Radosveta Vassileva – How to Harass Inconvenient Opponents of the Government: Bulgaria’s Playbook

Eastern Europeans are learning the hard way that the EU is not interested in supporting democracy in their nations – just the trappings.

Radosveta Vassileva is a Visiting Research Fellow at Middlesex University. She holds a PhD in Law from University College London where she also served as a Teaching Fellow

Cross-posted from Radosveta Vassileva’s personal blog

File:Boyko Borissov, Angela Merkel at Sofia Tech Park ahead of the EU leaders' informal dinner (41432169244).jpg

Since a Twitter thread I started to draw attention to this dreadful topic attracted interest, I think it is time for a more detailed guide to understanding the mechanisms of harassing inconvenient opponents, which Bulgaria’s government traditionally employs.

Bulgaria has a long, sad history of framing people who are inconvenient for some reason – prosecutors, judges, businessmen who do not support the government, journalists who do not portray the government in the light it wants, civil servants who refuse to follow ludicrous political orders, etc. Unsurprisingly, it has lost hundreds of cases before the European Court of Human Rights because of violations of the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. The practice, however, seems to have intensified in the past five years under the nose of the EU Commission, which is supposed to monitor Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

Here is a prototypical scenario:

  1. Fabricate charges – false witness statements work best:
    • A common strategy includes starting an investigation based on anonymous witness statements – these could be invented by investigators themselves.
    • Fake witnesses on call – the key witnesses in several high profile cases at the moment are the same.
    • Sometimes authorities attempt forcing people to provide false witness statements by threatening and harassing them. A recent example includes the proceedings against the mayors of Mladost where the investigators told the deputy mayor that she would become “a corpse” if she did not testify against the mayor. In another case I follow closely, a person was told they would be accused of treason if they did not give the statements the prosecution wanted.
  2. The charges can be absurd – this is not a problem. People have been arrested for murders, which never took place, based on false witness statements. See my article “Spectacular Televised Arrests, Media Trials, and Abuse of Process: The Presumption of Guilt in Bulgaria.”
  3. Invent evidence if the false statements are insufficient: fake documents, forge signatures, etc.
  4. Raise the charges, so the person acquires the status of “accused.” In Bulgaria, the raising of charges is not subjected to judicial oversight. It is the only country in the EU to have this practice. Moreover, the prosecution has an entirely vertical structure with no checks and balances, so you can become accused upon the unilateral decision of the General Prosecutor who is politically dependent.
  5. Arrest the person based on these charges and put them in custody (pre-trial detention) for as long as possible. Bulgaria is notorious for its horrifying prison conditions. See my article “Hell Is Closer than the EU Thinks: On Torture and Other Human Rights Abuses in Bulgarian Custodial and Detention Facilities.”
  6. Make the arrest “spectacular”! Invite TV stations, raid the home or the office of the opponent, etc. Organize a press conference for all media, which could not film the arrest, and distribute any visual material to the general public. Distribution of random pictures of the opponent’s house or office is encouraged too, especially if it is not related to the criminal proceedings – show their laundry, etc.
  7. Assert the person’s guilt repeatedly in public in violation of the presumption of innocence – in the words of the General Prosecutor, “only the GUILTY ones become ACCUSED.” See my article “Spectacular Televised Arrests, Media Trials, and Abuse of Process: The Presumption of Guilt in Bulgaria.” 
  8. Organize a media trial: pro-government media, which work closely with the prosecution, may publish tarnishing articles with false information about the person, opinions of fake experts, interviews with neighbors the person never met, etc. on a daily/weekly basis. These articles serve a dual purpose – they lynch the opponent in public and they may also be used as “proof” in court at a later stage.
  9. Select the “right” judges, so that the person cannot get out of custody. The usual argument, which the prosecution uses – the person can influence the criminal proceedings if they are not in custody, they may escape the country, etc. This is all based on a presumption of guilt and bad intent on the part of the opponent, without any proof.
