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. There is no specific criminal law against spousal rape; authorities could prosecute spousal rape under the general rape statute, but rarely did so.
In February the National Assembly passed amendments introducing penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in the context of domestic violence. The law defines domestic violence as systematic physical, sexual, or psychological violence; subjection to economic dependence; or coercive restriction of the personal life, personal liberty, and personal rights of a parent or child, a spouse or former spouse, a person with whom one shares a child, a cohabiting partner or former cohabiting partner, or a member or former member of the same household. The law 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 ($2,800). In January the government adopted an annual program for prevention and protection against domestic violence, which provides for the appointment of psychologists in larger schools, training of security service personnel, and development of an electronic database of cases of domestic and gender-based violence.
In October the UN special rapporteur on violence against women noted the existence of a “massive” pushback campaign against women’s rights as well as “tolerance and normalization of violence against women,” in addition to legal barriers, insufficient numbers of shelters, and inefficient protection measures. NGOs continued to express concern over the increase in cases of the killing of women or girls as a result of domestic violence. In February, for example, Borislav Nikolov from Varna severely beat his wife Kremena, who died of head trauma with internal bleeding one day before the court hearing of their divorce case. The spouses had agreed to file for a divorce two weeks earlier. According to Kremena’s family and friends, she had been subjected to physical and psychological violence throughout their five-and-a-half-year marriage. In September the Varna District Court sentenced Nikolov to serve 12 years in prison and pay 100,000 levs ($56,000) in compensation to the victim’s family.
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.
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. Following a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the term “gender” blurs the boundaries of the two biologically determined sexes, the government’s July report regarding equality between women and men listed “fighting against violence based on the biological sex and changing the public stereotypes about women and men” as one of its priorities.
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 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 ($168 to $5,600), unless the abuses constitute a criminal or more severe administrative offense. Violence against children continued to be a problem.
Beginning in January, domestic NGO March for the Family association organized a series of protests against the government’s draft Strategy for the Child 2019-2030, expressing fear that it would give excessive power to the authorities to remove children from their parents by force. The political parties Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization and Vazrazhdane, as well as the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, joined the campaign against the strategy. The National Network for Children, an alliance of hundreds of NGOs defending children’s rights, endorsed the strategy, which it asserted focused on a full prohibition of physical punishment of children and criminalization of domestic violence. The minister of labor and social policy insisted that the strategy was intended to “mobilize, finance, integrate and streamline the efforts of the authorities and civil society to improve every child’s living environment and chances of fulfilling their potential,” but the government, nevertheless, decided to discontinue the strategy. In March the government publicized the draft of its annual National Program for Child Protection, based on the four-year National Program for Prevention of Violence and Abuse against Children (2017-20), but did not proceed with its adoption due to the ongoing protests.
In June the government’s Social Assistance Agency reported registering 1,000 child abuse cases. According to a 2018 joint survey of the Bulgarian Teachers’ Trade Union and the Ministry of Interior, 70 percent of children in the country had experienced abuse in their families, and in 60 percent of the cases the abuse was a reaction to the child’s conduct and grades in school. A 2018 survey commissioned by the National Network for Children indicated that, while 88 percent of parents consider physical punishment of children ineffective, two-thirds resorted to physical punishment, and one-fourth did so on a regular basis.
In April the National Network for Children released its 2019 “report card,” which found a slight overall improvement in government policies on children but noted that authorities continued to “develop policies and make legislative changes not on the basis of evidence, but led by strictly partisan motives, with a lack of clear vision, political will, and professionalism.” 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.
In March the European Committee of Social Rights found that the country was in violation of European Social Charter legal provisions by requiring a one-year suspension or termination of monthly family allowances if a child stops attending school (even if the child subsequently returned to school) and by requiring the termination of monthly family allowances if a minor becomes a parent. The decision also identified discriminatory treatment of Roma, particularly minor Romani girls.
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. As of September courts had sentenced 21 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 16, and 33 adults for cohabiting with girls younger than 14.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law differentiates between forcing children into prostitution, which is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 15,000 levs ($8,400), and child sex trafficking, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 levs ($11,200). The law prohibits child pornography and provides for up to six years in prison and a fine of up to 8,000 levs ($4,480) for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The legal minimum age for consensual sex is 14. In April the UN special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children found that Romani children were disproportionately at risk of sexual or other types of violence and that cooperation among the various authorities engaged in child protection remained a problem.
