government's processing of Iraqi asylum applications. The government maintained its high rejection rate for Iraqi asylum seekers.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The law provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens generally exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage; however, the June 12 European parliament election and July 5 general elections were marred by reports of large-scale vote buying.

Elections and Political Participation

Despite persistent vote-buying allegations and the previous ruling coalition's late changes to the electoral system, the July 5 parliamentary election was widely regarded as free and fair.

According to election observers, the June 12 European Parliament election was also marred by widespread reports of vote buying, which had a greater influence on the results than in the July 5 elections due to the lower voter turnout. NGOs estimated that 10 to 16 percent of the votes in the June elections were purchased or manipulated. As of October, there were two convictions on vote-buying charges, and the prosecution service was investigating another 87 cases.

On April 14, parliament amended the election law, only two months before the national election, creating a mixed electoral system. Under the new system, individuals voted for both a political party and a particular "majoritarian" candidate. The introduction of the "majoritarian" element in the electoral system compromised the principle of the equality of the vote due to a significant variation in population sizes of the majoritarian districts, and it was implemented without broad consensus.

Another significant type of violation, linked to the change in the election law, was the organized busing of voters from their home districts to districts in which majoritarian candidates needed extra votes, usually referred to as "election-day tourism." Observers noted that the surge in vote buying was prompted by efforts of business circles and organized crime figures to enter parliament through the new majoritarian seats. Bussed voters allegedly received money, food, and a free excursion in exchange for voting outside their districts.

On September 2, the parliament established a committee to investigate numerous accusations of double voting and improper registration of citizen voters living in Turkey. According to the committee, the majority of the irregularities (64.4 percent of reported cases) was unintentional and resulted from officials' incompetence or disregard of procedures to cut time for voting and processing of results. The committee recommended drafting new election legislation.

The law provided immunity for candidates. This resulted in the release of parliamentary candidates who were charged with serious crimes, including leaders of organized-crime groups, from pretrial detention. Despite losing the election and immunity, two accused organized-crime figures were able to post bond and were not returned to detention.

There were 50 women in the 240-seat national assembly, compared with 51 elected in 2005. A number of women held elective and appointive offices at high levels in the government, including four ministers. Women held key positions in the national assembly, including the speaker of parliament, one deputy speaker, and chairmanship of three of the 24 standing committees.

The 29 members of minority groups in the – assembly included 28 ethnic Turks and one Rom. There was one ethnic Turkish minister in the cabinet. While the ethnic Turkish minority was well represented, Roma were underrepresented, particularly in appointed leadership positions. Pomaks (ethnic Bulgarians who are Muslims) held elected positions at the local level.

Section 4 Official Corruption and Government Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

The new government, elected on an anticorruption platform, pressed charges against four former ministers and fired several other high-level government officials for corruption. The overly formal judicial system made it difficult for the judiciary to prosecute high-profile organized crime cases effectively.

Corruption was pervasive in the country and plagued all branches of government. Corrupt practices included bribery, EU funds fraud, elaborate embezzlement schemes, legislation protecting private interests, and official protection for organized crime figures. Corruption reportedly was severe in high civil and administrative courts.

In October the judicial system became mired in a scandal involving an influence broker who allegedly claimed he could sway eight to 13 of the Supreme Judicial Council votes needed to obtain a high-level judicial appointment in exchange for $200,000. A Supreme Judicial Council and prosecutor's office investigation found 31 prosecutors and judges and three Supreme Judicial Council magistrates to have been in contact with the broker. The scandal led to the resignation of five magistrates and two of the 25 Supreme Judicial Council members responsible for appointing, promoting, and dismissing members of the judiciary.

In its July 22 report, the European Commission severely criticized the country for misuse of EU funds. In 2008 the EU blacklisted two government agencies handling EU assistance and stripped the country of an estimated 486 million euros (approximately $729 million) in EU funding.