  10. Create extraordinary tribunals. It is important to explain that since its entry into the EU, Bulgaria created extraordinary courts – the Specialized Criminal Court and the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal – which have the features of extraordinary tribunals. They are subjected to the prosecution and satisfy all its whims. Latest evidence? When Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Cassation decided to carry out an investigation into administrative malpractice of the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal, the Prosecutor’s Office publicly instructed the court not to cooperate.
  11. Torture the person/subject them to degrading treatment. The purpose is to force them to plead guilty to something they have not done.
  12. In parallel, start threatening and racketeering the person’s family. If they continue to fight to defend their close ones, fabricate charges against them and put them in custody, too. If they are abroad, put them on Interpol’s list. See my article “On How Bulgaria’s Corrupt Authorities Abuse Interpol’s Red Notice for Violent Political Vendettas.”
  13. Harass/wiretap/accuse/arrest the person’s lawyer. Raid their law firm and confiscate documents. Destroy all documents, which are inconvenient for you. This is all illegal under the Law on Advocacy and the European Convention on Human Rights. Bulgaria has lost cases on these facts before the European Court of Human Rights, but the prosecution does not care. See Stefanov v Bulgaria.
  14. Confiscate the person’s property and the funds in their bank accounts as well as the property of their relatives. You read right: confiscate, not freeze. Bulgaria enacted aggressive legislation, which allows confiscation solely based on an accusation. Even though the person has not had the chance to defend themselves in court, they are treated as if they have a guilty verdict.
  15. Harass/accuse anyone raising concern about these abuses – friends, relatives, journalists, supporters, etc.
  16. If possible, organize mysterious accidents in custodysome people commit suicide, others have heart attacks. These are not investigated because they are treated as non-suspicious deaths.
  17. If, for some reason, you cannot control the judicial panel, and the person is released from custody when they appeal their mandatory measure for the 100th time, organize an accident out of custody. For a horror story, read Kolevi v Bulgaria. The “enemy” (prosecutor Kolev who found irregularities in the work of the General Prosecutor) was shot with a machine gun in the center of Sofia. Such accidents are not properly investigated either – the Council of Europe has been calling for a fresh investigation in the brutal murder of prosecutor Kolev for 10 years to no avail.
  18. Delay indictment for as long as you want – under Bulgarian law, you can have the status of “accused” forever. However, unless you are indicted, you cannot defend yourself in court, so the prosecution keeps you accused forever.
  19. Enact laws intuitu personae – while taking the time to prepare the indictment, amend any laws/implement new laws you deem necessary. If a crime does not exist, create it and apply the law retroactively. Submit an indictment which has nothing to do with the initial accusation if necessary.
  20. Amend the rules on criminal procedure: change the rules of criminal procedure to make it impossible for the opponent to challenge procedural violations.
  21. Ignore EU legislation: Not only Articles 47 and 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights do not exist for Bulgarian authorities, but also they refuse to transpose Directives, which ensure the equality of arms in criminal proceedings such as Directive 2013/48/EU on the right to a lawyer and Directive 2016/343 on the presumption of innocence. A judge was attacked by the government because they dared make a preliminary reference before the Court of Justice of the European Union.
  22. Harass investigators/prosecutors/judges who refuse to follow the political orders in these “proceedings”: send them the tax authorities, initiate disciplinary proceedings, etc. For a recent example, take a look at what happened to an investigator who raised concern about political persecutions organized by the prosecution.
  23. Don’t forget to promote the investigators and the prosecutors who did the dirty work!
  24. Blame the court: If the opponent is lucky and their case is distributed to an independent judge who declares them innocent, attack the court. “The prosecution catches them, the court releases them.”
  25. No big deal! If, for some miraculous reason, the opponent survives and/or wins a case against Bulgaria before the European Court of Human Rights, act nonchalant. “Many countries have lost cases before the ECHR” – this is the usual comment by authorities. The difference is that Bulgaria is tiny and has already lost hundreds of cases…See the latest Annual Report by the European Court of Human Rights.

Bear in mind that all these abuses are possible because EU institutions are wide asleep. They want a quiet East front: autocracy does not bother them at all.

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