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Bulgarian prosecutor refuses far-right party's request to close down human rights NGO

The seat of VMRO-BND in the center of Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Bulgaria's chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov refused a request by far-right nationalist party VMRO-BND to shut down the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a leading human rights NGO in the country.

On September 30, Angel Dzhambazki, deputy chairman of VMRO-BND and member of the European Parliament, and Alexander Sidi, a Bulgarian MP, filed an official request with the prosecutor to dissolve the BHC for “interfering with the judiciary” and engaging in “anti-constitutional, illegal, immoral and openly anti-Bulgarian activities,” a party press release said.

In a statement dated October 8, 2019, Tsatsarov said that BHC's statute doesn't include any forbidden activity by Bulgarian laws. A story by the popular private  Nova Television said:

Главният прокурор може да поиска заличаване на неправителствена организация, само при данни, че тя е свързана с терористична дейност или финансиране на такава, уточняват от обвинението.

The prosecutor-general may request removal of a non-governmental organization [from the official registry of NGOs] only if available evidence suggests that it has links to terrorist activities or financing of terrorist activity, his office explained.

VMRO-BND's officials said they will start legal proceedings to reverse the prosecutor's decision.

More than 100 organizations have expressed support for the BHC, among them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. On October 7, Dzhambazki, who was an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in Sofia in elections held on October 27, stated on a TV interview that “more organizations spoke out, about a hundred. I think all of them needed to be closed down as well.”

Jock Palfreeman's case

VMRO's request to de-register the BHC came after a high court granted parole to Jock Palfreeman, a 32-year-old Australian citizen who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing a Bulgarian student during a brawl in Sofia, in 2007. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee provided legal aid to Palfreeman, who has served 11 years of his sentence and maintains he has acted in self-defense.

Since his arrest, the case has been a polarizing issue in Bulgaria. VMRO-BND claims the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has influenced the outcome of the case because the judges involved had attended human rights workshops organized by the NGO. After Palfreeman was given parole in September, nationalist far-right organizations have staged a series of street protests in reprisal.

BHC President Krasimir Kanev says that the NGO's activities consist of advocating for human rights in prisons and that has been misconstrued by VMRO's leaders as the same as shielding criminals from the law.

In the meantime, while Palfreeman's parole included an order of deportation to Australia, he has been detained in a Sofia immigration detention center since his release on September 19. On a statement dated October 8, Human Rights Watch demanded Bulgarian authorities to clarify the basis of his detention:

“Palfreeman was ordered released by a high court in a final decision not subject to appeal. He has his passport and plane ticket. Australia wants him back. Why is he still detained?” said Lydia Gall, senior Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Under the rule of law, you can’t just lock people up or prevent them from leaving just to make a point – there has to be a clear legal basis or it’s unlawful.”

VMRO-BND is allegedly one of the wealthiest political parties in Bulgaria, owning prime real-estate obtained with the help of the state in the 1990s. In 2014, it joined a coalition of nationalist parties called the Patriotic Front and, in 2017, that coalition joined the current Bulgarian government led by the center-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

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