On September 9, the government adopted a 57-point plan to implement the EU's recommendations to reform law enforcement and the judiciary. On September 10, the EU unblocked 156 million euros ($230 million) in preaccession agriculture funds due to the new government's initial efforts to implement EU recommendations.

On September 30, the trial on charges of document fraud and embezzlement of EU funds resumed for Mario Nikolov and eight other members of the Nikolov-Stoykov group; the trial had been suspended while one of the codefendants, Ivan Ivanov, unsuccessfully ran for parliament. The trial continued at year's end.

On April 22, the Sofia Appellate Court upheld the acquittal of former interior minister Rumen Petkov on charges that he leaked the identity of a DANS agent. Petkov was reelected to parliament in July.

On March 18, the Sofia City Court dismissed all charges of fixing soccer matches by manipulating referees against the former deputy chair of the State Sports Agency Ivan Letkov. The soccer referees who brought charges against Letkov declined to testify or provide evidence against him.

On May 13, the Supreme Judicial Council officially dismissed the chair of Varna administrative court Anelia Tsvetkova for undermining the prestige of the judiciary. DANS arrested Tsvetkova in July 2008 for bribery and confiscated 150,000 levas ($115,000) from her home. Her trial on bribery charges was pending at year's end.

The law mandated that government officials declare any circumstances in which they could be accused of using their position for personal profit. According to the law, high-level public officials who fail to submit a financial disclosure declaration can be fined as much as 1,500 levas ($1,100). According to the National Audit Office, during the year 71 of 6,656 officials did not submit their annual declaration within the statutory deadline, compared with 55 out of 5,952 officials in 2008.

The law provides for public access to government information; however, in practice the government often restricted such access. NGOs reported that citizens increasingly appealed denials of information requests and petitioned the courts to overrule the decisions. While the courts allowed greater access to government information, court decisions were rarely implemented.

Section 5 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated, investigated, and published their findings on human rights cases without government restriction. Human rights observers reported uneven levels of cooperation from various national and local government officials.

During the year the ombudsman received approximately 2,500 complaints of violations of citizens' rights and freedoms compared with 2,400 in 2008. The majority of complaints concerned property issues, quality of public services, and social assistance programs. By law the ombudsman reviews individuals' complaints against the government for violations of rights or freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from state authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, and refer information to the prosecution service. Many NGOs criticized the ombudsman for focusing on administrative issues rather than actively engaging on human rights cases.

During the year the ECHR issued 63 judgments against the country and ordered the government to pay 1.4 million euros ($2.02 million) for violations, including denial of fair trial rights, an unreasonably slow judicial process, substandard prison conditions, mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, and other human rights abuses.

Section 6 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability, social status, and sexual orientation; however, the law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of language. Societal discrimination continued, particularly against women, sexual minorities, and ethnic minorities. Trafficking in persons continued to be a problem.

The government investigated complaints of discrimination, issued rulings, and imposed sanctions against violators. During the year the government raised public awareness and continued to implement administrative provisions of the widely used antidiscrimination law. This law allows claimants to pursue a case through the court system or through the Commission for Protection against Discrimination. During the year the commission received 1,039 complaints, compared with 714 in 2008. More than half of all complaints concerned labor discrimination. Approximately 30 percent of the cases involved complaints of multiple types of discrimination. The commission found 115 cases of discriminatory practices and imposed 61 fines on violators. In November human rights NGOs protested the government's approval of a report, which recommended reducing the members of the antidiscrimination commission from nine to five. NGOs claimed this move, justified by state budget cuts due to the financial crisis, would seriously limit the commission's capacity to review discrimination claims and ensure protection of citizens' rights.

In 2008 there was one suit before the ECHR alleging discrimination.

Women

Rape is illegal but underreported due to the stigma attached to it. Spousal rape can be prosecuted under the general rape statute; however, it was rarely prosecuted in practice. Sentences for rape range from two to eight years in prison (from three to 10 if the victim is a blood relative). When rape results in serious injury or suicide, sentences range between 10 and 20 years' imprisonment. Authorities generally enforced laws against rape when violations came to their attention. According to NGOs, the social taboo experienced by rape victims discouraged them from reporting the crime, and it was a far more serious obstacle to prosecution than police reluctance to investigate.

