Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September 2014, 12:56 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Bulgaria

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 25 February 2000
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Bulgaria , 25 February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa66c.html [accessed 18 September 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.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic ruled by a democratically elected government. President Petar Stoyanov of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) began a 5-year term of office in January 1997 following his election in late 1996. UDF leader Ivan Kostov currently serves as Prime Minister. The judiciary is independent but suffers from corruption and continues to struggle with structural and staffing problems.

Most internal security services are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, including the Central Service for Combating Organized Crime, the National Security Service (civilian intelligence), internal security troops, border guards, and special forces. Although government control over the police is improving, it still is not sufficient to ensure full accountability. The Special Investigative Service (SIS), reduced in size by a recent reorganization, is a judicial branch agency and therefore not under direct government control. Some members of the police committed serious human rights abuses.

The post-Communist transition economy continued to be heavily dependent on state enterprises, many of them unprofitable, although the growing private sector now accounts for over 60 percent of economic activity. Most persons 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. Following a severe financial, economic, and political crisis in 1996 and early 1997, a reformist government introduced a successful macroeconomic stabilization program. The program quickly stabilized the economy and cut the triple digit inflation of 1996-97 to less than 1 percent in 1998. Inflation grew to 6.2 percent in 1999. The economy grew by 3.5 percent in 1998 and by 2.5 percent in 1999. The Government has placed a great deal of emphasis on attracting foreign investment and has promised far-reaching structural reforms, although the privatization process has not moved forward as quickly as hoped. The annual per capita gross domestic product of $1,500 provides a relatively low standard of living.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, problems remained in some areas, while there were improvements in a few others. Police used questionable lethal force against five suspects. Security forces beat suspects and inmates and often arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. Reforms designed to increase accountability have improved the Government's control over the security forces; however, its control remains incomplete. Problems of accountability persist and inhibit government attempts to end police abuses. Conditions in some prisons were harsh, and pretrial detention often is prolonged, although this situation improved somewhat during the year. The judiciary is underpaid, understaffed, and has a heavy case backlog; corruption is a serious problem. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights. There were reports of police abuse of journalists. Constitutional restrictions on political parties formed on ethnic, racial, or religious lines effectively limit participation for some groups. Police, local government authorities, and private citizens continued to obstruct the activities of some nontraditional religious groups, although there was some improvement in their treatment by central government authorities. Violence and discrimination against women remained serious problems. Discrimination against the disabled and religious minorities is a problem. Discrimination and societal violence against Roma were serious problems, resulting in two deaths. Because of a lack of funds, the social service system did not assist homeless and other vulnerable children adequately, notably Romani children. Security forces harassed, physically abused, and arbitrarily arrested and detained Romani street children. Child labor was a problem. Trafficking in women and girls is a serious problem.

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings; however, in five cases, police officers used questionable lethal force against citizens, one of whom was a member of the Romani minority. There was one report of a death in custody.

The Ministry of Interior Act regarding the use of firearms by law enforcement officials permits them to use firearms to apprehend persons committing crimes or who have committed crimes, even if the crimes are only minor. Law enforcement officers also may use firearms to stop the escape of a person who has been arrested for any crime.

On January 29, Tencho Vasev was shot and killed by border police near Novo Selo while trying to cross the Bulgarian-Greek border illegally. An investigation into the case was completed on May 28. On June 14, the Military Prosecutor's office prepared an indictment against the officer responsible for the shooting. The case was ongoing at year's end.

On May 13, Nikolai Filipov was shot and killed by police officers during an attempted car theft near Pravets. Filipov died from a gunshot wound to the head. The use of lethal force in this instance was ruled legal self defense by the Military Prosecutor's office after an investigation.

On June 6, a 28-year-old criminal suspect, Gancho Vuchkov, was shot and killed while trying to escape police in Sofia. Police were carrying out a warrant for Vuchkov's arrest in connection with a series of car thefts. Following a car chase and an exchange of gunfire with police, Vuchkov was shot in the temple. A relative of Vuchkov who reportedly arrived on the scene soon after the shooting and saw the body, alleges that Vuchkov was killed after police apprehended him and not while in pursuit. The case was under investigation at year's end.

On June 14, Oleg Georgiev was shot and killed by border police during an attempt to cross the border near the town of Kulata in the southwest.

On September 21, Kostadin Sherbetov was found dead in his cell in a district police station in Sofia. Earlier that day, guards from a private security firm that protects schools in Sofia detained Sherbetov on suspicion of pedophilia and turned him over to police. An ambulance was called to the police station, and doctors established that Sherbetov had died. According to his forensic medical certificate, he suffered from several broken ribs and numerous bruises. The chief secretary of the Ministry of Interior admitted that Sherbetov was a victim of violence but contended that the policemen and guards deny any involvement in the abuse. The Military Prosecutor's Office launched a preliminary investigation into four police officers.

The investigation into the 1998 shooting death case of Tsvetan Kovatchev was reopened in June after legal wrangling resulted in a repeal of the Military Prosecution's initial ruling in January that the use of force was justified.

In July charges were brought against the police officer involved in the 1998 fatal shooting of Yordan Yankov. The police officer was sentenced to a term of 15 years in prison and fined approximately $6,000 (Lev 11,000) to be paid to Yankov's family. An appeal to reduce the sentence is likely.

The 1998 case of Staniela Bugova was on appeal following sentencing in the fall of the police officer involved in the shooting to 2½ years. The sentence was upheld in one appeal; this was the last opportunity for appeal in the case.

There were no further developments in the 1997 beating death case of Mincho Simeonov Surtmachev. The case was still under appeal at year's end. Pending appeal, the two police officers involved remain in custody serving sentences of 7 years and 4 years. The case also resulted in the firing of the chief of the Dobrech police precinct.

Two 1997 cases were dismissed. The Military Prosecutor's office dismissed the Georgi Biandov case in 1998 and ruled that police acted within their authority. The 1997 death of Elin Karamanov also was dismissed by the Military Prosecutor's office in June 1997, and the dismissal was confirmed on review by the Chief Military Prosecutor in September 1997 on the grounds that the use of lethal force was legal.

The Military Prosecutor's office sentenced in February 1998 the police officer involved in the 1997 death-in-custody case of Stefan Stanev to 2½ years. The case is pending appeal.

The 1996 murder case of former Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov remains unsolved. The investigation was ongoing at year's end, with several suspects arrested and released during the year. On June 1, authorities arrested Yurii Lenev in connection with the murder of Lukanov and reportedly beat him before he was taken to the SIS detention facility. Lenev's family members reported that when they were permitted to see him finally on June 12, his bruises from the beating still were visible. The Military Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into this case, but no progress was made by year's end. Angel Vasiliev was extradited from the Czech Republic in September. According to press reports, Vasiliev is suspected of having paid $100,000 for the murder of Lukanov. Before his death, Lukanov criticized the Socialist Party's special treatment of the Orion group, to which Vasiliev's construction company belongs and which is suspected of misappropriating funds from several banks.

