Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 08:19 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Bulgaria

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Bulgaria, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa208.html [accessed 25 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.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic ruled by a democratically elected government. President Zhelyu Zhelev, former chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), was elected in 1992 to a 5-year term in the country's first direct presidential elections. Petar Stoyanov of the UDF won new presidential elections in the fall and will succeed Zhelev in January 1997. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), heir to the Communist Party, and two nominal coalition partners won an absolute majority in preterm elections in December 1994 and have ruled since then. The judiciary is independent but continued to struggle with structural and staffing problems.

Most security services are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, which controls the police, the Central Service for Combating Organized Crime, the National Security Service (civilian intelligence), internal security troops, border guards, and special forces. A number of persons known to be involved in repressive activities during the Communist regime returned to senior-level positions in the security services in 1995 and retained these positions in 1996. Some members of the police force committed serious human rights abuses.

The post-Communist economy remains heavily dependent on money-losing state enterprises, although the private sector now accounts for about 45 percent of economic activity. Most people are employed in the industrial and service sectors; key industries include food processing, chemical and oil processing, metallurgy, and energy. Principal exports are agricultural products, cigarettes and tobacco, chemicals, and metal products. The transformation of the economy into a market-oriented system has been retarded by continued political and social resistance. Slow progress in privatization of the large Communist-era state enterprises has been a major reason for economic stagnation. The Government is now implementing a mass privatization program which, if successful, would partially address this problem. The service and consumer goods sectors in private hands continued to be the most vibrant. After a period of superficial economic stability and revived growth in 1995, a crisis in the financial system occurred in early 1996, accompanied by a sharp devaluation of the country's currency, high inflation, and a serious grain shortage. This implosion helped prod the Government toward economic restructuring and, late in the year, to speed up privatization. Reform measures include an austerity package with layoffs at state-owned enterprises, which is expected to increase unemployment substantially. The economic crisis has affected the employment of people from ethnic minorities disproportionately. The annual per capita gross domestic product of $1,205 provides a low standard of living.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but problems remained in some areas. Police used unwarranted lethal force against suspects and minorities in some cases, and security forces beat suspects and inmates. Human rights observers charged that the security forces are not sufficiently accountable to Parliament or to society and that the resultant climate of impunity is a major obstacle to ending police abuses. Prison conditions are harsh, and pretrial detention is often prolonged. The judiciary is underpaid, understaffed, and has a heavy case backlog. Most citizens have little confidence in their legal system. Constitutional restrictions on political parties formed on ethnic, racial, or religious lines effectively limit participation for some groups. Societal mistreatment of ethnic minorities is a serious problem, and both the Government and private citizens continued to obstruct the activities of some non-Eastern Orthodox religious groups. Human rights groups report that the Government does not adequately assist homeless and other vulnerable children, notably Romani children, and that security forces harass, physically abuse, and arbitrarily arrest and detain Romani street children. Discrimination and violence against women and Roma remain serious problems.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Police officers used unwarranted lethal force against criminal suspects, as well as against members of minority groups whether or not suspected of any crime, resulting in two deaths.

On January 29, a 17-year-old Rom, Anguel Zabchikov, died while in police custody in Razgrad, apparently as a result of a beating. The police told Zavchikov's family that he fell and fractured his skull while fleeing the police and died instantly. The police later reported that he died as a result of excessive alcohol in the bloodstream. In addition to the fractured skull, Zabchikov's family described numerous signs of severe beating and handcuff marks on both wrists. An investigation is in progress.

On April 15, Ivan Benchev was found beaten to death in Sofia. Benchev had been arrested with a friend on April 14 for making a false bomb threat. After the police released him, he was attacked and abducted 50 meters from the police station. In July the Ministry of Interior dismissed three policemen for organizing Benchev's beating and kidnaping with former police colleagues now working at a private security firm. A military prosecutor is investigating the case.

On October 2, former Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov was shot and killed outside his home; neither motive nor perpetrators have yet been identified. Some of his colleagues claimed that his assassination was linked to his plans to publicize corruption at the highest levels of the BSP; others saw the killing as a gangland-style murder related to his business dealings.

In June three policemen were convicted of the 1995 murder of a male in police custody. Two of the officers were sentenced to 20 years and the third to 18 years in prison. One of the remaining three policemen was convicted of inflicting bodily harm and extorting a confession and was given a lesser sentence; the other two received suspended sentences.

The investigation into the February 1995 suspicious death of a Rom in Gradets was closed after a coroner determined that the man died as a result of freezing to death rather than as a result of a beating. There was little progress in the investigation of the March 1995 killing of a 22-year-old Rom by a police sergeant in Nova Zagora. The investigation into the September 1994 case of a detainee who died 1 day after being taken into police custody in Pleven was suspended in March by the district prosecutor's office. In July, after a local human rights organization appealed the district prosecutor's decision, the chief prosecutor's office overturned the suspension and ordered the investigation to resume.