NGOs reported that domestic violence was a serious problem. Although there were no precise statistics on its occurrence, police believed that one of every four women had been a victim.

The law defines domestic violence as any act of, or attempt at, physical, psychological, or sexual violence against members of one's family or between cohabitating persons. In December the parliament adopted amendments that expanded the law's scope to include emotional and economic pressure. The revisions also obliged the government to adopt annually by March 31 an action plan for the law's implementation and ensure state funding for it. The law empowers the court to deal with offenders by imposing fines, issuing restraining or eviction orders, or requiring special counseling. NGOS assessed the implementation of the law positively, and stated that the courts issued more restraining orders. In April the parliament approved amendments that criminalized violators' failure to adhere to a court restraining order.

A local NGO operated a 24-hour hotline for women in crisis, and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to victims in 15 crisis centers around the country. Police and social workers referred victims of domestic violence to NGO-run shelters, but NGOs complained that local authorities rarely provided financial assistance for operational costs.

Prostitution is neither illegal nor specifically addressed in the law. A variety of activities associated with prostitution, such as procuring and enticement into prostitution, are illegal, but remained serious problems. Poor socioeconomic conditions contributed to a disproportionately higher number of Romani women in organized prostitution.

Sexual harassment is punishable under prohibitions against coercion, which carry a punishment of up to six years in prison. Sexual harassment is also identified as a specific form of discrimination under the antidiscrimination law, and during the year the Commission for Protection against Discrimination continued to receive sexual harassment complaints, which accounted for approximately 5 percent of all complaints. However, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem, and the government did not effectively enforce the law.

The government generally respected the right of couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Women generally had good access to contraception and skilled attendance during childbirth, including essential obstetric and postpartum care. Access to contraception and skilled attendance in childbirth were less available to women in poor rural areas.

The law provides women with the same rights as men; however, women faced some discrimination in hiring and pay. According to trade union estimates, in 2008 women's salaries were 16 percent lower than men's, with some lower-paid sectors, such as education and services, dominated by women. A National Council on Equality between Women and Men, headed by the minister of labor and social policy under the Council of Ministers, was tasked with safeguarding the rights of women. Primarily a consultative body, the council is charged with promoting cooperation and coordination among NGOs and government agencies.

Children

The government generally was committed to protecting children's welfare; however, government efforts in education and health were constrained by inadequate budgets. Problems in state-run institutions for children, including incidents involving exploitation of children, continued to receive media attention during the year. Citizenship is derived by birth within the countryand from one's parents. Children are immediately registered upon birth in the country.

Public education is compulsory until the age of 16, and free through the 12th grade, but the government did not effectively enforce attendance requirements. Children were required to pay for books after the fourth grade, which was a problem for poor families.

According to the Ministry of Education and Science, 8,820 students dropped out of school during the current academic year compared with 14,000 in the previous year (2007-08). The majority of students left school due to social and family reasons.

The number of school dropouts was highest in regions with large Romani populations.

Education for Romani children was generally inferior, and nearly 10 percent of Roma never attended school. During the year the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the 2005 ruling that the city of Sofia was guilty of discrimination for failing to provide equal educational opportunities to Romani children.

Romani activists continued to complain that the government's 2008 delegated budgets policy, which set a standard funding allowance on a per student basis, disproportionately adversely affected Romani communities and reportedly led to the closure of 320 schools. NGOs reported that Romani parents were reluctant to allow their children to travel to new schools in other towns, and parents at schools accepting new Romani students often reacted negatively to their arrival.

In November the antidiscrimination commission found that the Ministry of Education discriminated against children with disabilities by limiting their choice of education and isolating them in specialized institutions. The commission recommended that the ministry initiate legislative changes that take into account the children's specific education needs but allow for their integration into society.