Displaced Children: As of September, 416 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the country, a 260 percent increase from the same period in 2018. In July the Supreme Administrative Court opened a case following a 2017 petition from the ombudsman. According to the ombudsman, courts apply different standards in determining whether migrant children are unaccompanied and routinely place children so designated in detention centers for irregular migrants. The ombudsman’s petition asked the court to establish uniform legal treatment of unaccompanied children across the court system.
Institutionalized Children: The government continued to close residential care institutions for children, and as of November 495 children remained to be relocated from the 21 legacy facilities and placed in community-based care. In January the government closed the medical and social care home in Yambol, which at the end of 2017 accommodated 19 children–down from 69 in 2009. According to NGOs, the government had not ensured improved quality of life for the children in the new family-type placement centers and the quality of the family support services remained unchanged. In November, Disabilities Rights International released a report stating the country’s deinstitutionalization reform had “replaced a system of large, old orphanages with newer, smaller buildings that are still operating as institutions” and that while physical conditions in group homes are clean, they remain “dehumanizing and dangerous.” The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy accused the report of generalization and described its findings as “biased, nonrepresentative, and seeking to demean the deinstitutionalization process.”
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.
The 2011 census indicated that 1,130 Jews lived in the country, but local Jewish organizations estimated the actual number was 5,000-6,000.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites and as comments under online media articles. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews Shalom reported increasing manifestations of anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Semitic speech and imagery on social networks and at parades and meetings by far-right and ultranationalist groups as well as periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Souvenirs with Nazi insignia were available in tourist areas around the country. According to Shalom, the national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism and the Ministry of Interior “responded unfailingly” to anti-Semitic incidents, but weak laws prevented the authorities from punishing offenders more severely.
On April 20 and 21–dates coinciding with Adolph Hitler’s birthday–the marginal, nonparliamentary Bulgarian National Union party hosted an international meeting of far-right organizations in Sofia, which announced the establishment of a “pan-European union” for the “complete elimination of the influence of…the Zionist lobby.” Meanwhile, obituaries of Adolf Hitler appeared in public places in the town of Dupnitsa, 30 miles south of Sofia, announcing that a memorial service would take place at the Jewish cemetery. The mayor of Dupnitsa and the Foreign Ministry condemned both events as “spreading xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist messages.” Posters of Hitler and Nazi symbols also appeared in public places in the Black Sea port city of Burgas. Law enforcement agencies identified the perpetrators, but the regional prosecution refused to open an investigation, asserting that it was an act of “minor hooliganism.”
In February a rally took place in Sofia in honor of Hristo Lukov, leader in the 1940s of an anti-Semitic/pro-Nazi organization, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The government, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. The Sofia Administrative Court overturned Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s ban on the march, which comprised 200-300 participants. On the same day, the Council of Ministers hosted senior government officials, municipal leaders, intellectuals, civil society leaders, and diplomats from International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance member countries, who signed a manifesto against hate speech, vowing to protect public space from hatred and intolerance and enhance public sensitivity to any acts of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and discrimination.
In April vandals defaced a WWII memorial in Stara Zagora with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. Authorities responded quickly, cleaning up the monument.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law protects the rights of persons with physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory disabilities, including their access to health services, education, employment, housing, public infrastructure, transportation, sports and cultural events, public and political events, the judicial system, and other services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, focusing most of its efforts on providing disability pensions, social services, and institutional care. NGOs accused the government of pursuing a goal of reducing the number of persons with disabilities through redefinition of disability criteria rather than supporting them. In June the Bulgarian Industrial Association complained that employers were not aware of whether they met the legal requirements for employing persons with permanent disabilities, noting the absence of an integrated information database. In February the NGO Union of the Blind criticized a regulation, adopted in August 2018 with the intention of curbing disability pension fraud, that introduced a new methodology for assessing the degree of disability. The NGO stated that the change failed to achieve its goal of curbing false disability claims and, instead, had negatively affected 19 percent of persons with “real” disabilities.
In January the prosecution service declared its intention to “go after fake disability pensions,” stating that the country’s social assistance system was defrauded of hundreds of millions of levs every year. In February, for example, authorities arrested the head of the local medical expert evaluation board in Silistra, and in June they arrested eight persons in Sofia, including two heads of medical expert evaluation boards. All were charged with accepting bribes to issue false disability certifications. As of October investigations in the cases were ongoing.
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. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination continued its 2017 nationwide campaign of inspecting public buildings, utility providers, telecommunications operators, banks, and insurance companies. Those not in compliance with the law for persons with disabilities received fines from 2,000 to 20,000 levs ($1,120 to $11,200). According to the commission, persons with disabilities faced problems accessing not only public infrastructure, but also employment, health-care services, and education.
