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Bulgaria

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, there were reports that authorities at times abused their arrest and detention authority. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law provides that police normally must obtain a warrant prior to apprehending an individual. Police may hold a detainee for 24 hours without charge, and a prosecutor may authorize an additional 72 hours. A court must approve detention longer than the additional 72 hours. The law prohibits holding detainees in custody without indictment for more than two months if they are charged with misdemeanors. Detainees charged with felonies may be held without indictment for eight months, while persons suspected of crimes punishable by at least 15 years’ imprisonment may be held up to 18 months without indictment. Prosecutors may not arrest military personnel without the defense minister’s approval. Authorities generally observed these laws.

The law provides for release on personal recognizance, bail, and house arrest, and these measures were widely used.

The law provides for the right to counsel from the time of detention. Regulations require detainees to have access to legal counsel no later than two hours after detention and for lawyers to have access to the detainee within 30 minutes of his or her arrival at a police station. The law provides for government-funded legal aid for low-income defendants, who could choose from a list of public defenders provided by the bar associations. A national hotline provides free legal consultations eight hours per day.

In July the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that provisions in the police registration regulations allowing police to obtain a court order for involuntary photographing, fingerprinting, and DNA sampling of a person charged with a felony are unconstitutional. The ruling asserted that courts usually rubber-stamped such requests without review and without the involved person’s ability to participate, defend themselves, and appeal the decision. The Supreme Administrative Court requested the Constitutional Court repeal the provisions. As of December, the case was pending.

Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary detention. In September Sofia regional court judge Miroslav Petrov petitioned the Court of Justice of the European Union concerning the law enforcement practice of providing only basic information in arrest warrants and then relying on the court to allow the admission of additional details during the courtroom proceedings, a procedure he considered violated the right to effective defense.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but corruption, inefficiency, and lack of accountability were pervasive problems. Public trust in the judicial system remained low because of the perception that magistrates were susceptible to political pressure and rendered unequal justice.

According to the European Commission’s Rule of Law Report released on July 20, “[t]he level of perceived judicial independence [in the country] remains low,” with 31 percent of citizens and 43 percent of businesses considering it to be “fairly or very good.” The report noted that the combination of the prosecutor general’s powers and position within the Supreme Judicial Council, the judicial self-governance body, “results in a considerable influence within the prosecution service, the Supreme Judicial Council, and within the magistracy.” The report expressed concern with the “absence of judicial review against a decision by a prosecutor not to open an investigation.”

Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. According to human rights organizations, the law has low standards for a fair trial, creating possibilities for the violation of lawyers’ and defendants’ procedural rights.

The law presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them. They have the right to a timely trial, but long delays affected the delivery of justice in criminal procedures. All court hearings are public except for cases involving national security, endangering public morals, and affecting the privacy of juvenile defendants. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and can demand a retrial if convicted in absentia unless they were evading justice at the time of the first trial. In October the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the ombudsman’s petition and declared unconstitutional provisions in the penal procedure code that entered into force on July 1 and allowed courts to decide on custodial measures with virtual participation of the defendants. The ombudsman challenged the provisions in June, asserting that they violate the rights of accused persons to defend themselves adequately.

The constitution and the law give defendants the right to an attorney, provided at public expense for those who cannot afford one. A defense attorney is mandatory if the alleged crime carries a possible punishment of 10 or more years in prison; if the defendant is a juvenile, foreigner, or person with mental or physical disabilities; or if the accused is absent. Defendants have the right to ample time and facilities to prepare a defense. They have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment they are charged through all appeals. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses, examine evidence, and present their own witnesses and evidence. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law provides for the right of appeal, which was widely used.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law allows individuals to seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through domestic courts or through the Commission for Protection against Discrimination. The government investigated complaints of discrimination, issued rulings, and imposed sanctions on violators. After all remedies in domestic courts are exhausted, individuals can appeal decisions involving alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by the state to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Property Seizure and Restitution

While the government has no laws specific to Holocaust-era property restitution, there are laws and mechanisms to address communist-era real estate claims (not including moveable property), including by foreign citizens. These laws were applied to cover Holocaust-related claims. All cases have long been closed.