Violence against children was a problem. According to the national center for public opinion surveys, during the year one in every five children was a victim of violence in school. According to the National Statistical Institute, 2,606 children were victims of serious crimes in 2008, compared with 2,743 in 2007. The government often removed children from abusive homes and prosecuted abusive parents; however, once away from their families, children often fell victim to street violence or violence in specialized institutions.

Although no official statistics were available, the government reported that child marriage, while rare nationwide, was common in Romani communities. The government also stated that arranged marriages and traditional Romani bride markets constituted trafficking in persons.

The government reported that the number of children detained by police for vagrancy and begging was 659 in 2008, compared with 1,044 in 2007. Many believed adults exploited such children, who were primarily engaged in begging, prostitution, or car window washing. When apprehended, police generally placed such children in protective custody for up to 24 hours, unless remanded to protective custody by a prosecutor. Subsequently, many children were sent to state-run institutions.

Implementation of child-care policies was decentralized. The government funded child welfare programs. Some municipalities transferred services to NGOs, improving the quality of care, but some NGOs remained concerned about the ability of poorer municipalities to manage and administer care effectively. Despite a government policy to develop alternative service providers, the country continued to struggle with a communist-era system of state-run specialized institutions for children.

During the year there were 7,190 children in 138 specialized institutions. This was a decrease from 7,276 children in 140 institutions in 2008 and a 44 percent decrease from 12,609 children in 165 institutions in 2001. The majority of children in institutions were Roma. Watchdog organizations claimed the actual number was much higher, and the government manipulated the numbers by changing the terminology for the different types of institutions. Most children in state institutions were not orphans; they were institutionalized for reasons including disability, poverty, and other family problems.

During the year NGOs continued to criticize the deficiencies in government-run institutions such as orphanages, educational reform boarding schools, and facilities for children with mental disabilities. They noted inadequate budgets, poorly trained staff, and insufficient oversight in these facilities. Some NGOs, including ARK Bulgaria, applauded the government's new strategy to systematize efforts to deinstitutionalize children and use EU funds to this end.

There were fewer cases of abuse in children's institutions than in the preceding year, but on December 5, three children died in an institution in Krumovgrad after old ammunition exploded while they were playing with it. The director of the institution, which was reformed in 2008 after earlier being designated for closure, and two social workers were dismissed from office pending the investigation into the deaths. The facility's maintenance worker, who was suspected of providing the children with the ammunition, was released on bail and committed suicide shortly afterwards.

Trafficking in Persons

The constitution and law prohibit trafficking in persons for all purposes; however, trafficking was a serious problem.

The country remained a point of origin and transit and, to a lesser extent, a destination, for trafficking, with most victims trafficked for sexual exploitation. Victims came from within the country and from Romania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. The principal destinations of victims trafficked from and through the country were Greece, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Poland, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Western Europe. Almost all victims were women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation, but some were also young boys. Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 years old with modest education and weak family ties were most vulnerable. Minorities, particularly Roma, and women engaged in prostitution were also at particular risk.

Trafficking of pregnant women and forcing them to sell their children abroad remained a problem because the women were free to travel and could not be stopped by border police. During the year authorities reported 13 investigations into baby selling in Greece. The investigations into seven such incidents in 2008 continued at year's end.

In larger cities, powerful organized crime groups controlled most trafficking for sexual exploitation. In towns smaller criminal groups and independent operators were involved.

Traffickers in foreign countries generally recruited their victims through false promises of work, while victims of internal trafficking were most often recruited through close friends or acquaintances. Traffickers for sexual exploitation, both within the country and abroad, use call-girl operations, complicating law enforcement efforts. Traffickers typically used genuine travel documents for their victims.

The punishment for trafficking in persons includes prison terms of up to 15 years in prison, fines of 20,000 levas ($15,000), and confiscation of a trafficker's assets. Prosecutors used other laws to prosecute persons for activities associated with trafficking, such as inducement to prostitution.