The law promotes the employment of persons with disabilities and covers 30 to 50 percent of the employers’ related insurance costs in addition to the full costs of adjusting and equipping workplaces to accommodate them. The government provided a 24-month program of subsidies for employers who hire unemployed persons with a permanent disability. NGOs considered the program inadequate, since more than 50 percent of unemployed persons with disabilities are older than 50 and had not studied in college, and only one-third had specialized education. The law requires that companies with 50 to 99 employees hire at least one person with a permanent disability; in larger companies, persons with permanent disabilities must make up at least 2 percent of the workforce.
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities were widely stigmatized and often housed in institutions in remote areas under harsh conditions. According to NGOs, the government did not provide adequate medical care for all persons with mental disabilities. In February the NGOs European Network for Independent Living, the Center for Independent Living, and the Validity Foundation petitioned the government to abandon plans to channel EU funds into building a large number of community-based centers for persons with disabilities and elderly persons, asserting that it would result in “transinstitutionalization” and fail to deal with the “deeply ingrained discrimination, social exclusion, and segregation of these groups.”
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 600 students with sensory and hearing disabilities. Most of the remaining approximately 18,000 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.
According to NGOs, police lacked training and skills in dealing with persons with mental disabilities and often traumatized them further with their actions. In one example, in April police in Sofia detained a young man with autism, who showed them only a copy of his identity card and refused to speak. Police responded by shouting at him and took him to the police station. The director of the Center for Social Rehabilitation and Integration of Persons with Autism in Sofia explained that such persons carry only a copy of their identity cards as a precaution.
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.”
Societal intolerance and occasional violence against the Roma persisted, and political and government actors sometimes condoned or prompted them. 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-Roma, anti-Turkish, and anti-Semitic slogans and rhetoric. A 2018 Open Society Institute study found that 81 percent of respondents had witnessed incidents of hate speech targeting Roma.
In January the Supreme Administrative Court decided that the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria party leader Valeri Simeonov’s statements that Roma were “brash, overconfident, and ferocious apes” who “want sickness benefits without being ill, child care for children who wallow with the pigs on the streets, and maternity benefits for women who have the instincts of street bitches,” made in 2014 while he was a national assembly member, were not abusive, degrading, or discriminatory. The decision overturned the 2017 ruling of the Burgas Regional Court convicting Simeonov. NGOs insisted that such statements were racist and dehumanizing and criticized the government for its failure to prosecute them as a criminal offense.
On January 6, Romani brothers Boris and Asen Paketov severely beat a member of the armed forces in Voyvodinovo, a village two miles north of Plovdiv. The victim, 33-year-old Special Forces corporal Valentin Dimov, was hospitalized with facial fractures. The incident led to local protests supported by outsiders as well as by Dimov’s colleagues from the Special Forces Brigade. Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov arrived in Voyvodinovo two days after the incident, where he stated, “Gypsies in Bulgaria have become extremely brash, and the Bulgarian people have run out of tolerance.” He advocated for a “comprehensive program for solving the Gypsy question [because] … the people don’t have to tolerate a part of the population which only has rights and refuses to understand it also has responsibilities and needs to abide by the law.” Protesters accused the local government of protecting the local Roma and failing to enforce the law. Karakachanov ordered the demolition of the illegal houses occupied by approximately 250 Roma, who fled the village. NGOs filed a complaint against the minister with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee criticized the government’s actions in forcing Romani residents out of their homes in subzero temperatures and accused the minister of a “disproportionate response” inciting an ethnic cleansing. In February the mayor of Maritsa municipality north of Plovdiv expressed willingness to provide the Voyvodinovo Roma affected by the evictions with social housing but complained that the municipality did not have such housing and sought help from the regional governor. As of September a solution to the housing situation remained pending.
There were few prosecutions for hate crimes, and sentences were often short or suspended for those convicted. In July the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee accused prosecution authorities of indifference to hate-motivated crimes, citing the lack of action against the participants in a protest in April who vandalized five Roma-occupied houses in Gabrovo, setting fire to two of them. The protest in Gabrovo, a central northern city with a Romani population of less than 1 percent, was in support of a local shopkeeper who had been beaten by three Roma. Deputy Prime Ministers Tomislav Donchev and Karakachanov supported the protest, claiming that local authorities had allowed an accumulation of Roma-related problems. The protests forced most Romani residents to flee the city and hide for days in the woods. The Organization of Bulgarian Jews Shalom joined other NGOs in their response to the incidents in Voyvodinovo and Gabrovo, condemning “every attempt at provoking ethnic tensions in the country” and expressing serious concern about the “reluctance of government representatives to assume responsibility for the current integration policies.”