The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website at: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, an ineffective and corrupt judiciary, and nontransparent government regulation of resources meant to support media (including EU funds), gravely damaged media pluralism. In April Amnesty International stated in its Report on the State of the Worlds Human Rights that “[m]edia freedom continued to deteriorate, with journalists who investigated organized crime and corruption facing intense political and prosecutorial pressure in the form of threats and intimidation.” In September Reporters without Borders (known by its French abbreviation, RSF) stated that the media environment was marked by “physical attacks and smear campaigns against journalists; impunity for crimes of violence against reporters and judicial harassment; public media bias, especially in the run-up to elections; corruption, disinformation, and lack of transparency about media ownership; media pluralism threatened by ownership concentration; and bias and opaqueness in the distribution of state aid to the media, to the detriment of independent media outlets.”

In July the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom issued a report that identified significant risks to media pluralism. The report also listed serious problems with independence and sustainability for the local and regional media and problematic access to media for minorities, women, and persons with disabilities.

According to the BHC, freedom of expression “further deteriorated,” marked by “record low levels of independent funding and trust in media,” which has turned independent media into “easy prey for owners who have either political or economic connections with the government” and who can determine and steer the public discourse.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal. The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for use of and incitement to “hate speech,” defined as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, social status, or disability.

According to RSF, “[t]he few outspoken journalists are constantly subjected not only to smear campaigns and harassment by the state, but also to intimidation and violence.” In its 2020 annual report presented in May, the BHC expressed “alarm” at “attempts by the state to conceal facts through repression as well as its blatant refusal to investigate and punish attacks on journalists.” In June investigative journalist Venelina Popova complained publicly that police had questioned her on how she devised topics for her political commentaries and collected information. Popova had been called to an interview as a witness in a vote-buying investigation, following up on her investigative report on the subject matter published in Dnevnik in April. Instead, police expressed interest in her March publication in Toest concerning businessman and newly re-elected National Assembly member Delyan Peevski. Popova noted she had written about Peevski before and alleged that the police interview was an attempt to intimidate her because she had dared to “write about those that are untouchable by justice and possess huge power and financial resources.”

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. According to the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, there were “no regulatory or self-regulatory safeguards against commercial influence over decisions regarding appointments and dismissals of editors-in-chief” and despite “some legal and self-regulatory provisions against … interference in the production of media content, in practice commercial pressure over many news outlets persists, while journalistic and advertising contents are often intertwined.” Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency in their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives. Despite the legal requirement for media ownership disclosure, many outlets did not comply, and media ownership information was not entirely publicly available.

Independent media outlets were subject to open attacks from politicians at all levels and from administrative and judicial pressure. In May the former director of publicly funded Bulgarian National Radio, Andon Baltakov, said in a print interview the law favored political interference in the management of the media through controlled funding and accused the former government of harassment through deliberate budget cuts. RSF stated in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index that “politicians and oligarchs maintain relations marked by corruption and conflicts of interest in the progovernment media. Delyan Peevski, the oligarch who was the most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs, has sold his media outlets but his influence over the media continues to be problematic.”

Violence and Harassment: The BHC reported in May that “inconvenient” journalists suffered offenses, restrictions, and physical attacks by the authorities. According to RSF, “[j]ournalists are often summoned and questioned by police about their work” and “no one is interested in investigating or condemning violence against journalists.”

In February the specialized criminal court began trial proceedings against brothers Georgi and Nikola Asenov and Biser Mitrev for attacking and severely beating prominent investigative journalist and chief editor of the 168 Chasa weekly, Slavi Angelov, in March 2020. As of December the trial was ongoing, and the three defendants were out on bail.

