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 20 years in prison. While authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, they rarely did so.
According to the local NGO Alliance for Protection against Gender-based Violence, the law does not criminalize all forms of violence against women, and the government does not implement consistent policies with adequate funding for prevention and protection of women from violence. The CAT also expressed concern about an insufficient number of state-run shelters for victims of domestic violence. 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 ($3,000).
NGOs continued to express concern that the country does not maintain official statistics on cases of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. They noted that institutions were not considering femicide–the killing of women or girls because of their gender–when documenting and analyzing homicides of women. The Animus Association Foundation and other NGOs provided short-term protection and counseling to victims in 22 crisis centers and shelters throughout the country. Police and social workers referred victims of domestic violence to NGO-run shelters. Women’s rights organizations continued to insist that the government lacked strong gender equality and domestic violence policies.
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, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/monitoring/maternal-mortality-2015/en/ .
Discrimination: While the law provides women the same legal status and rights as men, including equal pay for equal work, women faced some discrimination in economic participation and political empowerment. A 2016 gender equality 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 without discriminating between boys and girls.
Education: While public education is universal and compulsory until the age of 16 and free through the 12th grade, authorities did not effectively enforce attendance requirements. In August the government identified more than 206,000 children between the ages of five and 18 who had either dropped out or never attended school. In September teams composed of police officers, social workers, education experts, and school officials visited thousands of homes throughout the country to encourage parents to send their children to school.
Child Abuse: Violence against children continued to be a problem. In June the ombudsman reported that the number of reported cases of violence against children in schools had doubled in two years. The ombudsman initiated a national coalition against violence and physical punishment of children. In February the government adopted a four-year National Program for Prevention of Violence and Abuse against Children.
There were five correctional boarding schools, accommodating approximately 165 children between the ages of eight and 18. In September the education ministry closed the social-pedagogical boarding school in Dragodanovo following reports of violations in 2016.
In March the Social Assistance Agency reported that in 2016 authorities banned 235 foster families from providing foster care and relocated the children with other foster parents due to inadequate care and mistreatment of the child.
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.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18. In exceptional cases, a person can 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 ($9,000), and child sex trafficking, for which it provides up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 levs ($12,000). The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine of up to 8,000 levs ($4,800) for violations.
Displaced Children: The number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum dropped more than 80 percent from 2016. The ombudsman called on authorities to stop placing migrant children in detention centers for irregular migrants and reported that medical services at those centers continued to be inadequate due to lack of interpretation and health services for the large number of children accommodated there.
Institutionalized Children: The government closed all residential care institutions for children with disabilities as part of a plan to close all such institutions by 2025 and replace them with community-based care. NGOs expressed concern over delays in the implementation of the plan and criticized the system of financing new centers by paying them on a per child/per day basis, as it motivated them to fill centers to capacity without regard to the individual needs of the child. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee expressed concern that, despite its deinstitutionalization policy, the government continued to place children in institutions.
In its December report the CAT expressed “grave concern” about “the absence of investigations into the deaths of 238 children with mental disabilities who died in the period 2000-2010” 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. For example, in October 2016 the ombudsman found that despite the change in leadership at the correctional boarding school in Podem, the staff continued to impose unauthorized punishments and there was violence among students.
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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
The 2011 census indicated there were 1,130 Jews living 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 extreme acts of anti-Semitism but expressed concern over government inaction and political leaders’ passivity in addressing minor acts. The organization complained that authorities stopped paying attention to fan groups’ displaying Nazi symbols during soccer games or treated them as sports hooliganism instead of hate crimes. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were widely available in tourist areas around the country.
In February the mayor of Sofia declined to approve a rally in honor of a World War II general, Hristo Lukov, known for his anti-Semitic views and pro-Nazi activities. While the decision did not stop the event, it limited its scope. A few days before the rally, 30 activists and students demonstrated against it, carrying banners rejecting Nazis, fascism, and antirefugee and antimigrant sentiments.
In March the government approved the country’s candidacy for full membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). On June 30, the country’s status was promoted from “observer” to “liaison.” On October 18, the government adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism agreed in 2016 by IHRA and appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev to be the national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism.
On May 17, the deputy regional development minister, Pavel Tenev, resigned after a picture of him saluting a wax statue of a Nazi officer in a Paris museum nine years earlier was circulated on social media. Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov defended Tenev, commenting that, as a student in the 1970s, he himself visited the Buchenwald concentration camp and might have taken “fun-poking pictures” there. Shalom condemned Simeonov’s comments, expressing “regret and concern that such people are holding leadership posts in the government.” In June a popular television show revealed similar pictures of presidential advisor Plamen Uzunov wearing a Nazi uniform. Uzunov refused to resign, explaining that he had dressed that way for a Christmas party.
In September vandals desecrated graves at the Jewish Cemetery in Sofia, knocking down gravestones and breaking grave slabs. As of October, authorities were investigating the incident. Representatives of the national and local governments helped Shalom repair the damage.
In November, Sofia Globe journalist Imanuel Marcus received a racist death threat email.
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 physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental 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.