There were two instances of members of the Romani ethnic minority being killed by private citizens. An incident of racial violence resulted in the beating death of a Romani woman at the hands of teenage boys. In another incident, a trespassing Romani boy was shot by a private citizen (see Section 5).

The 1996 case of Anguel Zabchikov, a 17-year-old Romani boy who died in police custody, was still ongoing at year's end, pending a hearing before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In February four policemen were convicted of murdering an ethnic Turk during a protest against the forced assimilation campaign in May 1989; the highest sentence meted out was 2½ years.

There was no progress in the trial concerning the notorious death camps set up by the Communists after they took power in 1944.

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; however, despite this prohibition, police commonly beat criminal suspects and members of minorities, at times to extract false testimony. In particular, security forces physically abuse street children, the majority of whom are Roma.

The Human Rights Project (HRP) reported that on January 17, a police officer in Pleven harassed and beat Stefka Madjarova. After ordering her to leave the market where she was selling her goods, the police officer demanded her identification. He then ordered Madjarova to follow him to a police station at the market where she was beaten with a club. Madjarova was struck on the legs and has forensic evidence (a medical certificate) for the injuries that she sustained. There were three witnesses on the scene. A complaint has been filed with the Regional Military Prosecutor's Office in Pleven.

In January two policemen beat Rom Kiril Nikolov Spasov from Russe and forced him to give false testimony.

On July 22, police officers in Pavlinkeni reportedly beat two Roma, Atanas Assenov and Assen Assenov, who had been detained and left a third Rom, Anton Assenov, who had been shot earlier by a private security guard without medical attention for several hours. The private security guard accused the Roma and their companions of stealing fruit and reportedly shot at them when they tried to escape, wounding one Rom in the back of his head. When police arrived and called an ambulance, the emergency medical technicians reportedly refused to treat him. The police officers detained the Roma and took them to the Pavlinkeni regional police department, where they reportedly beat Atanas and Assen. Anton reportedly was left outside the police department in a horse cart for several hours, after which the police called another ambulance, and he received medical treatment. The Roma filed complaints against the police officers and security guard involved. The Military Prosecutor's office on November 16 declined to initiate a criminal proceeding on the matter.

On September 8, three police officers beat a Romani woman, Tanya Borissova, outside of the labor bureau in Pazardzhik. A large number of Roma had assembled outside the bureau to obtain information about jobs. Three police officers beat Borissova after claiming that she had pushed one of them. They arrested her, and that same day the Pazardzhik district court sentenced her to 5 days in custody for "minor hooliganism."

On October 2, a police officer in a police car approached a group of five Roma – Lilyan Zanev, Spas Berkov, Nedyalko Zanev, Simeon Zanev, and Roumyana Berkova – gathered on the outskirts of Pleven and questioned them. Another police car with two officers joined the first, and the three beat the five Roma with truncheons for approximately 30 minutes and told the Roma that they suspected them of intending to rob nearby homes. One Rom obtained a medical certificate documenting his injuries and filed a complaint with the regional military prosecutor's office in Pleven.

In July authorities arrested parliamentary deputy Tsvetelin Kanchev of the Euroleft Party for kidnaping, beating, robbing, and blackmailing persons in his district of Zlatiza. His trial began in November, and several persons who were involved in the beatings were set to testify.

In March the Military Prosecutor's office closed the investigation into the 1998 mass police raid of a Romani neighborhood in the village of Mechka, citing the impossibility of positively identifying the individuals involved. The March 1998 case of Rossen Alekov who reportedly was beaten by police was closed in June 1998, when the Military Prosecutor's office declined to initiate a criminal investigation.

There were reports of police abuse of journalists (see Section 2.a.).

According to Ministry of Interior (MOI) data, 40 cases of police brutality were confirmed for the period January 1 to July 22. The police generally have refused to make investigative reports available to the public. The MOI statistics reflect only those complaints registered by the alleged victims. Human rights monitors report that they receive many more complaints from persons who are too intimidated to lodge an official complaint with the authorities.

Reports continue that criminal suspects in police custody run a significant risk of being mistreated. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) conducted a survey in prisons in January and found that 51 percent of interviewed prisoners reported that police officers used physical force against them during arrest; 53 percent reported mistreatment at police stations. Romani prisoners reported being abused more frequently than other prisoners. Very seldom are allegations of police abuse properly investigated nor are the offending officers consistently punished. In particular, the Military Prosecutor's office has not investigated incidents of alleged police abuse thoroughly or expeditiously. In a shift from previous years, human rights observers were granted access to SIS detention facilities for the first time in February. Observers still are prohibited from interviewing detainees in the SIS facilities, unlike in regular prisons.

Crime and corruption remained primary concerns of the Government during the year. The criminal justice system is in a time of transition. New legislation was enacted in late 1998 intended to improve and streamline the criminal justice process, which has long been an acknowledged problem. The new law, whose provisions all were to be enacted by January 1, 2000, was to reorganize and reallocate authorities among police, the SIS, prosecutors, and judges, and devolve greater authority to regional authorities. The full details of the plan's implementation and its effectiveness in achieving real reform remain to be seen.

There have been unconfirmed reports of local or police involvement in trafficking in persons (see Section 6.f.).

Conditions in some prisons are harsh and include severe overcrowding, inadequate lavatory facilities, and insufficient heating and ventilation. The SIS's parallel network of jails and prisons, newly transferred as of December to Justice Ministry control under recent legislative changes, contains many of the harshest detention facilities. Credible sources reported numerous cases of brutality committed by prison guards against inmates. However, there were no more reports during the year of prisoners being placed in solitary confinement after complaining about their treatment. The BHC reports that the Government has taken vigorous and effective action to combat the tuberculosis outbreak reported last year, much reducing this problem. Justice Ministry information for 1999 indicates a 40 percent decrease in tuberculosis infections from 1998 figures. The BHC further reports that nutritional deficiencies which had exacerbated this problem also have been improved. The process by which prisoners may complain of substandard conditions or of mistreatment does not appear to function effectively.

The Government cooperated with requests by independent observers to monitor conditions in prisons and detention facilities. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) inspected a number of prisons and detention facilities during the year. Human rights observers reported that several of the country's worst detention facilities were closed down by the Government prior to the CPT visit and remain closed.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution provides for protection against arbitrary arrest and detention; however, police often arbitrarily detain and arrest street children, the majority of whom are Roma.