Interior Ministry data on serious police violations over the 18 months ending March 31, 1995, show 18 deaths due to police negligence, 59 cases of physical injury, more than 60 charges of serious offenses, and 58 convictions of police officers on these and lesser charges during the period. The then-Minister of Interior acknowledged that police abuses occur and made a committment to address the problem. For example, penalties were reportedly imposed on 272 employees during the month of May for unspecified offenses and breaches of discipline: 7 were dismissed and 11 reduced in rank. The police have generally refused to make investigative reports available to the public. The climate of impunity that still prevails is the single largest obstacle to ending abuses.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution expressly prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Despite this prohibition, police beat criminal suspects and Roma during arrests. In January, according to a report by the Starna Zagora Regional Directorate for Internal Affairs, three men dressed in police uniforms, presenting themselves as officers of the Sofia Directorate for Internal Affairs, abducted and beat 23-year-old Kamen Chausev, who was in preventive detention in Kazanluk. In February police reportedly beat Vasilev Dobrev, a passenger in the car of Georgi Goergiev, when Dobrev intervened to support Georgiev's refusal to pay a bribe demanded by the police. Investigations were initiated in both cases. In February, according to newspaper reports, Ahmed Mustatov of Bratovo was arrested and allegedly beaten by three officers. The local prosecutor is reviewing the findings of a preliminary police inquiry.

In March, according to Human Rights Watch, an off-duty police officer in Russe beat a Romani couple when they refused to pay a bribe. No charges were brought. Police reportedly beat six Roma in the village of Barkatch in April after catching them stealing corn from a nearby field. The next day police broke into a house in the village and, after accusing the occupants of hiding stolen corn, beat a man and his 15-year-old son. No police officers were charged or investigated. In May the police reportedly beat two men after arresting them at the funeral of three murdered policemen. The men were not charged with a crime and, after they were released, sought medical attention for their injuries. The beatings were widely reported in the press, but again no officers have been charged.

In March a military court in Pleven sentenced two policemen to 8-month suspended sentences and 3 years' probation for abusing their authority and causing bodily injuries to two Romani juveniles in April 1995. This was the first time that policemen were sentenced to jail (although the sentence was suspended) for abusing Roma.

A European human rights organization concluded in a September 1995 report that criminal suspects arrested by the police run a significant risk of being mistreated at the time of their apprehension or while in police custody and on occasion may be subject to severe mistreatment or torture.

An Amnesty International (AI) report released in June described 7 deaths in custody under suspicious circumstances, 3 incidents in which 6 persons were shot without sufficient provocation, 17 cases of torture, and the mistreatment of dozens of victims spanning a period from 1993 to the date of the report's release. The report concluded that the recurring incidence of abuses revealed "a pattern of casual violence and illegal acts by police officers throughout the country." The Government in response looked into the cases raised by AI, reported on the results of inquiries into 16 of the cases, and expressed readiness to cooperate with AI. In October AI urged provision of additional information, noting that the information provided was "insufficient to assess whether these investigations have been prompt and impartial."

A Human Rights Watch report documenting police mistreatment of Romani street children stated that police harass and physicaly abuse the children. Children described being chased, kicked, and grabbed by police on the street.

Conditions in some prisons are harsh, including severe overcrowding, inadequate lavatory facilities, and insufficient heating and ventilation. Credible sources reported cases of brutality committed by prison guards against inmates; in some cases, prisoners who complained were placed in solitary confinement. The process by which prisoners may complain of substandard conditions or of mistreatment does not appear to function.

The Government cooperated fully with requests by independent observers to monitor prison conditions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides for access to legal counsel from the time of detention. Police normally obtain a warrant from a prosecutor prior to apprehending an individual; otherwise, in emergency circumstances judicial authorities must rule on the legality of a detention within 24 hours. Defendants have the right to visits by family members, to examine evidence, and to know the charges against them. Charges may not be made public without the permission of the chief prosecutor. Pretrial detention is limited to 2 months under normal circumstances, although this may be extended to 6 months by order of the Chief Prosecutor, who may also restart the process. In practice, persons are often detained for well over 6 months.

Nearly 4,000 of approximately 10,000 prison inmates are in pretrial detention. In the event of a conviction, time spent in pretrial detention is credited toward the sentence. The Constitution provides for bail, and some detainees have been released under this provision, although bail is not widely used.

A Human Rights Watch report found that "police often arbitrarily detain street children, hold them in custody, question them, and then release them after registering the children with the Children's Pedagogic Office or referring them to a local Commission, the body which is authorized under the Juvenile Delinquency Act to recommend confinement of a child in a Labor Education School."