The National Antitrafficking Commission is the primary antitrafficking coordination and policy-making body. During the year the commission continued to establish local commissions at destination points for internal trafficking and source locations of victims trafficked to Western Europe; it also created three information centers. In April the commission opened the first state-run shelter for adult trafficking victims in Varna.

In October the commission launched an open doors initiative and hosted more than 350 students in its office to raise awareness about trafficking in persons. The commission developed and distributed a prevention CD. During the year the commission continued to partner with NGOs in delivering training for border police, social workers, and diplomats on human trafficking.

Two police units focused specifically on the problem of trafficking. One was within the National Border Police and the other was within the Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. The government participated in multinational antitrafficking activities and permitted the extradition of citizens for crimes committed abroad, including trafficking. In 2008 the courts convicted 69 traffickers.

Due to successful cooperation with West European counterparts, police reported a decline in the number of children sent abroad to work as beggars and pickpockets. As of June, the government reported assisting 22 repatriated children, compared with 90 in 2008. The majority of children were repatriated from Greece, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain.

NGOs alleged that some low-ranking and poorly paid officials accepted bribes to ignore trafficking, although there was no evidence of a pattern of official complicity.

On June 11, two municipal councilors from Varna pled guilty and were sentenced to one and three years' imprisonment, respectively, for leading and participating in an organized crime group involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and human trafficking. This was the first time elected officials were prosecuted successfully for crimes related to human trafficking. Nine of 11 officials of the local antiorganized crime unit in Vratsa were also dismissed for alleged ties with a local trafficking ring.

The government operated six shelters for child victims of violence and trafficking, each of which had the capacity to host 10 children for up to six months. The government cooperated with NGOs and international organizations in raising awareness and referring victims to services.

See also the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and the provision of other state services; however, the government did not effectively enforce these provisions in practice. Societal discrimination against persons with disabilities persisted.

The law requires improved access to buildings for persons with disabilities, and new public works projects took this requirement into account; however, enforcement of this law lagged in existing, unrenovated buildings. The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities; however, enforcement was poor, and most persons with disabilities were unemployed primarily due to lack of access to adequate education and skills. For the most part, work places were not equipped to accommodate persons with disabilities, and many were not able to find accessible transportation.

Despite some incremental improvements, conditions in institutions for persons with disabilities remained poor. During the year the BHC continued to complain that the majority of the institutions were located in remote rural areas which prevented hiring of qualified staff and hampered access to timely medical assistance.

Persons with mental and physical disabilities, including very young children, were often separated from the rest of society. For example, they were placed in special schools, which lowered the quality of their education. The government operated 26 institutions for children and youth with disabilities.

The constitution protects the right of all citizens to vote, and the law provides specific measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the polls. However, in practice these measures were rarely enforced, and the majority of polling stations were still not wheelchair accessible.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy was responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and worked with government-supported national representative organizations for persons with disabilities. However, human rights groups remained concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the allocation of funds from the ministry to the national representative organizations and the lack of a long-term vision for the removal of persons with disabilities from institutions and their integration into society.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Societal discrimination against Roma and other minority groups remained a problem, occasionally resulting in incidents of violence between members of different ethnic groups.

Roma were estimated to constitute between 6 and 10 percent of the population, and according to a 2002 Council of Europe report, there were 600,000 to 800,000 Roma in the country. According to the 2001 census, ethnic Turks made up 9 percent of the population. Ethnic Bulgarian Muslims, often termed Pomaks, are a distinct group of Slavic descent, whose ancestors converted from Orthodox Christianity to Islam; they constitute 2 to 3 percent of the population.

Workplace discrimination against minorities, especially Roma, continued to be a problem. The unemployment rate among Roma was nearly 65 percent, reaching 80 percent in some regions. The generally unfavorable attitudes towards Roma, coupled with their poor education level, made Roma less able to find jobs. Many observers noted the quality of education offered to Romani children was inferior to that afforded to most other students.

Popular prejudice against Roma remained widespread. There were isolated cases of police harassment, arbitrary arrests, and violence against Roma. However, NGOs reported that while more Roma were willing to launch complaints against the authorities, the number of complaints had dropped in recent years.