The Constitution provides for access to legal counsel from the time of detention. However, a survey of prisoners conducted by the BHC found that 54 percent of prisoners complained that they had no lawyer present during preliminary investigations. Police normally obtain a warrant from a prosecutor prior to apprehending an individual; otherwise, in emergency circumstances police may detain individuals for up to 24 hours on their own authority; however, authorities must rule on the legality of such detention by the end of that time period. If the person is released without being charged before the 24-hour period elapses, there is no judicial involvement in the case. Human rights observers charge that police commonly handle minor offenses by arresting the suspect, beating him, and releasing him within the 24-hour period. 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 Prosecutor General. In the interests of a speedy trial, investigations now are prescribed by law to last no more than 2 months under normal circumstances, although this period may be extended to 6 months by the head regional prosecutor, and up to 9 months by the Prosecutor General. In practice, persons often have been detained for 1 to 2 years without a conviction. It is not unusual for cases to be returned by the prosecutors or judges for further investigation. This generally restarts the clock, although some recent court interpretations have directed that the time limits should apply cumulatively to all the investigation periods on a given case. Under the terms of a 1997 amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure, pretrial detention can last no more than 1 year or, if the alleged offense is punishable by over 15 years' imprisonment, life imprisonment, or capital punishment, no more than 2 years. Spurred by the new law and by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, the Government starting in August for the first time released a number of pretrial detainees whose detentions had exceeded the limit and announced its intention to abide by these limits from that point on. Typically if a judge returns a case to the prosecutors for further work, the clock is restarted on the time limit, although this process has not been tested yet thoroughly in the courts.

Data confirm that the Government made progress in reducing the number of pretrial detainees during the year. According to the Ministry of Justice, as of June 30, 646 inmates were in pretrial detention, which represents a 35 percent drop from 993 in mid-1998. The number of persons on trial as of that date was 1,616 – an almost 18 percent drop from 1,960 in 1998. (Defendants are categorized as "on trial" after their cases have been sent first to a trial judge, even though the judge may have sent the case back to the prosecutors and SIS for further investigation.) As of June 30, there were 8,669 convicted prisoners in the prison system. Thus the total inmate population in the prison system was 10,931. These figures do not include persons incarcerated in the separate SIS detention facilities, for which current data have not been made available. As of June 30, 1998, the SIS had 3,257 detainees, of whom 842 were in pretrial detention.

In the event of a conviction, the 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 used widely.

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, the judiciary continues to struggle with problems such as low salaries, understaffing, antiquated procedures, corruption, and a heavy backlog of cases. Partly as a legacy of communism and partly because of the court system's structural and personnel problems, many citizens have little confidence in the judicial system. Human rights groups complain that local prosecutors and magistrates sometimes fail to pursue vigorously crimes committed against minorities. Many observers believe that reforms are essential to establish a fair and impartial, as well as efficient, judicial system.

The court system consists of regional courts, district courts, and Supreme Courts of Cassation (civil and criminal appeal) and Administration. The Constitutional Court, which is separate from the rest of the court system, is empowered to rescind legislation that 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 (including police personnel) and some cases involving national security matters. The Constitutional Court does not have specific jurisdiction in matters of military justice.

Local observers contend that organized crime influences the prosecutor's office. Few organized crime figures have been prosecuted to date, but in 1997 the Government made the battle against organized crime a priority and reformed the Penal Code to that end. The Ministry of Interior has requested and received assistance from Western countries in its efforts to close legal loopholes and strengthen enforcement capabilities against criminal economic groupings engaged in racketeering and other illegal activities.

In December 1998, a reformulated Supreme Judicial Council overturned its predecessor's appointment of a new Prosecutor General in a controversial move that nonetheless was approved by the Constitutional Court. It then named a new Prosecutor General, who has moved to strengthen the prosecutor's office with a view toward increasing the country's low prosecution rate.

A draft law on a new criminal procedure code was passed by the National Assembly in the fall of 1998. The aim of the new law is to reform the judiciary and remove the more cumbersome aspects of its functioning, such as the long delays created by the referral of cases back and forth between different offices. It also increases executive branch oversight of judges and prosecutors. All of the provisions of the new law are to become effective by January 1, 2000. Under the new procedure, the role of the SIS was curtailed, and most investigators were assigned to work directly for local prosecutors, while the National Police Service also is to take a larger role in investigations. However, before this system can become effective, the Government must assure that magistrates, and especially investigators, receive the appropriate training – a need of which senior officials are acutely aware.

Despite recommending its own dissolution in December 1998 when it announced that Bulgaria had made sufficient progress in democracy and human right to no longer require monitoring, the Observation Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe nonetheless restated its concerns about inadequate safeguards for the independence of the judiciary in the country.

Judges are appointed by the 25-member Supreme Judicial Council and, after serving for 3 years, may not be removed except under limited, specified circumstances. The difficulty and rarity of replacing judges virtually regardless of performance often has been cited as a hindrance to effective law enforcement. The 12 justices on the Constitutional Court are chosen for 9-year terms as follows: One-third are elected by the National Assembly, one-third appointed by the President, and one-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 provided for and is used widely. Defendants in criminal proceedings have the right to confront witnesses and to have an attorney, provided by the state if necessary in serious cases.

Human rights observers consider "Educational Boarding Schools" (formerly known as "Labor Education Schools") to which problem children can be sent as little different from 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. Human rights observer groups such as the Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights criticize this denial of due process. Children sometimes appear alone despite the requirement that parents must attend hearings; the right to an attorney at the hearing is prohibited expressly by law. Decisions in these cases are not subject to judicial review, and children typically stay in the Educational Boarding Schools for 3 years or until they reach majority age, whichever occurs first. In late 1996, the Parliament enacted legislation that provided for court review of sentencing to such schools, set a limit of a 3-year stay, and addressed other problems in these institutions (see Section 5). Some observers dismiss this court review provision as a formality, since the child is not present to speak on his or her own behalf (nor is the defense lawyer or the child's parents).

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.

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, the right to choose one's place of work and residence, and the freedom and confidentiality of correspondence, and government authorities generally respect these provisions.

One nongovernmental organization (NGO) complained that the Minister of Interior's discretionary authority to authorize telephone wiretaps without judicial review is excessive, although it is unknown to what extent this authority is employed. It is also alleged that warrants to investigate suspects' private financial records sometimes are abused to give police broad and openended authority to engage in far-ranging investigations of a suspect's family and associates. There are regular, albeit not conclusive or systematic, reports of mail, especially foreign mail, being delayed and/or opened.

Traffickers in persons use threats against women's families and family reputations to ensure obedience (see Section 6.f.).

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Electronic Media Bill was adopted by the National Assembly in October 1998. In November 1998, President Stoyanov vetoed the bill because of provisions concerning the structure of the National Council on Radio and Television, the ban on airing commercial advertisements during prime time, minority language programming, and the funding of Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR). The National Assembly accepted all of the revisions forwarded by the President with the exception of the proposed lifting of the ban on primetime advertising. In June the Constitutional Court considered a motion from opposition Members of Parliament (M.P.'s) concerning the constitutionality of 60 provisions of the bill and found all of them to be constitutional except the one concerning the means of collecting television fees. The M.P.'s complained that the National Council for Radio and Television, a quasi-governmental body that governs national media and regulates private broadcasters, was too vulnerable to political manipulation by the ruling party of the day.

Among media professionals and the broader public, the belief persists that the Government exerts an unduly large influence on the media though official channels, i.e., the Radio and Television Council, and unofficially by influencing advertisers not to use media outlets that are too critical of government policy or officials. While such claims are widely made and believed, little hard evidence exists to document concrete examples of government intimidation of editors or their broadcasters.

