Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral national assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National assembly elections were held in March 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International observers considered the elections generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included physical mistreatment of detainees and convicts by officials; harsh conditions in prisons and detention facilities; corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability in the judicial system; mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers; corruption in all branches of government; and violence against ethnic minorities.
Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and authorities generally enforced its provisions when violations came to their attention. Sentences for rape convictions range up to 20 years in prison. While authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, they rarely did so.
The law defines domestic violence as any act, or attempted act, of sexual violence or physical, psychological, emotional, or economic pressure against members of one’s family or between cohabiting persons. It empowers courts to impose fines, issue restraining or eviction orders, or require special counseling. Noncompliance with a restraining order may result in imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of 5,000 levs ($2,850).
On July 27, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the “Istanbul Convention”) contradicts the country’s constitution and laws of “the binary nature of humans.” The court stated the definition of “gender” in the convention removes the boundaries of the two biologically determined sexes and risks turning efforts to combat violence against women into “a formalistic and unattainable commitment,” leaving persons unable to differentiate between a woman and a man.
NGOs voiced growing concerns in the past several years of increasing cases of the killing of women or girls because of their gender. In January, Djebraim Saliev from Okorsh allegedly beat his wife Aishegyul to death. According to the village mayor, Aishegyul had complained frequently of beatings and harassment. As of November, Saliev was in custody and the case was in pretrial phase.
The Animus Association Foundation and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to domestic violence victims in 22 crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that victims could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Police and social workers referred victims of domestic violence to NGO-run shelters. In April the prosecutor general issued specific step-by-step instructions regarding how prosecutors should respond to reports of domestic violence, death threats, and violations of restraining orders.
Sexual Harassment: The law identifies sexual harassment as a specific form of discrimination rather than a criminal offense, although prosecutors may identify cases in which harassment involves coercion combined with sexual exploitation. If prosecuted as coercion, sexual harassment is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: While the law provides women the same legal status and rights as men, women faced some discrimination in economic participation and political empowerment. The law establishes equal opportunities in all spheres of public, economic, and political life; equal access to public resources; equal treatment; exclusion of gender-based discrimination and violence; balanced representation of men and women in decision-making authorities; and overcoming of gender-based stereotypes.
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from one’s parents. The law requires the registration of births within seven days.
Child Abuse: The law protects children against any type of abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence and exploitation, and punishes violators with fines ranging from 300 to 10,000 levs ($170 to $5,700), unless they constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem. The Social Assistance Agency’s child protection departments across the country found 30 percent of alerts received about violence against children to be actionable. The four-year National Program for Prevention of Violence and Abuse against Children (2017-20) identified a growing rate of child victims of violence. It deals with prevention, increasing children’s awareness of the child protection system, addressing domestic violence, online abuse, sexual violence, early marriage and childbirth, and school aggression and harassment. The National Program for Child Protection, adopted in April, emphasizes preventing violence against children and continuing the process of deinstitutionalization (see subsection below on Institutionalized Children).
The NGO National Network for Children released its 2017 “report card” in April. The report card found lack of progress in reducing child poverty, systemic problems with child protection, poor interagency coordination, delays in juvenile justice reform, and insufficient support for professionals working with children. The government funded an NGO-operated 24-hour free helpline that children could call for counseling, information, and support, as well as to report abuse. Helpline operators reported a trend of previously reported cases resurfacing with more serious or different types of abuse.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases a person may enter into marriage at 16 with permission from the regional court. NGOs criticized authorities for treating early marriages as an ethnic Romani rather than a gender problem but acknowledged that child marriage was pervasive in Romani communities.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into prostitution, for which it provides for up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 15,000 levs ($8,550), and child sex trafficking, for which it provides up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 levs ($11,400). The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine of up to 8,000 levs ($4,560) for violations. The authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14.