In September the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy complained of numerous cases of TELK decisions regarding children, citing whole villages in which nearly all the children have disability status. NGOs criticized the Labor Expert Medical Commission (TELK) model for assessing disabilities. They asserted that the system labeled persons with disabilities as “unfit for work” and ultimately subjected them to poverty. In September the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy alleged corruption in TELK decisions regarding children, citing whole villages in which nearly all the children have disability status.
According to the ombudsman, the government did not make enough efforts to integrate persons with disabilities into society.
While the law requires improved access to buildings for persons with disabilities, enforcement lagged in some new public works projects as well as in existing, unrenovated buildings.
The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and provides employers with subsidies covering 30 to 50 percent of the cost of insurance and the full cost of adjusting and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, however, the government did not provide real opportunities, for professional training or free-market employment.
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities often were housed in institutions located in remote areas.
According to the National Statistical Institute, approximately 17 percent of students with special education needs were enrolled in 55 “special schools,” while the rest 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. According to NGOs and the State Agency for Child Protection, the prevailing practice of considering childhood disability a medical issue, the lack of an inclusive social environment, and insufficient support infrastructure encouraged institutionalization.
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.”
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported a general rise in acts of racial discrimination against Roma. The media often described Roma and other minority groups using discriminatory, denigrating, and abusive language. Nationalist parties, such as Ataka and the Patriotic Front, based their political campaigns on strong anti-Roma, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. On October 25, the Burgas Regional Court convicted Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov over statements he made in 2014 while he was a member of the National Assembly. The court ruled that Simeonov’s statements against Roma represented abuse and degrading treatment and sentenced him to cease his breach-of-law behavior and refrain from similar infractions in the future.
In June citizens, journalists, academics, and human rights activists signed a petition to the prime minister protesting Simeonov’s appointment in charge of demographic policy and ethnic integration and demanding his resignation. In June an incident in which ethnic Roma and members of the local youth rowing club clashed in Asenovgrad sparked a series of protests that lasted more than two months.
NGOs accused the government of being unwilling to address anti-Roma attitudes and hate speech. The May CERD report expressed deep concern at the increase in incidents of hate speech and hate crime “targeting Turks, Roma, Muslims, Jews, persons of African descent, and migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.”
The lack of prosecutions for hate crimes remained a problem, as did short and suspended sentences given to those convicted. An exception was the conviction of Ivan Nikolov, by the Pazardjik District Court on June 30, for the racially motivated murder of an elderly Romani couple. Nikolov was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In November the prosecution service indicted a 21-year-old man for the killing of 47-year-old Hristomir Vladimirov. In January skinheads beat Vladimirov, who was walking his dog in a Romani neighborhood of Veliko Turnovo. His family believed he was assaulted because the skinheads thought he was Romani.
In April the European Court of Human Rights ordered the government to freeze the planned razing of Romani homes in Plovdiv’s Arman Mahala neighborhood until authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and sick persons.
The law prohibits ethnic segregation in multiethnic schools and kindergartens but allows segregation of whole schools. 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.
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. The law does not recognize hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. NGOs asserted that because homophobia and transphobia were not recognized as crime motives calling for stricter punishment, authorities often refused to investigate and prosecute such crimes.
While reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons were rare, societal prejudice and discrimination, particularly in employment, remained a problem.
NGOs stated that it was common for persons suspected of being gay to be fired, and such individuals were reluctant to seek redress in court due to fear of being identified as belonging to the LGBTI community. 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 the LGBTI community and the related policy issues. On June 10, the 10th annual LGBTI pride parade took place in downtown Sofia, attracting more than 2,000 participants. The municipality allowed an antipride counterevent that drew approximately 70 participants to proceed next to the parade starting point, but heavy police presence prevented any attacks on parade participants.
In July the Sofia Appellate Court lengthened the prison sentences given to Alexander Georgiev and Radoslav Kirchev (to 15 years and six years, respectively) for the homophobic murder of student Mihail Stoyanov, on the basis that the lower court had unduly lowered the original sentences due to the defendants’ young age and the protracted trial.
HIV and AIDS Societal Stigma
According to the 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.”
There were reports that persons with HIV/AIDS faced inadequate conditions in medical facilities and discrimination from doctors, who refused to provide treatment due to fear of contracting the disease. Patients typically did not contest these incidents in court because of the social stigma attached to having HIV/AIDS.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
As of October there was no progress in the investigation into the assault on the president of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Krasimir Kanev, in October 2016. Kanev suffered minor injuries. Many human rights organizations and individuals stated the incident was the consequence of an atmosphere that permitted widespread hate speech and was conducive to violent acts. NGOs also identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. 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.
Anti-immigrant protests took place in several locations. In February the residents of Shiroka Luka protested against the accommodation of two Afghan unaccompanied minors placed by the State Agency for Refugees in the local parentless children’s center. The local residents expressed concerns about their own and their children’s security and possible negative impact on tourism. The government first moved the Afghan boys from Shiroka Luka to Plovdiv, and then to Haskovo, where they were also rejected by local residents. Eventually, one ended up in Svilengrad, the other in Sofia.