A variety of newspapers are published freely by political parties and other organizations representing the full spectrum of political opinion. Journalists frequently color their reports to conform with the views of the political parties or economic groups that own their respective newspapers. However, the leading opposition newspaper Douma was forced to suspend publication on June 18 because it was unable to pay the more than $100,000 (Lev 180,000) it owed the State Printing House. Publication resumed on July 22, after a new investor bought a 51 percent stake in the newspaper. While the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which sponsors the newspaper, believed that the printing house's action against the newspaper was politically motivated, the new majority owner declared that the newspaper's suspension had been strictly an economic problem.

There were repeated reports of police abuse of journalists. In July Darin Kirkov took photographs of Varna municipal workers tearing down illegal buildings, and police officers destroyed Kirkov's film. Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev swiftly responded to the incident with an order specifically banning police violence against journalists. On June 28, unidentified assailants stabbed and beat Aleksei Lazarov who works for the independent weekly Kapital; however, they did not rob Lazarov. Lazarov suffered a broken leg and multiple knife wounds. The Bulgarian National Combat Service Against Organized Crime opened an investigation into the incident, but there was no progress in the case at year's end. On July 7, unidentified assailants attacked Svetla Asenova, a layout editor for the Computer World weekly. Asenova was beaten and robbed, and as a result hospitalized with a skull fracture. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, at least 11 violent attacks were carried out against media representatives in 1998, including physical assaults and bombings of newspaper offices. Attempts to intimidate journalists investigating corruption were thought to be the motivation for the attacks.

Libel is punishable under the Criminal Code. In July Parliament passed an amendment to the Penal Code changing the punishment for libel from imprisonment to the imposition of a fine of up to about $16,200 (Lev 30,000) – a heavy fine in the Bulgarian context. A convicted journalist failing to pay the fine would then face imprisonment. It is the firm conviction of several human rights organizations, as well as the majority of the journalist community, that prosecutors use their authority to curb free expression in the press, particularly when such expression is critical of prosecutors. In recent years this law has been used sparingly, but there have been two cases in the last 3 years in which reporters have been convicted of libel and sentenced to prison terms or large fines. In January the outgoing Prosecutor General Ivan Tatarchev initiated a criminal investigation of Tatiana Vaksberg of Radio Free Europe for "insulting state authority" and offending Tatarchev's "honor and dignity," after she broadcast a commentary critical of Tatarchev. Charges were filed against Tatarchev, and the case was still pending at year's end. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Observation Committee visited the country in 1998 and expressed continuing concern that media independence still remained at risk and disappointment that libel and slander remained criminal offenses. However, the Committee also was abolished on its own recommendation based on the country's progress towards achieving human rights standards.

Only the two state-owned national television channels have nationwide coverage. In July the Government initiated procedures to license a private national television station. Should this occur, the private station will be in direct competition with the remaining state television entity (to be renamed Public Television). To date, plans for BNT to broadcast in Turkish have not been implemented. However, local affiliates of BNR have been broadcasting limited programming in Turkish in areas where there are sizable Turkish-speaking populations.

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 broadcast 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.

There are more than 30 independent radio stations (both local and regional). The licensing procedure for both commercial and public radio and television operators started in 1998, but the process has seen chronic delays. As a result, all private electronic media are operating currently without a license. Owners of private radio stations have expressed concern that the authorities intentionally were delaying the process in order to exert censorship leverage prior to the October local elections. Some private radio stations still complain that the strength of their transmission is restricted unduly, with the result that they cannot compete fully with national (state-owned) radio. All transmission facilities are owned by the central Government.

Foreign government radio programs such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America have good access to commercial radio frequencies.

Private book publishing remained unhindered by political considerations.

The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right to peaceful assembly, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The authorities require permits for rallies and assemblies held outdoors, but most legally registered organizations routinely were granted permission to assemble. Vigorous political rallies and demonstrations were a common occurrence and generally took place without government interference.

The Government has undertaken to respect the rights of individuals and groups to establish freely 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. This provision is designed to prevent the development of parties based on a single ethnic or other group that could prove divisive for national unity by stirring up ethnic tension for political purposes. 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 August the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Ilinden-Pirin United Macedonian Organization (OMO) – an ethnic-Macedonian organization – be registered to participate as a political party in municipal elections in October. The Court overruled the decision of the Central Commission for Local Elections, which failed to register the group on August 25. The decision of the Supreme Administrative Court was final and could not be appealed. On February 12, a Sofia municipal court first registered the group. In March a group of 61 M.P.'s petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of the group's registration. The Court declined to rule on the case before the October local elections.

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, OMO-Ilinden (not the same organization as the similarly named Ilinden-Pirin OMO noted above), on the grounds that it is separatist. There were no reports of any prosecutions for simple membership in this group.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups. The legal 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 the Unification Church and the Church of the Nazarene (which has tried repeatedly to register for more than 5 years), prior to or in the absence of registration. Furthermore several municipal governments established local registration requirements for religious groups, despite the lack of clear legal authority to do so. In some cases, local authorities used the lack of registration as a pretext for interference against some groups and employed arbitrary harassment tactics against others. In 1998 the ability of a small number of religious groups to conduct services freely came under attack, both as a result of action by local government authorities and because of public intolerance. Such reports subsided during the year.

Jehovah's Witnesses finally received central government registration in October 1998, after a lengthy delay. A member of Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to serve in the military was sentenced to a prison term in 1998 and was imprisoned from December 1998 until March 1999. He was released due to a presidential pardon. A new law providing for a civilian alternative to military conscription went into effect on January 1. However, the alternative civilian service requires double the time commitment of military service. According to Human Rights Watch, police also have arrested children and adult members of Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing religious tracts, and detained other members of Jehovah's Witnesses for proselytizing.

Some observers note with concern a tendency by certain municipalities to enact regulations that may be used to limit religious freedoms if a perceived need arises. For example, a regulation passed by Sofia municipality in February forbids references to miracles and healing during religious services, a provision that many fear may be employed as a pretext to ban or interrupt services by charismatic evangelical groups. The regulation cites a Communist-era law dating from 1949, which is technically still in effect and which forbids foreigners from proselytizing and administering religious services in the country. The decree, although subsequently modified in response to NGO objections, is still criticized by religious rights groups as containing provisions that are either discriminatory or ambiguous and open to abuse. Other municipalities have enacted similar regulations. In January the city council in Burgas refused to register the local branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, despite the fact that they were registered by the central Government. The council asked the group to prove that they had not been banned in any European Union country in order to be registered. The 1949 law also has been criticized in its own right as an outmoded potential impediment to free religious activity. However, despite the law's continued technical validity, foreign missionaries can and do receive permission to proselytize in the country, and many have noted a marked improvement in both governmental and societal attitudes since the start of 1998. A new law on religious activity currently is being drafted but has not yet been moved to the floor of the National Assembly for a vote.

In June the city of Plovdiv fined an Austrian citizen about $300 (Lev 500) for proselytizing on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses, on the grounds that the Church was not registered with the city. However, many observers dispute the legal authority of municipal governments to require local registration.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) reported several incidents of harassment by police and by local authorities, with police interrupting services to demand passports and registration documents for the Church and its members. For example, in July police officers in Stara Zagora interrupted a Mormon religious service and demanded to see the identification documents of those who were present. The officers claimed that the Church's registration was out of date. Mormon missionaries reported several incidents of police harassment.