The Government does not use forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Under the Constitution the judiciary is granted independent and coequal status with the legislature and executive branch. However, most observers agreed that the judiciary continued to struggle with problems such as low salaries, understaffing, and a heavy backlog of cases. Partly as a legacy of communism and partly because of the court system's structural and personnel problems, most citizens have little confidence in their judicial system. Human rights groups complain that local prosecutors and magistrates sometimes fail to pursue vigorously crimes committed against minorities. Few organized crime figures have been prosecuted.

The court system consists of regional courts, the Constitutional Court, and, until the end of 1996, an interim Supreme Court. The Government had not yet carried out several of the reforms provided for in a 1994 judicial reform bill, including the establishment of separate supreme courts of cassation (civil and criminal appeal) and administration. The failure to establish these courts led to a political confrontation between the Supreme Judicial Council and the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party. In June the Supreme Judicial Council elected presidents for the two courts. The BSP-controlled Parliament retaliated by passing legislation prohibiting the Supreme Judicial Council from electing presidents, vice presidents, and judges of the two courts until Parliament passes legislation establishing them. In October the Constitutional Court declared this prohibition unconstitutional, and the supreme courts of cassation and administration were constituted in November.

The Constitutional Court is empowered to rescind legislation it considers unconstitutional, settle disputes over the conduct of general elections, and resolve conflicts over the division of powers between the various branches of government. Military courts handle cases involving military personnel and some cases involving national security matters. The Constitutional Court does not have specific jurisdiction in matters of military justice.

Judges are appointed by the 25-member Supreme Judicial Council and, after serving for 3 years, may not be replaced except under limited, specified circumstances. The 12 justices on the Constitutional Court are chosen for 9-year terms as follows: a third are elected by the National Assembly, a third appointed by the President, and a third elected by judicial authorities.

The Constitution stipulates that all courts shall conduct hearings in public unless the proceedings involve state security or national secrets. There were no reported complaints about limited access to courtroom proceedings. Defendants have the right to know the charges against them and are given ample time to prepare a defense. The right of appeal is guaranteed and widely used. Defendants in criminal proceedings have the right to confront witnesses and to have an attorney, provided by the state if necessary, in serious cases.

A Human Rights Watch report likened the Labor Education Schools to which problem children can be sent to penal institutions. However, since the schools are not considered prisons under the law, the procedures by which children are confined in these schools are not subject to minimal due process. Children sometimes appear despite the requirement that parents must attend hearings; the right to an attorney at the hearing is expressly prohibited by law. Decisions on these cases are not subject to judicial review and children typically stay in the Labor Education Schools for 3 years or until they reach majority age, whichever occurs first. At year's end the Parliament enacted legislation providing for court review of sentencing to such schools, setting a limit of a 3-year stay, and addressing other problems in these institutions (see Section 5, Children).

A number of criminal cases against former leaders for alleged abuses during the Communist period were carried forward. Former dictator Todor Zhivkov, who was serving a 7-year sentence under house arrest for abuse of power involving personal expense accounts and state privileges, was acquitted in February by the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that Zhivkov has immunity from prosecution for the criminal charges in this case. Zhivkov remains under house arrest for his indictment on other charges stemming from his involvement in the coercive campaign to rename and assimilate ethnic Turks in the mid-1980's, channeling funds to arm third-world countries, and establishing a fund to assist leftist workers' organizations worldwide.

In April the Prosecutor General's office suspended the investigation of the case in which 43 former high-level Communists were indicted in 1994 for having given grant aid during the 1980's to then-friendly governments in the developing world such as Cuba, Angola, and Libya. The Prosecutor General's office also suspended the investigation of a case begun in 1993 involving a charge of embezzlement for giving grant aid to Communist parties in other countries (the "Moscow case"). According to the prosecutor's office, the cases were suspended because many of the accused have immunity as deputies for the BSP. Some human rights observers criticized these and previous indictments, asserting that the activities in question were political and economic in nature, not criminal.

One of the primary figures in these cases, former Prime Minister and one-time senior Communist official Andrei Lukanov, brought a complaint against these proceedings to the European Commission of Human Rights. In March the Commission ruled that the detention of Lukanov from July to December 1992 was unlawful. The European Court of Human Rights is now considering the case, although Lukanov was shot and killed in Sofia on October 2.

There was no progress in a case begun in 1993 relating to the forced assimilation and expulsion of ethnic Turks in 1984-85 and 1989, nor in a trial relating to the notorious death camps set up by the Communists after they came to power in 1944.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and the right to choose one's place of work and residence and protects the freedom and confidentiality of correspondence. Human rights observers expressed concern that illegal wiretaps may still persist but provided no tangible evidence. In November the opposition Union of Democratic Forces charged that its headquarters had been wiretapped by the Interior Ministry during the fall presidential elections. The Ministry denied the charge but ordered an inquiry; the military prosecutor's office began investigating the charges.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, in September Parliament passed, over President Zhelev's veto, legislation that was publicly criticized by Council of Europe experts and Bulgarian journalists for the inhibitions it would impose on freedom of the broadcast media. Critics of the media law were concerned, for example, that the makeup of the National Council for Radio and Television would subject the media to political influence by the party in power. Asked by 74 opposition Members of Parliament to rule on the law, the Constitutional Court in November declared this and numerous other provisions unconstitutional. Until a revised bill is enacted, the broadcast media are left in a legislative void.