In February district prosecutors in Silistra dropped the investigation against local activist and freelance journalist Dimitar Petsov, charged with possession and distribution of illegal drugs, acknowledging that the drugs had been planted in his car. In May 2020 police stopped Petsov, who had then recently investigated donations to the police and made him drive with them to the police precinct where they searched his car and claimed to have found drugs.

In May the private national broadcaster bTV issued a declaration expressing strong concern over the media environment in the country because “officials from every government keep having no problems attacking publicly journalists … with unfounded allegations.” This was in response to caretaker interior minister Boyko Rashkov’s statement on Bulgarian National Radio on May 17 concerning an interview he gave earlier on bTV, that if he were the owner, he would “remove” journalists Bilyana Gavazova and Zlatimir Yovchev who had interviewed him.

In September the caretaker Ministry of Interior sent a letter to the Association of European Journalists and the Anticorruption Fund which admitted that a repeat internal investigation found that police had applied undue violence, used handcuffs, and illegally arrested journalist Dimitar Kenarov while he was covering an antigovernment protest in September 2020. The letter also noted that the ministry referred the case to the regional prosecution service in Sofia. In January a Sofia city prosecutor refused to open a formal investigation based on a Sofia police internal investigation that had found no evidence of illegal use of force against Kenarov, despite his visible wounds and multiple witness statements.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists reported editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders with the implied support of the government.

The final report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to observe the April 4 National Assembly elections concluded that “judicial pressure and intimidation of investigative journalists” and “lack of full investigation of attacks against journalists” contributed to an “atmosphere of fear and impunity” and “widespread self-censorship.” The report also concluded that “public television mostly refrained from covering the contestants in the news and offered significant and extensive coverage of government officials. The limited editorial and news coverage, and the absence of investigative or analytical reporting, combined with paid-for political advertising portrayed as news, detracted from the ability of voters to make an informed choice.”

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine and public censure. According to a survey by the Association of European Journalists in October 2020, 49 percent of journalists viewed slander accusations and lawsuits against their publications as a major source of harassment against their work.

In May the Association of European Journalists stated that investigative journalist Nikolay Stoyanov had been subjected to “judicial harassment” in connection with three lawsuits filed against him for his articles on the former director of the Bulgarian Development Bank, Stoyan Mavrodiev. The association alleged the lawsuits were a “coordinated attack that will cost Stoyanov resources to defend himself and hinder his work.”

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports, however, that the government exceeded its legal authority in monitoring private online communications, and that security services routinely questioned individuals about their social media behavior.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

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

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention. The BHC stated that border authorities had no mechanisms to distinguish between migrants and refugees and expressed concern that 19 percent of the persons who filed applications for international protection at the border were prosecuted and convicted for illegal entry. The BHC accused the State Agency for Refugees of refusing registration to asylum seekers who showed up at refugee reception centers and instead calling police to detain them. The agency disagreed, noting some individuals were sent to a migrant detention center due to lack of space in the refugee reception centers’ COVID-19 quarantine section.

Refoulement: Organizations noted several instances when Bulgarian authorities pushed back would-be migrants and asylum seekers (see next section).

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: UNHCR reported increased cases of “pushback” violence, robbery, and humiliating practices against migrants and asylum seekers along the border with Turkey. As of December 5, the Ministry of Interior reported 50,779 attempts to enter the country irregularly across the border during which border authorities detained 2,349 persons. On September 2, the caretaker interior minister stated at a hearing in the National Assembly that “approximately 200 migrants were pushed back last night at the border and 10 to 15 were detained.” The BHC alleged that the government only detained migrants and asylum seekers when their detention could not be avoided, such as in NGO-monitored areas as well as on trains, but otherwise pushed back everyone else.

Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center accommodating them is located. The restriction is valid until the protection status determination process is completed.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers had access to state-sponsored school education, health care, and language instruction. Banks refused to open accounts for refugees, which impeded their ability to obtain legal jobs and receive benefits. The law authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, but not subsidiary protection holders (persons seeking asylum who do not qualify as refugees), specifying the services they will receive – housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance – as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. NGOs claimed the government made inconsistent efforts to integrate refugees. A project called Together for Integration, implemented by the Sofia districts of Vitosha and Oborishte, the Bulgarian Red Cross, and the Nadja Center Foundation, worked to support the integration of 12 refugee families. According to the head of the Vitosha District’s Education, Social Activities, Culture, Sports, and Logistics Department, Milena Madjirska, as of January the district had concluded integration agreements with 13 families, none of which subsequently remained in the country longer than seven to eight months.

A safety zone for unaccompanied children seeking asylum was available at two reception centers in Sofia to provide 24-hour care and specialized services in an environment adapted to their needs.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and relocation, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. As of the end of the year, authorities had relocated 11 unaccompanied refugee children from Greece as part of the country’s commitment to accept 70 unaccompanied children.

Temporary Protection: The Council of Ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provides humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, doing so for 1,493 persons as of November.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials in all branches of government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

In March the government adopted a new national strategy and roadmap on preventing and combating corruption for the period 2021-27, with a focus on combating high-level corruption. The government simultaneously adopted a report on the implementation of the preceding five-year anticorruption strategy, stating it had achieved its main goal to build stronger anticorruption capacity in the country. In September the caretaker government updated the roadmap for implementing the new strategy, acknowledging corruption at all levels and adding a focus on reducing corruption at the local level. NGOs alleged authorities applied the anticorruption law arbitrarily and selectively and assessed corruption prosecutions as ineffective and leading to few convictions.

Corruption: The prosecution service reported working on 274 pretrial investigations in 2020, which resulted in 17 indictments involving 56 persons and five convictions. In July the NGO Anticorruption Fund reported that in the previous five years it had monitored investigations against 63 high-profile former ministers, deputy ministers, National Assembly members, magistrates, mayors, and regional governors. The Anticorruption Fund also noted a further decline in anticorruption prosecutions, with zero convictions.

In June caretaker government ministers reported that 8.6 billion levs ($4.97 billion) of contracts (more than 40 percent) awarded by state-owned companies under the previous government since 2019 used in-house procedures and did not go through public procurement processes. The regional development minister cited an example in which the government awarded more than 1.5 billion levs ($867 million) to the state-owned Motorways company, which subcontracted a large part of the money to private companies in advance payments for projects that had not been launched yet.

In May the appellate specialized criminal court found seven customs officials guilty of extorting bribes from drivers crossing the Lesovo border checkpoint and sentenced them to pay a 5,000 lev ($2,890) fine each. As of December the trial against the former head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, Petar Haralampiev, and three other employees of the agency was ongoing at the specialized criminal court. The four were charged with receiving bribes and trading in influence to aid foreign citizens in obtaining the Bulgarian passports.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

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

The Civil Society Development Council remained suspended, after failing to start working in June 2020 due to objections by the Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets and conflicting views within the government coalition regarding the election of council members.

Nationalist parties and NGOs routinely targeted human rights organizations and activists with accusations of treason and criminal offenses. In May vandals defaced the facade of the building where the office of the BHC was located with offensive graffiti.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The national ombudsman is an independent constitutional body elected by the National Assembly for a five-year mandate. The ombudsman reviews individuals’ complaints against the government for violations of rights and freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals to end existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent specialized agency for preventing and protecting against discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity.

A National Assembly permanent committee covers human rights, religious groups, and citizen petitions.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents or by birth within the country’s territory unless one receives foreign citizenship by heritage. The law requires birth registration within seven days.