There were instances of police interference with religious groups' worship services and of their "streetboarding" efforts (in which the groups erect a signboard and invite passersby to learn more about the denomination's precepts).

On May 21 in Plovdiv, police interrupted the streetboarding activities of missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), claiming that the Church must have registered with the municipal government to operate in the city, although there is no legal basis for such a requirement.

On July 11 in Stara Zagora, three police officers interrupted a service of the LDS Church by demanding that church officials and parishioners present their identification documents.

On July 15 in Burgas, several LDS missionaries again were interrupted in their streetboarding activities by several police officers, citing unspecified laws against it. Police confiscated the signboard.

In March a schoolteacher in Gabrovo who is a member of a Pentecostal church resigned from her job. She claimed that she was intimidated into resigning as a result of her religious beliefs. Her lawsuit against the school currently is pending.

The Constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion. The Government provides financial support for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other denominations it considers to be "traditional." Along with the Orthodox Church, the Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish minority religious communities generally are perceived as maintaining a long-standing place in Bulgarian society and hence benefit from a relatively high degree of tolerance, as well as some government financial support.

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-level theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. In December the Ministry of Education announced that schools would begin offering classes on Islam in 2000 in regions with a significant Muslim minority. Since 1997, religious classes on the Bible have been available to students whose parents approve such instruction. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were imported freely and printed on most occasions, and Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published on a regular basis.

Although previously during compulsory military service most Muslim conscripts were placed in construction units rather than serving in combat-role military units, late in the year the Government ended this practice and abolished such construction battalions (see Section 5).

There were no indications that the Government discriminated against members of any religious group in making restitution to previous owners of properties that were nationalized during the Communist regime. The Government in general has supported actively property restitution for the legally recognized organization representing the Jewish community, although the return of two lucrative commercial Jewish communal properties continues to encounter administrative obstacles and legal challenges.

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 Church in order to enroll in the Department's classes. It remains impossible for non-Orthodox applicants to be admitted to the Department of Theology.

The Government refused to recognize an alternative Patriarch elected by supporters in 1996, and the schism that opened in the Orthodox Church in 1992 continued, despite the death of this alternative Patriarch in April. The Government nevertheless encouraged the feuding factions to heal their prolonged rift. By year's end, these efforts had not met with success.

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 border zones where access is limited for nonresidents (the border zones extend 1.2 to 3 miles inward from each border). Every citizen has the right to return to the country, may not be forcibly expatriated, and may not be deprived of citizenship acquired by birth.

The Government grants asylum or refugee status in accordance with the standards of the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Law on Refugees, which went into effect August 1, regulates the procedure for granting refugee status as well as the rights and obligations of refugees. The Agency for Refugees, formerly the National Bureau for Territorial Asylum and Refugees, is charged with following this procedure and cooperating with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Government provides first asylum. However, during the Kosovo crisis, the Government's definition of first asylum became very narrow. Although the Government initially expressed its willingness to temporarily shelter 5,000 Kosovar refugees, it soon proved reluctant to accept more than the approximately 200 Kosovar Albanians who had arrived by mid-April. Citing economic difficulties, the desire to avoid ethnic and religious conflicts within its own borders, and the priority accorded to potential ethnic Bulgarian refugees, the Government pledged to accept only those refugees who expressed an explicit desire to come to Bulgaria. According to Prime Minister Kostov, first asylum applied only to those refugees who came to the country directly (passing through Serbia proper to do so) and not those who first arrived in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Thus instead of accepting refugees from the over-crowded FYROM camps, the Government established and ran a refugee camp in FYROM. The Government also provided FYROM with medical facilities, prefabricated houses, portable showers, and meal sites.

In recent years, domestic and international human rights organizations have expressed concern over the Government's handling of asylum claims and reported that there may have been cases in which bona fide refugees were turned away at the border. No such cases were reported during the year. However, because NGO's lack institutionalized access to the country's borders, it is often difficult for them to monitor the Government's handling of asylum cases. For the first 6 months of the year, the Ministry of Interior reported that 803 persons applied for refugee status. Authorities granted 60 applicants refugee status, while 295 were granted temporary humanitarian status for either 6 months or 1 year.

The Agency for Refugees reports that, from its inception in 1993 until June 30, a total of 3,637 persons applied for asylum. Of these applications, 930 were accepted, 248 refused; for 683 applicants the procedure was terminated (usually because the applicant could not be found). Citizens from Afghanistan and Iraq generally constitute the majority of asylum seekers, but during the first half of the year, the majority were citizens of Serbia-Montenegro, including the province of Kosovo. Domestic and international human rights organizations complain that the adjudication process is slow, but the UNHCR notes that the Agency for Refugees has begun a major restructuring project to reduce the adjudication time to a period of 3 months. The restructuring project itself is expected to take 4 years. In 1997 and 1998, the UNHCR, in cooperation with an NGO, opened three transit centers near the Greek, Turkish, and Romanian borders and assisted the Government with opening a small reception center in Banya. During the Kosovo crisis, the Bulgarian Red Cross also set up emergency refugee centers in Pirin. Plans to open a reception center at the Sofia airport continue to be delayed due to a lack of funding. However, the UNHCR currently is working on plans to open a transit center in Kapitan Andreevo, on the border with Turkey.

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 party process for some groups (see Section 2.b.), particularly those Roma who have expressed a desire to create their own party. Suffrage is universal at the age of 18.

No legal restrictions hinder the participation of women in government and politics; however, they are underrepresented. Women hold just under 11 percent of the seats in the current Parliament. However, a number of women hold elective and appointive office at high levels, including three cabinet-level posts and several key positions in Parliament. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and the leader of the United Democratic Forces parliamentary group (the dominant party in the Government) are both women.

No legal restrictions hinder the participation of minorities in politics, apart from the prohibition of ethnically, racially, or religiously based parties. However, while ethnic Turks' representation in the National Assembly is close to commensurate with their share of population, there were only two Romani Members of Parliament; an improvement over 1998, when there were none. Both groups are underrepresented in appointed governmental positions, especially leadership positions.

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

Domestic and international human rights groups operate freely, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials, especially local officials, occasionally are reluctant to provide information or active cooperation. Local human rights groups now are permitted to visit the SIS detention facilities to which they previously were denied access.

Legislation reportedly is pending to establish the post of human rights ombudsman, but to date the position has not been created.

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

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

Women

Domestic abuse is a serious and common problem, but there are no official statistics on its occurrence. The Animus Association (AA), an NGO that offers assistance and support to female victims of violence, estimates that one in five women suffers from spousal abuse. Spousal rape is a crime, but it rarely is prosecuted. 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 injured permanently. 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. Police are not allowed to intervene in cases of domestic abuse, even if a woman calls them seeking protection or assistance. No government agencies provide shelter or counseling for victims. While the municipality of Sofia promised a building to the AA 2 years ago to use as a shelter for abused women, it has yet to follow through on its promise. However, the NGO Nadya De Center provides shelter to battered women. 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. Ministry of Interior figures reveal that during the first half of the year, 300 rapes and 60 attempted rapes were reported.