The variety of newspapers published by political parties and other organizations represents the full spectrum of political opinion, although journalists frequently color their reports to conform with the views of the political parties or economic groups that own their respective newspapers.

In June the chief editor of the tabloid newspaper Noshten Trud was convicted of libeling the Prosecutor General in a June 1995 article. The editor was given a 3-month suspended sentence and 3 years' probation. Two journalists, correspondents for the national dailies Trud and 24 Hours in Smolyan, were arrested in February and charged with "libel against a government official" for writing unflattering reports about a local prosecutor. After spending a night in jail, the journalists were released by order of a local court. However, the official investigation against the two remains open. Some human rights observers charged that prosecutors, especially those in smaller towns, use their authority to issue arrest warrants to intimidate reporters who criticize their work.

Pending the new media legislation, national television and radio broadcasting both remained under parliamentary supervision. Some media observers expressed concern that such parliamentary supervision fosters censorship and a lack of balance in the state-controlled media. For example, on new year's eve 1995, the director of national television canceled the broadcast of a comedy program claiming that the show was disrespectful of political institutions. In June an agreement to give live coverage of the "no to fear" concert and rally held in downtown Sofia was abruptly canceled the day before, allegedly on the orders of a high-ranking government official.

There are two state-owned national television channels that broadcast in Bulgarian. There is also a national channel that broadcasts Russian programming, and another that carries a mixture of Cable News Network International and French language programming. Bulgarian national television has been planning Turkish-language programming for at least 3 years, but broadcasts have not yet begun. There is no private national broadcaster, but a number of privately owned regional stations operate. After initial government approval in the fall of 1994 of an application to create a privately owned national broadcast television station, further progress has floundered, with no action taken by the current Government.

Foreign government radio programs such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America (VOA) had good access to commercial radio frequencies. However, a request by Radio Free Europe (RFE) to broadcast Voice of America programs on what was unused time on its frequency has not been granted and remains in limbo many months after the formal request was submitted. Television and radio news programs on the state-owned media present opposition views, but opposition members claim that their activities and views are given less air time and exposure than the those of the ruling party. There are no formal restrictions on programming. Both television and radio provide a variety of news and public interest programming, including talk and public opinion shows.

More than 30 independent radio stations are licensed. Some private stations complained that their licenses unduly restricted the strength of their transmissions in comparison with state-owned stations. Radio transmitter facilities are owned by the Government.

Private book publishing remained vigorous.

The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The right to peaceful assembly is provided for by the Constitution, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The authorities require permits for rallies and assemblies held outdoors, but most legally registered organizations were routinely granted permission to assemble. However, Jehovah's Witnesses reported difficulties obtaining permits for outdoor assemblies, and they and Word of Life also had difficulty renting assembly halls. In most cases, these religious groups had been denied registration by the Council of Ministers (see Section 2.c.). In September, at the behest of some Plovdiv residents, municipal officials issued and carried out an order to close a Pentacostal-Charismatic Church that was an outgrowth of the Bible Faith Center Immanuel founded in 1990 by Pastor Ivan Nestorov. On two separate occasions, members of the Word of Life were coerced by police into signing a declaration that they would not receive in their homes gatherings of church members.

Vigorous political rallies and demonstrations were a common occurrence and took place without government interference.

The Government has undertaken to respect the rights of individuals and groups freely to establish their own political parties or other political organizations. However, there are constitutional and statutory restrictions that limit the right of association and meaningful participation in the political process. For example, the Constitution forbids the formation of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines, and prohibits "citizens' associations" from engaging in political activity. Nonetheless, the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) is represented in Parliament. The other major political parties generally accept the MRF's right to participate in the political process. In December, however, a group of parliamentarians within the Socialist-led coalition filed a challenge to the MRF's constitutionality, based on MRF programs and goals that allegedly threatened Bulgaria's territorial integrity and national unity (see below). The Constitutional Court rejected their petition as inadmissible.

The Constitution also prohibits organizations that threaten the country's territorial integrity or unity, or that incite racial, ethnic, or religious hatred. The Government has refused since 1990 to register a self-proclaimed Macedonian rights group, Umo-Ilinden, on the grounds that it is separatist. In February and May, police broke up attempts by the group to hold public meetings. On May 14, the group was denied registration as an educational organization in the city of Blagoevgrad.

c. Freedom of Religion

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups, and discrimination against them increased. The ability of a number of religious groups to operate freely continued to come under attack, both as a result of government action and because of public intolerance. The government requirement that groups whose activities have a religious element register with the Council of Ministers remained an obstacle to the activity of some religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Word of Life, which have been denied registration. Despite several applications, no new religious denominations were registered in 1996. The Government provides financial support for the Eastern Orthodox Church and other denominations it considers to be "traditional."