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 establishes Bulgarian as the official language of instruction in the country’s public education system but allows instruction in foreign languages, providing that instruction in Bulgarian language and literature is conducted in Bulgarian. The law also permits study of the mother tongue. Local government and school officials reported that they had instructions to ensure that primary school classes are delivered only in Bulgarian, even in schools where more than 50 percent of the students had Turkish or Romani as their mother tongue. In March the Education Ministry approved new curricula for the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Romani, and Turkish. Nearly 14 percent fewer students on average learned their mother tongue in public schools during the 2017-18 school year, although there was a 28 percent increase in the number of Romani students studying their mother tongue.
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. There was also self-segregation when children did not feel safe and were afraid to go to school outside their neighborhood. Romani NGOs reported that many schools throughout the country refused to enroll Romani students. In May the Education Ministry launched a national program for educational desegregation, providing one million levs ($560,000) for extra transportation costs, school aids, and additional activities involving students, parents, and teachers.
In July the National Assembly amended the law, providing official professional status to health mediators who help the Roma and other marginalized communities improve their access to health care. The National Health Mediators Network employs 245 mediators in 130 municipalities.
According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Romani women were routinely segregated within maternity hospital wards. Romani NGOs stated that some municipalities set discriminatory requirements for access to services in order to restrict Romani women’s access to them. For example, the assisted reproduction program in Veliko Turnovo and the one-time allowance for giving birth in Svilengrad both require completed secondary education by the mother.
NGOs identified an overall rise in the occurrence of hate speech and hate crimes. As of year’s end, investigators had not identified the soccer hooligans involved in the September 2018 racist assault on black British citizen Leon Koffi, who sustained serious injuries and required hospital treatment for two weeks.
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.
There were reports of violence against LGBTI persons. In February an unidentified man passing by Galya Petkova, who was walking her dog in downtown Sofia, addressed her as “snide fag” and punched her in the mouth. Societal prejudice and discrimination, particularly in employment, remained a problem. During the year there was a series of attacks on the Rainbow Hub, a community center and shared space for LGBTI organizations in Sofia, ranging from stealing the rainbow flag hanging outside and dislodging the mailbox, to breaking in and smashing windows.
According to LGBTI organizations, courts rejected the right of same-sex partners to protection against domestic violence because the law protects persons living in spousal cohabitation and treats “spousal” only as applying to married persons who cannot legally be the same sex. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported a trend of receiving very few cases–four as of October–regarding sexual orientation.
A June 2018 Open Society Institute study identified a doubling in the number of respondents who witnessed hate-speech incidents directed at LGBTI persons compared with 2016, from 21 percent to 42 percent. According to the Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society Foundation, 73 percent of LGBTI persons had received threats due to their sexual orientation, with 60 percent of the threats occurring in schools. Of those surveyed, 15 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.
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 April municipal councilors from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization and the Bulgarian Socialist Party in Plovdiv requested the resignation of the artistic director of the “Plovdiv 2019 European Capital of Culture” project, Svetlana Kuyumdjieva, because she approved funding for and included an LGBTI photography exhibition in the program. The councilors stated that a “gay event” could not be part of the cultural program and that the “obtrusion of amoral propaganda” would be a bad influence on the rising generation. In April the education minister issued instructions to all school principals in the country, banning any “booklets, questionnaires, or newssheets requiring pupils to determine their gender identity.”
HIV and AIDS Societal Stigma
As reported by 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.” According to the Health Ministry’s National Center for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, there was on average a four-year delay in the diagnosis of persons with HIV because they were reluctant to be tested due to the stigma, which also existed in the medical community. At a roundtable in March, the Bulgarian Infectious Disease Association reported that often surgeons and intensive care wards refused treatment to HIV patients, even though their infection had been brought under control, and that the stigma within the rest of the medical community was even greater.
According to a report on the results of a public opinion poll delivered at a roundtable in June, 90 percent of those surveyed would not live with persons with HIV/AIDS, 75 percent would not be friends, 60 percent would not work with them, and 50 percent were afraid to communicate with such persons. NGOs reported that 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. In October the prosecutor general dismissed a request by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization for banning the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, which accused the NGO of “anticonstitutional, illegal, immoral, and openly anti-Bulgarian activity.”