During the year, the AA reported 1,049 cases of domestic violence, 105 cases of sexual violence, and 59 cases of trafficking in women. The actual incidence of each form of violence is certainly much higher, as these represent those cases in which the victim (or, in some trafficking cases, an overseas women's group) was willing and able to contact the AA. The association also operates a 24-hour hot line for women in crisis that is staffed by the association's 12 full-time professional therapists.

In 1997 the Government enacted a law against trafficking in women, and trafficking in women and girls is a serious problem (see Section 6.f.).

Local observers believe that sexual harassment is a problem; it is not currently illegal.

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

The Constitution forbids privileges or restrictions of rights on the basis of sex, and women are not impeded from owning or managing businesses, land, or other real property and do not suffer from discrimination under inheritance laws. However, women face discrimination both in terms of job 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, and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) reports that the average woman's salary is 68 percent of that earned by the average male. Statistics show that women are equally likely to attend universities, but they have less opportunity to upgrade their qualifications and generally end up in lower-ranking and lower-paying positions than their male counterparts. Fewer girls than boys are attending schools, especially among minorities. Women generally continue to have primary responsibility for child rearing and housekeeping even if they are employed outside the home. Since 80 percent of employed women work in the lowest-paying sectors of the labor force, they often must work at two jobs in addition to their household duties in order to provide for their families. Female-headed households frequently live below the poverty line. There are liberal provisions for paid maternity leave; however, these actually may work against employers' willingness to hire and retain female employees. This is especially noticeable in higher-paying positions in the private sector, where many women with engineering degrees are compelled to work as secretaries.

No special government programs seek to address economic discrimination or integrate women better into the mainstream of society and the economy.

Children

The Government generally is 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 for mandatory school attendance until the age of 16. However, fewer girls than boys are attending school, especially among minorities.

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 few medical, educational, or social services. The Labor Education School at Slavovitsa has been the target of the harshest criticism. Generally, staff members at many such institutions lack the proper qualifications and training to care for the children adequately. 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. In 1996 the Ministry of Education acknowledged problems at the schools and attributed the cause to a lack of funding. In late 1996, Parliament enacted legislation providing for court review of sentencing to such schools and addressing other problems in the reform school system (see Section 1.e.).

The vast majority of children are free from societal abuse, although some Romani children are frequent targets of skinhead violence and arbitrary police detention; the homeless or abandoned were particularly vulnerable. Family or community members forced some Romani minors into prostitution. Police made little effort to address these problems. Some observers believe that there is a growing trend toward the use of children in prostitution, burglaries, and narcotics distribution. Trafficking in girls for the purpose of forced prostitution is a problem (see Section 6.f.).

People with Disabilities

Disabled persons by law 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 occasionally fall behind. Disabled individuals have access to university training and to housing and employment, but architectural barriers are a great hindrance in most older buildings. For example, there are no elevators in schools or universities. Problems of general unemployment and economy undermine initiatives aimed at advancing equal opportunity for the disabled. According to the director of the Rehabilitation and Social Integration Fund, 82 percent of the disabled are unemployed.

Labor laws intended to protect the interests of the disabled and create greater employment opportunity sometimes have a mixed effect. On one hand, the law provides incentives for small firms to hire disabled workers. For example, the Bureau of Labor pays the first year's salary of a disabled employee. On the other hand, workers with disabilities are entitled to shorter working hours, which often leads to discrimination against them in hiring practices. According to the law, any enterprise employing more than 50 persons must hire a certain number of disabled workers (between 3 and 10 percent, depending on the industry). Those who fail to do so must pay a fine, the proceeds of which go to a fund for the disabled. Nevertheless, due to low fines and delays in the judicial system, collection rates are extremely low.

Effective in July students with disabilities must pay the university's initial application fee but are exempt from semester fees if accepted. In February a Day Center for Social Rehabilitation and Integration of the Disabled was opened. Built on land granted by the municipality of Sofia and with financial donations, the facility is the first of its kind to be fully equipped to address the needs of the disabled. In May the city of Russe received with foreign assistance two vehicles for use in transporting disabled persons. Recent public works have taken the needs of persons with disabilities into account. In July one of Sofia's main arteries underwent construction to add ramp access to sidewalks. Sofia's new subway system also was designed with wheelchair access to stations. Nevertheless, enforcement of a 1995 law requiring improved structural access for the disabled has lagged in existing, unrenovated buildings.

Policies and public attitudes prevalent during the Communist era, which separated mentally and physically disabled persons, including very young children, from the rest of society have persisted. Some complain that the effective segregation of disabled children into special schools has lowered the quality of their education. However, in a recent positive development, construction of a training and rehabilitation center for disabled youth in Pomorie began in September. The center aims to improve the overall physical and intellectual state of disabled youth and to encourage them to acquire new skills and participate more actively in the social life of the country.

Religious Minorities

Discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of "nontraditional" religious minorities (i.e., the great majority of Protestant Christian religions) remained a problem, although the number of reported incidents decreased during the year. Strongly held suspicion of evangelical denominations among the Orthodox populace is widespread and pervasive across the political spectrum and has resulted in discrimination. Often cloaked in a veneer of "patriotism," intolerance of the religious beliefs of others enjoys widespread popularity. Such mainstream public pressure for containment of "foreign religious sects" inevitably influences policymakers. Nevertheless, there were fewer reported incidents of harassment of religious groups during the year as society appeared to have become more accepting of previously unfamiliar religions.

Certain religions, including both groups denied registration and those officially registered, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, faced discriminatory practices (see Section 2.c.), as did other groups, which, despite full compliance with the law, were greeted with hostility by the press, segments of the public, and certain government officials.

Non-Orthodox religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of God, and the Emmanuel Bible Center, have been affected adversely by societal attitudes. Numerous articles in a broad range of newspapers as well as television documentaries, drew lurid and inaccurate pictures of the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups, attributing the breakup of families and drug abuse by youths to the practices of these groups and alleging that evangelicals were drugging young children.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic Turks constitute almost 10 percent of the population. In the 1992 census, 3.7 percent of the population identified itself as Romani; however, the real figure probably is closer to 6 or 7 percent, since many persons of Romani descent tend to identify themselves to the authorities as ethnic Turks or Bulgarians. Ethnic Bulgarian Muslims or "Pomaks" are a distinct group of Slavic descent, constituting 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 back to Christianity. These are the country's largest minorities. There are no restrictions on speaking 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 optional language classes in areas with large concentrations of Muslims. The Ministry of Education has estimated that approximately 40,000 children now study Turkish. Some ethnic Turkish leaders, mainly in the MRF, demanded that Turkish-language classes be made compulsory in areas with significant ethnic Turkish populations, but the Government has resisted this effort.