Dozens of articles in a broad range of newspapers depicted lurid and inaccurate pictures of the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups, attributing suicides of teenagers and the breakup of families to their activities.

The Government refused most requests for visas and residence permits for foreign missionaries, and some of them came under physical attack in the street and in their homes. Members of the Mormon church reported continued acts of harassment and assault, including some perpetrated by the police themselves. The police response was indifferent despite the expressed concern of the Government about such cases. Missionaries of Jehovah's Witnesses also reported an incident of beating by the police.

In December 1995, a Jehovah's Witness mother living in a Asenovgrad was denied custody of her son solely because of her religious beliefs. The woman has appealed to the Supreme Court.

In late 1995, Jehovah's Witnesses brought a complaint to the European Commission of Human Rights about the Government's refusal to register the organization. In January the Commission ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses appeal was admissible before the Commission, but it has not yet issued a decision on the merits of the case.

On several occasions the police shut down religious meetings of unregistered groups. In June the police broke up a Jehovah's Witness meeting at a public dance hall in Asenovgrad and confiscated religious material. In August the police raided a private hall in Sofia and closed down a meeting of Word of Life. The press was on hand and gave wide coverage to both of the police raids. These incidents give credence to charges by human rights activists that the police are monitoring the activities of certain unregistered groups.

The Constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion. Along with the Orthodox Church, a number of major religious bodies, including the Muslim and Jewish communities, receive government financial support. There was no evidence that the Government discriminated against members of any religious group in making restitution to previous owners properties that were nationalized during the Communist regime. For most registered religious groups there were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. A school for imams, a Muslim cultural center, university theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were freely imported and printed, and Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published on a regular basis. Nevertheless, there were reports that police confiscated religious books and cassettes during searches of Word of Life members.

During compulsory military service most Muslims are placed into construction units where they often perform commercial or maintenance work rather than serve in normal military units. The mainly ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) protested this practice (see Section 5).

A significant proportion of Muslims considered the Government's continued recognition of the 1994 statutes on the Muslim faith and of Nedim Gendjev as Chief Mufti and head of the Supreme Theological Council to be government interference in the affairs of the community. The Government continued to refuse to recognize the election of a rival Chief Mufti, Fikri Salli, who was elected at an alternative Islamic conference in March 1995. In 1995 Fikri appealed the Government's action unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court.

The Government's Directorate of Religious Affairs hired Boncho Asenov, a former security official during the Communist regime. Reliable sources report that Asenov participated in repressive activities against the ethnic Turkish minority and religious groups before 1989.

By order of the Minister of Education, a private religious elementary school located in Lovetch was closed on August 6. The "School of Tomorrow" was run by the registered evangelical denomination, "Shalom" (this group is distinct from the Jewish community organization of the same name). According to Shalom, the school was part of a network of similar schools, founded by an American citizen and associated with several Protestant churches, in 108 countries.

At the Department of Theology of Sofia University all students are required to present a certificate of baptism from the Orthodox Church, and married couples must present a marriage certificate from the same in order to enroll in the Department's classes; in July two non-Orthodox applicants were denied admission to the Department when they were unable to present such certificates. The applicants have appealed to the local courts.

The schism that opened in the Orthodox Church in 1992 deepened, and the Government refused to recognize an alternative Patriarch elected by supporters in July. The Supreme Court ruled that the decision was unlawful, but the alternate Patriarch remained unregistered.

d. Freedom of Movement within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave it, and these rights are not limited in practice, with the exception of limited border zones that are off limits both to foreigners and citizens not resident therein. Every citizen has the right to return to Bulgaria, may not be forcibly expatriated, and may not be deprived of citizenship acquired by birth. A number of former political emigrants were granted passports and returned to visit or live.

As provided under law, a prosecutor restricted foreign travel by several activists of Umo-Ilinden (see Section 2.b.) due to an investigation into their activities. The activists complained that the investigation was inactive and that the travel restrictions were being used punitively. A human rights organization took up the case and successfully appealed the travel restrictions to a higher ranking prosecutor. Observers criticized the lack of time limits on such inactive or "suspended" investigations.

Bulgaria has provisions for granting asylum or refugee status in accordance with the standards of the relevant U.N. acts in this field, and the Government provides first asylum. However, domestic and international human rights organizations expressed concern over the Government's handling of asylum claims and reported that there may be cases in which bona fide refugees are forced to return to countries where they fear persecution. The Bureau for Territorial Asylum and Refugees asserts that it gives a fair hearing to all persons seeking asylum or refugee status but admits that there may be cases which do not come to its attention before the applicant is returned to the country from which he entered Bulgaria. The Ministry of Interior reports that 2,600 people were denied entry at borders over the past few years; it is not known how many of these requested asylum.