On September 16, 50 members of the Ilinden activist group protested in front of the ECHR in Strasburg and called for the recognition of a Macedonian minority in the country. In September the Burgas municipality destroyed 46 Romani homes, leaving at least 200 persons homeless. There were reports that municipal police used disproportionate force against the Romani inhabitants during the demolitions. Since Romani residents lacked legal titles to this land, the Burgas municipality did not provide any alternative housing for the evicted residents. Local NGOs estimated that 50 to 70 percent of Romani housing was illegally constructed and were concerned that more municipalities would initiate legal proceedings to demolish illegally built houses.

In July 2008 the ECHR, acting on a complaint filed by the BHC, issued an interim injunction to halt the planned demolition of Romani housing in Sofia. The ECHR requested that the local authorities provide information regarding their plans to relocate the residents, especially children and persons with disabilities.

There were no developments in the 2007 beating death of a 17-year-old Roma, Asparuh Atanasov, by a group of four teenagers. The prosecution against them was ongoing at year's end.

On August 6, the European Committee of Social Rights unanimously found the country to be in violation of the European Social Charter by failing to meet its obligations to ensure than any person who is without adequate resources has access to social assistance provided by the state. The committee issued the ruling in response to 2006 and 2008 amendments to the Social Assistance Act, which limited the time citizens were eligible for assistance. The court found that these restrictions had a disproportionate effect on Roma, women, and other marginalized groups and that access to social assistance cannot be subject to time limits if the persons affected continue to meet the basic condition for eligibility for assistance.

During the year human rights organizations continued to file complaints under the antidiscrimination law. Inciting racial or national enmity, hatred, or discrimination is a crime punishable by up to three years' imprisonment, and plaintiffs may also file civil claims with the court for damages inflicted by discriminatory statements.

During the year the BHC and other human rights groups urged the government to punish the perpetrators of racially motivated violence against persons of African, Indian, and Arab origin. On August 20, seven persons beat an Indian national in central Sofia. On September 21, an Indian diplomat was assaulted and, on the same day, another Indian national was beaten by three men reportedly associated with the skinhead movement.

Societal Abuses, Discrimination, and Acts of Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. Reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons were rare, but societal discrimination, particularly discrimination in employment, remained a problem. The gay-rights organization Gemini reported that individuals continued to be reluctant to pursue legal remedies for discrimination due to the stigma of being openly identified as gay.

On June 27, the second annual gay pride parade in downtown Sofia attracted 300 to 500 participants. In contrast to the first parade in 2008, there were no violent incidents or major antigay protests, thanks in part to strong police cooperation and protection. Gemini reported that on the day of the parade, vandals broke a window in its headquarters and threw Molotov cocktails at a well-known gay club and hotel. In June 2008, police arrested approximately 60 nationalist protesters who attempted to disrupt the parade, and the Patriarch of the Christian Orthodox Church and the Muslim chief mufti condemned the march, calling it immoral and referring to homosexual activity as a disease.

In February the Sofia city court fined the prosecution service for discriminating against a female prisoner who was refused early release. The prosecutor maintained the prisoner's way of life and emotional status were problematic because of her homosexual conduct.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

As of November, the Health Ministry reported 1,071 HIV-infected patients but cautioned that their actual number was at least four times higher. During the year the ministry identified 133 new HIV patients – four were pregnant women and four others were drug-dependent children. The majority of the newly identified patients contracted the disease through intravenous drug use and homosexual contacts. According to the Hope against AIDS Foundation, HIV/AIDS patients faced discrimination and inadequate medical care due to doctors refusing to provide treatment from fear of contracting the disease. Patients typically did not contest these situations in court due to the social stigma attached to being identified as having HIV/AIDS. The NGO stated that at least four HIV/AIDS patients died due to denial of treatment. Patients reported hiding the fact that they were HIV positive to receive medical care. Women also encountered social stigma when being diagnosed and treated for sexually transmitted diseases.