In May representatives of the MRF and mayors in the Kurdzhali region called for the region's governor, Plamen Ivanov, to be dismissed for his reported threats against some Turkish mayors in the region. The representatives and mayors believed that Ivanov's actions would cause ethnic tensions in the region to escalate. Prime Minister Kostov launched an investigation into the complaints against Ivanov.

Cooperation among Romani groups generally improved following agreement on the new government Program for Social Integration of Roma, adopted in April. Under the plan the Government created Roma Expert Committees, under the rubric of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues. The Committees consist of Roma representatives appointed by the various Romani NGO's which are members of the Council. The Committees (Discrimination, Media, Social Policy, Housing, Education, Health, Culture, and Economy) are to work with their counterpart Ministries of the Government to implement the program. The Discrimination Committee is the centerpiece of the new effort. The Discrimination Committee is to study EU countries' experience in antidiscrimination legislation and practice, after which it is to propose changes in the Penal Code, the Penal Procedure Code, and law enforcement regulations. Eventually, the Discrimination Committee is to become a permanent legislative branch agency, designed to review legislation for discriminatory provisions. It also is to be empowered to impose sanctions against discriminatory practices in the country and is to have regional offices in each of the country's 28 administrative districts. However, the Government has not implemented any of the legislation required to enact the program.

Attacks by private citizens on Roma continued. On January 16, several assailants beat Rom Blago Atanassov from Ghelemenko, and he died later as a result of his injuries. The district prosecutor in Pazardjik opened an investigation into the incident, which led to an indictment against the suspected perpetrators. The case did not go to trial by year's end. On June 15, four teenage boys were involved in the beating death of a 33-year-old Romani beggar, Nadezhda Dimitrova. The Sofia city prosecutor's office launched an investigation into the murder, but there were no results at year's end. The boys are not known to have any connection to organized hate groups.

In February 16-year-old Rom Nikolai Georgiev was shot while trespassing with several other children on private property in an affluent neighborhood near Sliven. Accounts differ about whether the children were caught in the act of theft or merely seeking shelter from inclement weather. Georgiev was shot in the leg, either by the homeowner or a security guard, and later bled to death before receiving any medical assistance. The case is currently under investigation.

Police harass, physically abuse, and arbitrarily arrest Romani street children (see Sections 1.c. and 1.d.). There was one arrest in the 1998 attack on eight Romani boys by skinheads in Sofia. Little progress has been made in other cases of violence against Roma during previous years, and these largely remain in the investigatory phase.

As individuals and as an ethnic group, Roma faced high levels of discrimination. The Romani population clearly occupies the bottom rung of society. Roma encounter difficulties applying for social benefits, and rural Roma are discouraged by local officials 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. For example, the country has 34 all-Roma schools; according to one estimate, only one-half of all students at these schools attend class regularly and only about 10 percent successfully graduate. The Government has been largely unsuccessful in attracting and keeping many Romani children in school. Many Romani children arrive relatively unprepared for schooling; many of them are not proficient in the Bulgarian language. Poverty has led to widespread school truancy as many children in Romani ghettos cannot afford shoes or basic school supplies and instead turn to begging, prostitution, and petty crime on the streets. Lack of effective government infrastructure and programs and economic and social factors thus combine to deprive increasing numbers of Romani youths of an education and a better future. Early indications are that some recent initiatives undertaken by the Government and by Romani NGO's are achieving some small successes in mitigating these problems, for example by providing free lunches and subsidizing textbook and tuition costs.

Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem, especially for Roma. Employers justify such discrimination on the basis that most Roma have only elementary training and little education.

Previously it had been common for ethnic Turkish and Romani conscripts to be shunted into military construction battalions during compulsory military service. This practice raised serious concerns both of discrimination and forced labor, particularly since the units sometimes accepted commercial construction contracts in addition to military construction projects. However, late in the year, the Government carried through on its commitment to abolish the construction battalions and eliminated this problem. There are only a few ethnic Turkish, Pomak, and Romani officers in the military, and an insignificant number of high-ranking officers of the Muslim faith.

Ethnic Turkish politicians maintain that, although their community's popularly-elected representation in the National Assembly is roughly commensurate with its size, ethnic Turks are underrepresented significantly in appointed positions in the state administration.

Several thousand persons, mainly in the southwest, identify themselves as ethnic Macedonians, most for historical and geographic reasons. Members of the two organizations that purport to defend their interests, OMO-Ilinden and TMO-Ilinden, are believed to number in the hundreds (see Section 2.b.). The Government does not recognize Macedonians as a distinct ethnic group, and the group is not enumerated in official government statistics.

Section 6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

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

The two largest trade union confederations are the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB) and Podkrepa, which together represent the overwhelming majority of organized workers. The Government does not control the CITUB, the successor to the trade union controlled by the former Communist regime. Podkrepa, an independent confederation created in 1989, was one of the earliest opposition forces but is no longer a member of the UDF, formerly the main opposition party, now in the Government. Following legislative changes in 1998, which mandated a census of the labor force and created minimum qualifications for labor union recognition, none of the other, much smaller labor organizations which previously had been represented in the National Tripartite Coordination Council were able to qualify. Other labor organizations retain the prospect of future recognition if they succeed in attracting more members and expanding their institutional structures.

Doctors, dentists, and some unions expressed dissatisfaction with a new union structure that they claim the Government imposed upon them in 1998, an action which some maintain violates an ILO convention.

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 (primarily the military and the police) also are subject to a blanket prohibition against striking, although such workers on occasion held an "effective strike" in which they stop or slow their activities for 1 or 2 hours.

On most occasions, the Government generally does not interfere with legal labor strikes, and several work stoppages took place.

On May 27, thousands of workers from the metalworking, machine building, and arms industries marched through Sofia to protest factory closures and the falling standard of living. In December workers from the VMZ arms plant in Sopot blocked the road between Sofia and Bourgas to protest wage arrears and management's plans to lay off one-third of its workers.

The Podkrepa labor union has complained that an amendment to a 1990 law, passed in March 1998, facilitated the Government's ability to declare a strike illegal. Under this new amendment, workers no longer have the right to appeal when a strike is declared illegal. Podkrepa maintains that this provision is unconstitutional and violates an ILO convention.

The Labor Code's prohibitions against antiunion discrimination include a 6-month period for redress against dismissal as a form of retribution. However, 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.

No restrictions limit 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, regionally, and on the 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 tactics without going on strike. Labor unions have complained that while the legal structure for collective bargaining was adequate, many employers failed to bargain in good faith or to adhere to agreements that were concluded. Labor observers viewed the Government's enforcement of labor contracts as inadequate.

In several instances an employer was found guilty of antiunion discrimination, but the employers appealed the decisions. The backlog of cases in the legal system delayed further action, effectively postponing, perhaps indefinitely, redress of workers' grievances.