The Bureau reports that 1,506 people have applied for asylum or refugee status in the past 3 years; 203 applicants were approved and 28 denied. Domestic and international human rights organizations complained that the asylum process is slow, and many of those who have been granted refugee status have yet to receive the necessary documents enabling them to move about freely and work. The Bureau is still seeking to establish registration and reception centers blocked in 1994 by skinheads and local citizens groups and has identified some new sites for the centers.

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

Citizens have the right to change their government and head of state through the election of the President and of the members of the National Assembly, although the constitutional prohibition of parties formed on ethnic, racial, or religious lines has the effect of circumscribing access to the political process for some groups (see Section 2.b.). Suffrage is universal at the age of 18. The most recent parliamentary elections took place in December 1994. President Zhelev was elected in 1992 in the first direct presidential elections. Peter Stoyanov of the UDF, who was selected as a candidate in a primary election among opposition parties in June and then won presidential elections in the fall of 1996, will succeed Zhelev in January 1997.

There are no restrictions in law on the participation of women in government. A number of women hold elective and appointive office at high levels, including a cabinet-level post and several key positions in Parliament. Women hold about 13 percent of the seats in the current Parliament.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Local and international human rights groups operate freely, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Local human rights groups reported some improvement in their dealings with government officials. The Human Rights Project stated that the police regularly answered the group's inquiries and have responded positively to a proposal for human rights training of police officers in several cities with large Roma populations. However, government officials, especially local officials, are otherwise often reluctant to provide information or active cooperation.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for individual rights, equality, and protection against discrimination, but in practice discrimination still exists, particularly against Roma and women.

There have been reports of inadequate police response to incidents of violence against gays, but few victims of such assaults are willing to press charges.

Women

Domestic abuse is reportedly a serious and common problem, but there are no figures, official or otherwise, on its occurrence. Currently, the law exempts from state prosecution certain types of assault if committed by a family member, and the Government does not assist in prosecuting crimes of domestic assault unless the woman has been killed or permanently injured. The courts prosecute rape, although it remains an underreported crime because some stigma still attaches to the victim. The maximum sentence for rape is 8 years; convicted offenders often receive a lesser sentence or early parole. Police data released in August show that over the past 2 years 131 women were killed, 1,243 between the age of 17 and 30 were raped, 451 were crippled for life, and 236 sustained serious injuries as a result of violence. Marital rape is a crime but is rarely prosecuted. Courts and prosecutors tend to view domestic abuse as a family rather than criminal problem, and in most cases victims of domestic violence take refuge with family or friends rather than approach the authorities. No government agencies provide shelter or counseling for such persons, although there is a private initiative to address the problem.

Many of the approximately 30 women's organizations are closely associated with political parties or have primarily professional agendas. Of those that exist mainly to defend women's interests, the two largest are the Women's Democratic Union in Bulgaria, heir to the group which existed under the Communist dictatorship, and the Bulgarian Women's Association, which disappeared under communism but has now reemerged and has chapters in a number of cities.

The Constitution forbids privileges or restrictions of rights on the basis of sex. However, women face discrimination both in terms of recruitment and the likelihood of layoffs. Official figures show the rate of unemployment for women to be higher than that for men. Women are much more likely than men to be employed in low-wage jobs requiring little education, although statistics show that women are equally likely to attend university. Women, in the main, continue to have primary responsibility for child rearing and housekeeping even if they are employed outside the home. There are liberal provisions for paid maternity leave. However, in some cases these may actually work against employers' willingness to hire and retain female employees, especially in the private sector.

Children

The Government is generally committed to protecting children's welfare but, with limited resources, falls short in several areas. It maintains, for example, a sizable network of orphanages throughout the country. However, many of the orphanages are in disrepair and lack proper facilities. Government efforts in education and health have been constrained by serious budgetary limitations and by outmoded social care structures. The Constitution provides that school attendance is mandatory until the age of 16. Groups that exist to defend the rights of children charge that an increasing number of children are at serious risk as social insurance payments fall further behind inflation and are often disbursed as much as 6 months late.

Credible sources report that there is no provision for due process of law for Romani and other juveniles when they are detained in labor education schools run by the Ministry of Education. Living conditions at these reform schools are poor, offering little medical, educational, or social opportunities. Generally, staff members at these institutions lack the proper qualifications and training to adequately care for the children. Degrading and severe punishment, such as the shaving of a child's head, reduction in diet, severe beatings, and long periods of solitary confinement, are common at the schools. The Ministry of Education (MOE) acknowledges problems at the schools, attributing the cause to a lack of funding. At the end of the year, Parliament enacted legislation providing for court review of sentencing to such schools and addressing other problems in the reform school system.