Education: The law establishes Bulgarian as the official language of instruction in the country’s public education system but allows instruction in foreign languages, if instruction in Bulgarian language and literature is conducted in Bulgarian. The law also permits study of the mother tongue. There were officially approved curricula for the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Romani, and Turkish. According to the National Statistical Institute, there were no Romani students studying their mother tongue in public schools and the average number of students who learned Turkish, Hebrew, and Armenian declined by more than 16 percent, continuing the downward trend from the previous two years. The government operates foreign language schools in English, Spanish, German, Hebrew, French, and Italian.

According to the Ministry of Education, online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic deepened education inequalities and risked increasing the number of school dropouts. The ministry reported that students lacked access to the internet in 56.5 percent of urban schools and 87.5 percent of schools in the rest of the country.

The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows ethnic segregation of entire schools. Of Romani children, 30 percent (up from 16 percent five years earlier) were enrolled in segregated schools outside mainstream education, according to the European Roma Rights Center. According to the NGO Amalipe, there were segregated schools in 26 out of the 28 regions in the country and approximately 10 percent of general education schools in the country were ethnically segregated. Romani children often attended de facto segregated schools where they received inferior education. There were instances of ethnic Bulgarian students withdrawing from desegregated schools, thereby effectively resegregating them. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students.

The Education Ministry provided financial support to nine municipalities that pursued policies for educational desegregation and prevention of resegregation.

Child Abuse: The law protects children against any type of abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence and exploitation. The law punishes violators with fines unless the abuses constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem.

In April UNICEF reported results from a survey which showed that 47 percent of children in the country had experienced some form of violence. The violence faced by the children included psychological (45.9 percent of cases), physical (31.2 percent), sexual (15.6 percent), and neglect (10.5 percent). In May the national child support helpline reported a 25 percent increase in the number of cases of domestic violence against children from the previous year.

In May the NGO National Network for Children released its tenth monitoring “report card,” which identified “not only a lack of progress but a backslide and deterioration of the situation for thousands of children and families due to a lack of government will to build the necessary capacity and develop consistent child policies as a top priority.”

In August the ombudsman requested that the minister of education initiate an urgent inspection at the Center for Special Education Support in Burgas following a video distributed on social media showing teachers harassing a student. As of September the local education inspectorate and child protection services were investigating the case.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases a person may enter marriage at 16 with permission from the regional court. In March the NGO Amalipe stated that reduced school attendance during the COVID-19 state of emergency had “brought back the problem of early marriage in the Roma communities.” The NGO cited an example from a vocational school in Pazardjik in which more than 25 students had married since the start of the school year in September 2020, noting a similar trend in Sliven. As of September 28, the country’s courts had sentenced 13 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 16, 19 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 14, and four parents for aiding and abetting such cohabitation.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into commercial sex, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine, and child sex trafficking, which is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14. In August the Center for Safe Internet expressed concern about a 20 percent increase in online sexual exploitation and harassment of children in the previous 18 months and criticized the government for lacking an integrated strategy.

Displaced Children: As of November a total of 2,268 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the country, a 650 percent increase compared with the same period in 2020. According to the UNHCR, the practice of placing unaccompanied children in migrant detention centers without a clear standard persisted.

Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children. As of January a total of 277 children remained to be relocated from four legacy facilities and placed in community-based care. According to the government, the focus of the reform was on preventing child abandonment and encouraging reintegration in a family environment. NGOs, however, believed that the new family-type placement centers did not ensure improved quality of life for children and the quality of family support services remained unchanged.

In September the Validity Foundation published a report that criticized the government for continuing to invest substantial funds in new group homes which “leads to further segregation and isolation … and reinforces the model of institutionalization.” Validity Foundation noted “behavior is controlled by staff through psychological (and sometimes physical) force, punishment, and medication”; individuals “remain locked in the buildings”; and “there is no meaningful training for independent living.” The report also stated that, even though authorities considered the process of deinstitutionalization of children with disabilities complete, placing them in smaller homes does not change the type and quality of care they receive, and there are no policies indicating a vision for their future as equal community members.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

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