The same obligation of collective bargaining and adherence to labor standards prevails in the six 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, including that performed by children; however, trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of forced prostitution is a problem (see Section 6.f.). There also have been other reports of such practices. In 1997 the BHC issued a report on the use of forced child labor to make articles for sale at the Slavovitsa Boys' Reform School. An investigation by the Ministry of Education into this practice is under way. Many observers had argued that the previous practice of shunting minority and conscientious objector military draftees into work units that often carried out commercial construction and maintenance projects was a form of compulsory labor; however, the Government abolished these construction battalions late in the year (see Sections 2.c. and 5).

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Labor Code sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years; the minimum age for dangerous work is set at 18. Employers and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) are responsible for enforcing these provisions. Child labor laws are enforced well in the formal sector, but some observers believe that children increasingly are exploited in certain industries (especially small family-owned shops, family farms, construction, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution and distribution of narcotics). According to a survey conducted by the MLSP in 1998, more than 50,000 children under the age of 16 are believed to be employed illegally in the country. Dr. Zhelyasko Hristov, president of the CITUB labor union, estimated the total number of illegally employed children as at least twice that number. In April the first-ever fine was imposed on an employer of illegal child labor. Underage employment in the informal and agricultural sectors is believed to be increasing as collective farms are broken up and the private sector continues to grow. In addition, children are known to work on family-owned tobacco farms, and local NGO's reported children working on nonfamily-owned farms for meager monetary or in-kind wages (e.g., food).

Forced and bonded labor by children also is forbidden by law; however, trafficking in young girls for the purpose of forced prostitution is a problem, and there also have been other reports of its use (see Section 6.c. and 6.f.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly minimum wage is approximately $37 (Lev 67), which is not enough to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Nonpayment of wages and wage payments in arrears continue to be a problem with certain employers, although the Government has declared the amelioration of this problem a top priority. The Constitution stipulates the right to social security and welfare aid assistance for the temporarily unemployed, although in practice such assistance is often late.

The Labor Code provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours with at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The MLSP is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. Enforcement generally is 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 MLSP is responsible for enforcing these provisions. Conditions in many cases worsened due to budget stringencies and a growing private sector that labor inspectors do not yet supervise effectively. Protective clothing is often absent from hazardous areas (goggles for welders, helmets for construction workers, etc.), since employers often imply that payment for such measures would have to be deducted from the overall budget used to pay workers' wages. The overall standard of living of workers stabilized in 1998 after suffering a severe downturn during the economic crisis of late 1996 and early 1997. The pervasive economic crisis and imminent, long-overdue privatizations continue to create a heightened fear of unemployment, leading to a reluctance on the part of workers to pursue wage and safety demands. In a positive sign, new legislation passed in during the year mandated that employers set up joint employer/labor health and safety committees to monitor workplace conditions. These committees are starting to be organized at many workplaces. The effectiveness of these committees is not yet apparent.

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. However, in practice refusal to work in situations with relatively high accident rates or associated chronic health problems would result in the loss of employment for many workers.

f. Trafficking in Persons

In 1997 the Government enacted a law against trafficking in women; however, trafficking in women and girls is a serious problem. A 1997 amendment to the Penal Code on trafficking in women introduced longer prison sentences (to existing kidnaping penalties already in force) in those cases where the victim is under 18 years of age, is offered to another person for sexual abuse, or is trafficked abroad for sexual abuse. However, no suspected traffickers have been brought to trial, possibly because victims are afraid to confront their former criminal controllers when there are no government-sponsored programs to assist or protect victims of trafficking. Some judges and prosecutors also report that they feared reprisals from organized crime figures. The Government created two police units specifically to address the problem of trafficking in persons. One is part of the border police and the other is in the Ministry of Interior's organized crime fighting agency. High-level Ministry of Interior officials cooperated closely with foreign governments and the International Organization for Migration to support a research project and information campaign to combat trafficking.

La Strada, a Netherlands-based NGO, reports that Bulgarian women constitute one of the largest groups of victims of forced prostitution in Western and Central Europe. Approximately 10,000 Bulgarian women currently may be involved in international trafficking operations. This is a very lucrative business for Bulgarian criminal organizations, and there have been unconfirmed reports of local or police involvement in trafficking in some areas. Victims of trafficking range from those who were duped into the belief that they would have good and respectable employment, to those who expected to work as prostitutes but were unprepared for the degree of violence and exploitation to which they would be subjected. A factor contributing to the high number of trafficking victims from the country is the high unemployment rate among young women who face limited opportunities in a relatively patriarchal society. Furthermore, because it may be very difficult for young women to obtain visas to work in Western Europe, false job agencies that promise to simplify the process can be very successful in luring trafficking victims. The process of transforming girls into prostitutes generally takes place before they even leave the country. The women typically are taken to a large town, isolated, beaten, and subjected to severe physical and psychological torture. Some trafficking victims from countries to the east are kept in Bulgaria for several weeks where they are subjected to psychological and physical abuse to make them more submissive before they are shipped to their destination points. Once the women leave the country, their identity documents are taken away, and they find themselves forced to work as prostitutes in cities across Europe. Victims report that traffickers took away their passports and visas, forced them to stay illegally in countries, and made them more vulnerable to prosecution in foreign countries. The women may be required to pay back heavy financial debts to the agency that helped them depart the country, leaving them in virtual indentured servitude. Traffickers punish women severely for acts of disobedience. Some victims have returned to the country with numbers branded into their skin. Traffickers also use threats against the women's families and family reputations to ensure obedience. According to some reports, some 3,500 women are trafficked to Poland, thousands to the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, while others are trafficked to Germany, Belgium, Canada, Serbia-Montenegro, Romania, Hungary, FYROM, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. The northeast and southwest border regions are where most trafficking occurs, since women are sent more easily to former Socialist countries with less strict visa requirements. In 1998 Polish authorities deported 44 women, who were working as prostitutes, most from Bulgaria. In Poland there is a growing market for young girls, as young as 12 or 13 years old, due to the perception that younger prostitutes are less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases. Commonly girls are given 15 condoms at the start of the day and told to make use of all of them before returning. At a rate of $10 (40 PLN) per sexual encounter, the girls are expected to bring back $150 (600 PLN). If they do not, they are beaten and sent out again the next day. Women reportedly have been trafficked into Bulgaria from the former Soviet Union and FYROM, also for forced prostitution. The country is also a transit point for traffickers bringing women to Greece.

The AA reported 59 cases of trafficking in women during the year.

Technical and bureaucratic obstacles hamper governmental assistance to female victims of violence. Many victims of trafficking and forced prostitution are too young to have worked previously; the lack of previous work experience disqualifies them from receiving social security assistance. If they are runaways with no registered address to which they can return, they are ineligible for humanitarian assistance. Victims are not encouraged to file complaints, as there is no mechanism in place to protect witnesses. Furthermore, societal attitudes and prevailing moral stigmas tend to ensure that their situation is either unmentioned or criticized. There is one NGO-sponsored 24-hour hot line for women in crisis, including victims of trafficking, with trained volunteers as well as professional therapists to counsel victims. The NGO also coordinates with government agencies and other NGO's to find assistance for trafficking victims.

During the year the Government showed encouraging signs of taking this problem more seriously by confronting it in a multiagency effort, but this campaign remained in its early stages at year's end.

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