The vast majority of children are free from societal abuse, although some Romani children are frequent targets of skinhead groups; the homeless or abandoned were particularly vulnerable. Some Romani minors were forced into prostitution by family or community members. There was little police effort to address these problems. The new legislation calls for the establishment of shelters for homeless children.

People with Disabilities

Disabled persons receive a range of financial assistance, including free public transportation, reduced prices on modified automobiles, and free equipment such as wheelchairs. However, as in other areas, budgetary constraints mean that such payments have fallen behind. Disabled individuals have access to university training and to housing and employment, although no special programs are in place to allow them to live up to their full employment potential. To date little effort has been made at the national level to change building or street layouts to help blind or otherwise physically disabled persons. The city of Varna allocated money for the installation of approximately 150 wheelchair ramps (curb cuts) in the city center.

At the end of 1995, Parliament passed legislation requiring the relevant ministry and local governments to provide a suitable living and architectural environment for the disabled within 3 years. However, there is a moratorium on the law taking effect until the Ministry of Construction has completed issuing new construction standards that more fully take into account the needs of the disabled. Policies of the Communist regime which separated mentally and physically disabled persons, including very young children, from the rest of society have persisted.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic Turks comprise about 10 percent of the population. Although estimates of the Romani population vary widely, several experts put it at about 6 percent. (Bulgarian Muslims or "Pomaks" are a distinct group of Slavic descent, comprising 2 to 3 percent of the population, whose ancestors converted from Orthodox Christianity to Islam. Most are Muslim, although a number have become atheists or converted to Christianity.) These are the country's two largest minorities. There are no restrictions on the speaking of Turkish in public or the use of non-Slavic names.

Voluntary Turkish-language classes in public schools, funded by the Government, continued in areas with significant Turkish-speaking populations, although some observers complained that the Government was discouraging the optional language classes in areas with large concentrations of Bulgarian Muslims. According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), there are 844 Turkish language teachers for 64,000 children who study Turkish as their mother tongue. The MOE has reached an agreement with the Turkish Government to send teachers to study at Turkish universities; 30 such teachers participated in a training course over the summer. Some ethnic Turkish leaders, mainly in the MRF, demanded that Turkish-language schooling be made compulsory in ethnic Turkish areas, but the Government resisted this.

In the 1992 census approximately 3.4 percent of the population identified itself as Romani. The real figure is probably about twice that high, since many persons of Romani descent tend to identify themselves to the authorities as ethnic Turks or Bulgarians. Romani groups continued to be divided among themselves, although several groups had some success presenting Romani issues to the Government. As individuals and as an ethnic group, Roma faced high levels of discrimination.

Attacks by private citizens on Romani communities continued to occur. In April seven teenagers beat and stabbed to death Anguel Ivanov, a Roma, in the city of Shumen. While there were no witnesses to the attack, the victim was able to identify his attackers before dying. An investigation is in progress.

In June a group of young men attacked and beat three Roma in the town of Samokov. Two of the victims suffered numerous injuries and were knocked unconscious. Local Roma told a human rights organization that skinhead attacks were common in the town, and the police did nothing to stop them. In January at the central rail station in Sofia, a group of skinheads attacked several homeless Roma children sleeping at the station. One of the victims was stabbed three times. Several witnesses reported that the police arrested some of the attackers, but later released them. Roma children living at the station allege that they are frequently attacked by skinheads and occasionally by police officers. No charges have been filed in the 1994 and 1995 cases of attacks by private citizens on two Romani communities. Authorities often fail to aggressively investigate cases of assault or other crimes against Roma, although there was some improvement in their responsiveness to inquiries of human rights organizations (see Section 4).

Roma encounter difficulties applying for social benefits, and rural Roma are discouraged from claiming land to which they are entitled under the law disbanding agricultural collectives. Many Roma and other observers made credible allegations that the quality of education offered to Romani children is inferior to that afforded most other students.

The Government admitted that it has been largely unsuccessful in attracting and keeping many Romani children in school, but it stated that improved education for these children is a government priority. The MOE, together with UNESCO, started seven pilot schools designed specifically for Romani children. The schools have had good results, but because of financial constraints the MOE is unable to expand the program. The MOE continued its program to introduce Romani-language schoolbooks into schools with Romani populations and issued follow-on textbooks for the program. The program has had mixed success, partly due to a lack of qualified teachers.

Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem, especially for Roma. Employers justify such discrimination on the basis that most Roma have relatively low training and education. Supervisory jobs are generally given to ethnic Bulgarian employees, with ethnic Turks, Bulgarian Muslims, and Roma among the first to be laid off. The National Employment Office is responsible for two programs designed to improve education, training, and labor market participation: an ongoing literacy and training program in ethnically mixed regions; and, with foreign assistance, a "from social assistance to employment" program aimed at reducing the number of persons receiving social assistance, many of whom are Turkish or Roma.