Displaced Children: As of September, 160 unaccompanied minors sought asylum, a nearly 50 percent drop from 2017 and more than 90 percent from 2016. In December 2017 the ombudsman petitioned the Supreme Administrative Court to impose uniformity in court practices which, according to her, applied different standards in determining whether migrant children were unaccompanied and routinely placed children so designated in detention centers for irregular migrants.
Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children, and on September 1 launched the last stage of its deinstitutionalization strategy, which aims to close all institutions by 2025 and replace them with community-based care. In July the government closed the medical and social care home in Vratsa, which at the end of 2017 accommodated three children–down from 89 in 2009. NGOs reported abuse in the new family-type placement centers. Media reports and videos of personnel abusing children with disabilities in family centers in Gabrovo in January and a correctional boarding school in Borovan in February prompted a discussion between authorities and NGOs, resulting in a joint plan of measures, including training 6,000 child-care workers and improving coordination.
In December 2017 the Committee against Torture of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “grave concern” about “the absence of investigations into the deaths of 238 children with mental disabilities who died in the period 2000-10” and “dismay by the statement that 22 inspections of the institutions in question did not establish inhuman treatment of children by the personnel of the specialized institutions.” The government inspected the institutions and the new centers, uncovering malpractice and mistreatment of the children placed in them and issuing instructions for correcting them.
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.html.
The 2011 census indicated that 1,130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number as 5,000.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews Shalom indicated that during the year there were no violent acts of anti-Semitism, but that there was a wave of anti-Semitic sentiments, enabled by the presence of “far-right and ultranationalist” political parties. One of those wrote, “Those dirty Jews who…for 600 years have been trying to destroy us. In the end they might succeed.” Shalom reported that children of Jewish origin faced anti-Semitism in school. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country.
In February a rally took place in Sofia in honor of Hristo Lukov, leader in the 1940s of an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The government, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova had banned the march in 2017, but the Sofia Administrative Court overturned the ban. The Foreign Ministry condemned the event in declarations issued before and after the event, calling it a “shameful act” and a “demonstration of xenophobia, discrimination, and hatred.” Shalom, the online human rights platform Marginalia, and the Sofia Municipality cohosted a conference titled “Sofia Says No to Hate Speech and Extremism” a few days before the rally, gathering government representatives, NGOs, academics, students, and diplomats to discuss rising nationalism, intolerance, and anti-Semitism, to make a clear statement against extremism, and to explore possible avenues for engaging the public in the spirit of tolerance.
On November 29, the country became the 32nd full member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In May, Shalom described an exhibition portraying the pro-Nazi government of King Boris III and Bogdan Filov as rescuing Jews during the Holocaust as “provocation” and “distortion of history.” Speaking to a television reporter at the opening of the exhibition, then deputy prime minister Valeri Simeonov blamed the rescued Jews for subsequently executing their rescuers after becoming part of the communist government.
As of November authorities had not identified the perpetrators who in September 2017 knocked down gravestones and broke grave slabs at the Jewish Cemetery in Sofia.
In October the Jewish organizations Shalom and B’nai B’rith protested the Ministry of Defense’s initiative to award a medal to Dyanko Markov, a member of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions that supported the deportation of Jews during World War II. In December the Sofia City Court exonerated Marginalia journalist Yuliana Metodieva in a libel lawsuit filed by Markov for describing Markov in an article as a “prominent anti-Semite.”
On September 11, national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism Georg Georgiev, Sofia mayor Fandakova, and Shalom president Alexander Oscar signed a Manifesto for Tolerance and launched an initiative promoting Sofia as a city of tolerance and wisdom. The first event under the initiative took place on September 16, when volunteers cleaned facades of hate graffiti.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The government focused most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. According to the ombudsman, the laws and regulations on persons with disabilities were outdated, lacked a patient-centered approach, and needed comprehensive reform.