Incitement to Acts of Discrimination

During the year the extreme nationalistic political party Attack continued to denigrate the country's Romani, Jewish, and Muslim populations. Attack employed discriminatory rhetoric during the campaign for the July parliamentary election. It published anti-Muslim material in its newspaper and on its Web site.

Section 7 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides for the right of all workers to form or join independent trade unions of their choice, and workers exercised this right in practice. No reliable statistics existed on the extent of unionization of the workforce, but experts noted that membership in unions continued to decrease as employees questioned their ability to effectively represent them and found it difficult to pay membership fees.

The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government generally protected this right in practice. The law also provides for the right to strike; however, key public sector employees (primarily military and law enforcement personnel) were subject to a blanket prohibition against striking. These employees were able to take the government to court as a means of ensuring due process in protecting their rights. Although the law prohibits the police from effectively striking, police held symbolic protests in December 2008 and on January 17 against low wages and poor working conditions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides a legal structure for collective bargaining, which was practiced nationally. Labor unions alleged that some employers failed to bargain in good faith or to adhere to agreements.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and includes a provision for a six-month salary payment as compensation for illegal dismissal. In addition, complaints of discrimination based on union affiliation could be filed with the commission for protection against discrimination, but there were no reports of such complaints during the year.

There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in the six free trade zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, according to the government's labor inspectorate, there were some reports that such practices occurred in the agricultural and textile industries. Children sometimes were forced to work due to economic conditions or because of pressure from family members or criminal organizations. Women and children were trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

There are laws and policies to protect children from exploitation in the workplace, including a prohibition on forced or compulsory labor and policies regarding acceptable working conditions. The government was generally effective in implementing these laws and policies.

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years and the minimum age for dangerous work at 18 years. To employ children, employers must obtain a work permit from the General Labor Inspectorate under the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. The General Labor Inspectorate inspects the working conditions at all companies applying for child work permits.

Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense and entails a punishment of up to six months' imprisonment. Child labor laws generally were enforced well in the formal sector, but NGOs reported that children were exploited in certain industries (particularly small family-owned shops, textiles, restaurants, construction, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution, pick-pocketing, and the distribution of narcotics). Besides trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labor included heavy physical labor and health hazards on family tobacco farms, particularly among the ethnic Turkish minority. The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounting educational campaigns about their effects, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

The general labor inspectorate reported a decline in child labor during the year, which was primarily due to the overall unemployment rise resulting from the financial crisis. During the year the inspectorate granted 2,765 requests for employment of children between 16 and 18 years, compared with 5,807 in 2008. The inspectorate referred 58 cases of unlicensed, underage workers to the Prosecution Service, compared with 194 in 2008. The inspectorate also found 120 other violations of child labor laws, primarily involving failure to provide protective uniforms, compared with 365 such violations in 2008.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

During the year the government approved and implemented an increase in the national minimum wage to 240 levas ($180) per month. While this wage did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family, many workers received more wages unofficially to avoid taxes.

The law provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours with at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. The law stipulates that premium pay for overtime could not be less than 150 percent during workdays, 175 percent during weekends, and 200 percent during official holidays. The law prohibits overtime for children under age 18, pregnant women, and women with children up to age six. Enforcement generally was effective in the state sector but was weaker in the private sector. During the year the labor inspectorate found 986 violations of overtime pay rules, compared with 953 in 2008.

A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, gives employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions. The labor inspectorate is responsible for monitoring and enforcement. During the year the inspectorate reported a decrease in the number of work-related incidents and noted that employers were generally more compliant in observing their obligation to provide healthy working conditions. However, conditions in some sectors, particularly construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation, continued to pose risks for workers. There were 91 workplace-related deaths during the year, compared with 161 in 2008. At least 30 percent of the deaths occurred in the construction sector.

The law gives employees the right to remove themselves from work situations that present a serious or immediate danger to life or health without jeopardy to their continued employment; however, refusal to work in such situations could result in the loss of employment.

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