During compulsory military service most Roma (and Muslims – see Section 2.c.) are shunted into units where they often perform commercial, military construction, or maintenance work rather than serve in normal military units. The MRF protested this practice, as did human rights groups and labor observers who cited it as a violation of International Labor Organization (ILO) accords. There are only a few ethnic Turkish and Romani officers in the military.

Thousands of Bulgarians, mainly in the southwest, identify themselves as Macedonians, most for historical and geographic reasons. Members of the two organizations that purport to defend their interests, Umo-Ilinden and Tmo-Ilinden, are believed to number in the hundreds (see Section 2.b.).

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The 1991 Constitution provides for the right of all workers to form or join trade unions of their own choice, and this right was apparently freely exercised. Estimates of the unionized share of the work force range from 30 to 50 percent. This share is shrinking as large firms lay off workers, and most new positions appear in small, nonunionized businesses.

There are two large trade union confederations, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB), and Podkrepa. CITUB, the successor to the trade union controlled by the former Communist regime, operates as an independent entity. Podkrepa, an independent confederation created in 1989, was one of the earliest opposition forces but is no longer a member of the Union of Democratic Forces, the main opposition party. In 1995 a third trade union confederation, the Community of Free Union Organizations in Bulgaria (CFOUB), was admitted to the National Tripartite Coordination Council (NTCC), which includes employers and the Government (see Section 6.b.).

The 1992 Labor Code recognizes the right to strike when other means of conflict resolution have been exhausted, but "political strikes" are forbidden. Workers in essential services are prohibited from striking; in September the Constitutional Court ruled that this prohibition is constitutional. There was no evidence that the Government interfered with the right to strike, and several work stoppages took place. The Labor Code's prohibitions against antiunion discrimination include a 6-month period of protection against dismissal as a form of retribution. While these provisions appear to be within international norms, there is no mechanism other than the courts for resolving complaints, and the burden of proof in such a case rests entirely on the employee.

In 1993 the ILO requested further information on lustration proceedings, measures directed at compensating ethnic Turks for abuses under the previous regime, efforts taken to improve the economic situation of minorities, and measures to promote equality between men and women in workplace opportunity. At year's end, the ILO was still reviewing the information provided to it by the Government.

There are no restrictions on affiliation or contact with international labor organizations, and unions actively exercise this right.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Code institutes collective bargaining, which was practiced nationally and on a local level. The legal prohibition against striking for key public sector employees weakens their bargaining position; however, these groups were able to influence negotiations by staging protests and engaging in other pressure activities without going on strike. Both CITUB and Podkrepa complained that while the legal structure for collective bargaining was adequate, many employers failed to bargain in good faith or to adhere to concluded agreements. Labor observers viewed the Government's enforcement of labor contracts as inadequate.

Only the three labor members of the National Tripartite Cooperation Council are authorized to bargain collectively. This restriction led to complaints by smaller unions, which may in individual work places have more members than the NTCC members. Smaller unions also protested their exclusion from the NTCC. Podkrepa and CITUB walked out of the NTCC several times, charging that the Government was failing to negotiate in good faith. The Government acknowledges that the Council's record was inconsistent.

There were no instances in which an employer was found guilty of antiunion discrimination and required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. International labor organizations criticized the "national representation" requirement for participation in the NTCC as a violation of the right to organize.

The same obligation of collective bargaining and adherence to labor standards prevails in the export processing zones, and unions may organize workers in these areas.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. Many observers argued that the practice of shunting minority and conscientious-objector military draftees into work units that often carry out commercial construction and maintenance projects is a form of compulsory labor (Section 5).

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Labor Code sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years of age; the minimum age for dangerous work is set at 18 years old. Employers and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) are responsible for enforcing these provisions. Child labor laws are enforced well in the formal sector. Underage employment in the informal and agricultural sectors is increasing as collective farms are broken up and the private sector continues to grow. In addition, children work on family-owned tobacco farms.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly minimum wage was approximately $24 (5,500 leva) effective October 1. The minimum wage is not enough to provide a wage earner and family with a decent standard of living. The Constitution stipulates the right to social security and welfare aid assistance for the temporarily unemployed, although in practice such assistance is often either late or not disbursed.

The Labor Code provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours with at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The MLSW is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. Enforcement has been generally effective in the state sector (although there are reports that state-run enterprises fall into arrears on salary payments to their employees if the firms incur losses) but is weaker in the emerging private sector.

A national labor safety program exists, with standards established by the Labor Code. The Constitution states that employees are entitled to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions. The MLSW is responsible for enforcing these provisions. Under the Labor Code, employees have the right to remove themselves from work situations that present a serious or immediate danger to life or health without jeopardizing their continued employment. In practice, refusal to work in situations with relatively high accident rates or associated chronic health problems would result in loss of employment for many workers. Conditions in many cases are worsening owing to budget stringencies and a growing private sector that labor inspectors do not yet supervise effectively.

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