In December the national assembly passed the Persons with Disabilities Act and Personal Assistance Act, which are intended to reform the social support system and provide adequate funding for persons with disabilities. The new legislation was conceived after a six-month, tent-camp protest by mothers of children with disabilities demanding changes in disability assessments, personal assistance, and financial aid. The laws provide for individual evaluation and increased budget for personal assistants. They make local governments responsible for providing personal assistance services and the central government for disbursing and monitoring the funding for such services. In October the protesters demanded the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who had accused the “shrill mothers” of pursuing an ulterior political agenda and suggested that they stay home if their children were “truly sick.” Simeonov resigned in November.
In September a group of NGOs and activists issued a declaration alleging that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities had reported “downright lies and half-truths” at the 20th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and called on its chairman to report back to the committee with correct information. According to the NGOs, and contrary to the report, there was no deinstitutionalization, children and young persons were not integrated in the education system, the system did not provide for personal assistants, and public areas and transportation were not accessible.
While the law requires improved access to public and transportation infrastructure for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects and existing buildings. Beginning in December 2017, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination conducted a nationwide inspection campaign of public buildings, utility providers, telecom operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities received certificates; the rest were fined from 2,000 levs to 20,000 levs ($1,140 to $11,400).
The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of the employers’ insurance costs, in addition to the full costs of adjusting and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. On August 15, the government launched a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire persons with more than 75 percent disability. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee concluded, however, that the government did not provide real opportunities for professional training or employment.
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions under harsh conditions in remote areas. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. Less than 1 percent of all persons with disabilities had access to medical, social, and psychological support in day centers around the country.
The Ministry of Education transformed most of the 55 “special schools” for students with special education needs into education support centers, leaving only five special schools with approximately 700 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining approximately 18,200 students with special education needs, attended mainstream schools. Those studying in the special schools received diplomas that higher-level learning establishments did not recognize as qualifying them for further education.
The law provides specific measures for persons with disabilities to have access to the polls, including mobile ballot boxes, voting in a polling station of their choice, and assisted voting. According to ODIHR, those measures were “not sufficient to ensure equal participation, especially for persons with visual impairments who cannot vote independently.”
Human rights organizations reported a persistent level of racial discrimination against Roma. The media often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language, highlighting instances in which Romani persons had committed a crime. Nationalist parties, such as Ataka, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria, routinely resorted to strong anti-Romani, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. According to an Open Society Institute study released in June, Roma were the target in 81 percent of incidents of hate speech.
In October 2017 the Burgas Regional Court convicted Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov for abusive and degrading statements against Roma he made in 2014 while he was a national assembly member, ordering him to cease his breach-of-law behavior and refrain from similar infractions in the future. NGOs accused the government of being unwilling to address anti-Romani attitudes and hate speech and criticized the appointment of Simeonov as deputy prime minister in charge of ethnic integration.
There were few prosecutions for hate crimes, and sentences were often short or suspended for those convicted. As of July prosecutors had opened 17 hate-crime investigations during the year and pursued one indictment against one person; the courts issued three convictions, including two prison sentences. On May 12, a Rom, Mitko Boyanov, died in a hospital in Shumen from stab wounds. Boyanov and his older brother had argued with Veliko Lefterov, who had demanded that they stop speaking in Romani. In the ensuing scuffle, Lefterov stabbed Boyanov. As of November, Lefterov was in custody awaiting indictment.
According to the Standing Roma Conference, local authorities disproportionately targeted illegal Romani dwellings for demolition. NGOs frequently petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to order the government to freeze the razing of homes in Romani neighborhoods until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons. The government did not respond.
The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows 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. 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. In June a school in Blagoevgrad announced that it would not enroll Romani students in first grade and ended with no first-grade students. The school director explained that the school had become segregated and she wanted to reverse that trend to comply with the legal prohibition.
According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards.
NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. On September 29, soccer hooligans beat black British citizen Leon Koffi severely in the immediate vicinity of the Ministry of Interior. Koffi sustained serious injuries and required treatment in the hospital for two weeks. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the circumstances of the case indicated it was racially motivated. As of November the case was under investigation.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the government did not effectively enforce this prohibition. No laws protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. NGOs asserted that authorities often refused to investigate and prosecute homophobia and transphobia because they are not recognized by law as crimes. According to the June Open Society Institute study, the number of hate speech incidents directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons doubled compared with 2016 (from 21 to 42 percent). In February a survey of LGBTI persons conducted by the GLAS Foundation revealed that 73 percent of respondents had received threats due to their sexual orientation, with 60 percent of the threats occurring in schools. Fifteen percent were victims of assault, but none reported the incident to police due to fear of police harassment and lack of trust that the report would be properly investigated.
While reports of violence against LGBTI persons were rare, societal prejudice and discrimination, particularly in employment, remained a problem. According to the youth LGBTI organization Deystvie, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners to protection against domestic violence. On June 29, the Sofia Administrative Court ruled in favor of the right of residence in the country of a partner in a same-sex couple who was not an EU citizen. As of October the Migration Directorate, which approves residence permits, was appealing the decision in the Supreme Administrative Court.
NGOs stated persons suspected of being gay were often fired from their jobs, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as LGBTI. Many health professionals considered LGBTI status a disease, and the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in refusal of health services, particularly to transgender persons. NGOs complained that most parties in the national assembly, government ministers, and municipal authorities were reluctant to engage in a dialogue on the challenges facing LGBTI individuals and related policy issues.
In May the organizers of a Gender Bender Drag Show in Plovdiv were forced to cancel the event due to more than 150 threats received by the venue owners.
In September a gay couple was assaulted in downtown Varna by four men who had taunted and bullied the couple on their way to a restaurant.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
According to the government’s national program for HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention and control, “despite the enormous medical progress in HIV treatment, little has been achieved in terms of overcoming the stigma and discrimination [associated with HIV]. Negative societal attitudes have a strong impact on persons with HIV/AIDS.”
In March a survey commissioned by NGO Health Without Borders indicated that 75 percent of persons would not befriend persons with HIV/AIDS, and only 31 percent would communicate with such persons. According to NGOs the general stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity frequently resulted in denial of health services to persons living with HIV/AIDS.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that certain print and online media increasingly targeted human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists and deliberately covered the organization’s press releases in a distorted way to portray it as treacherous, biased, and anti-Bulgarian. Bulgarian Helsinki Committee staff also reported receiving frequent threats.
Section 7. Worker Rights
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was lower than the government’s official poverty line. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 31 percent of citizens lived under the poverty line.
The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law prohibits overtime work for children younger than age 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers.
A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. The law penalizes labor violations with fines ranging from 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), which, according to labor unions, failed to act as a deterrent. In addition to fines, penalties may include administrative provisions, such as suspending operations and terminating the employment of those responsible for the violation. As of November the General Labor Inspectorate conducted nearly 37,000 inspections of companies covering more than 1.5 million employees, identifying more than 135,000 violations and imposing various sanctions, including collecting nearly 12 million levs ($6.84 million) in fines.
Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Persons who violate safety and health regulations are subject to a fine of 100 to 500 levs ($57 to $285), employers to a fine of 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), and employing officials to a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 levs ($570 to $5,700). Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, nearly 50 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years had increased compliance, with 98 percent of inspected companies in compliance with occupational safety and health requirements.
Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the grey-market economy, which accounted for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. In July the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association stated that the grey economy had shrunk significantly over the past three years. In September the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that benefits for employees in the informal economy worth between one and two billion levs ($570 million to $1.14 billion) per year remained unpaid, and called for stricter enforcement of the law and punishment of the offending employers.
Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first six months of the year decreased slightly. Equipment and technology safety violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Some 94 percent of the companies inspected in 2017 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of them had programs for elimination of the identified risks.
As of October there were 60 work-related deaths, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors.