|Tuesday, 25 June 2019|
U.S. Department of State
Bulgaria Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
January 30, 1998
Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic ruled by a democratically elected government. Following his election victory in late 1996 in the country's second direct presidential elections, President Petar Stoyanov of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) was inaugurated in January and began a 5-year term of office. At the beginning of 1997, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), heir to the Communist Party, and two nominal partners governed in a coalition. Widespread political unrest caused by a worsening economic crisis culminated in crippling nationwide strikes and daily antigovernment protests in January and early February. Under mounting popular pressure, the BSP-led Government agreed in early February to hold early elections in April, in which the UDF-led coalition won an absolute majority in the National Assembly. UDF leader Ivan Kostov was chosen as Prime Minister. The judiciary is independent but continued to suffer from corruption and structural and staffing problems.
Most internal security services are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, which exercises incomplete control of the police, the Central Service for Combating Organized Crime, the National Security Service (civilian intelligence), internal security troops, border guards, and special forces. The change of government brought a change in leadership and management of most of these services, in some cases replacing security officials involved in the notorious State Security Organization (known as DS) and its repressive activities during the pre-1989 Communist regime. Both before and after the change in government, some members of the police force committed serious human rights abuses.
The post-Communist economy continued to be heavily dependent on money-losing state enterprises, although the growing private sector now accounts for about 45 percent of economic activity, and privatization is accelerating. Most people are employed in the industrial and service sectors; key industries include food processing, chemical and oil processing, metallurgy, and energy. Principal exports are agricultural products, cigarettes and tobacco, chemicals, and metal products. The transformation of the economy to a market-oriented system was retarded by continued political and social resistance. Slow progress in the privatization of the large Communist-era state enterprises was a major reason for economic stagnation in 1996. The failure to implement structural reforms led to an economic collapse in 1996 and early 1997. The financial system stabilized after a brief hyperinflationary period after the switch to a caretaker government, but gross domestic product continued to decline through most of the year. The new Government announced its commitment to an accelerated privatization program. The service and consumer goods sectors in private hands continued to be the most active. The new Government introduced a currency board and implemented fiscal and monetary austerity, budget and staff cuts, and radical economic restructuring. The 1996 economic crisis affected the employment of ethnic minorities disproportionately. The annual per capita gross domestic product of $1,130 provides a relatively low standard of living.
The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but problems remained in some areas. Police used unwarranted lethal force against suspects and minorities in some cases. Security forces beat suspects and inmates and at times arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. Government control of the police is not sufficiently complete to ensure full accountability. This results in a climate of impunity and inhibits government attempts to end police abuses. Conditions in some prisons are harsh, and pretrial detention is often prolonged. The judiciary is underpaid, understaffed, and has a heavy case backlog; corruption also exists. Constitutional restrictions on political parties formed on ethnic, racial, or religious lines effectively limit participation for some groups. Both the Government and private citizens continued to obstruct the activities of some nontraditional religious groups. Discrimination and violence against women remain serious problems, and some women are victims of trafficking and forced prostitution. Societal mistreatment of Roma is a serious problem. The limited social service system does not adequately assist homeless and other vulnerable children, notably Romani children. Further, security forces harass, physically abuse, and arbitrarily arrest and detain Romani street children.
The National Assembly passed legislation, initiated by the new Government, to open the dossiers created by the former state security services to inspection both by a government commission and by private citizens. The Socialist opposition opposed the law and challenged its legitimacy in the Constitutional Court; the Court, however, upheld its main provisions.
The new Government placed a high priority on combating crime and corruption. It amended the Penal Code and the Property Insurance Act, inter alia, to expedite judicial processing, penalize organized crime and racketeering, increase rights of self-defense, provide for witness protection, permit and regulate government use of electronic surveillance and wiretapping to fight organized crime, and increase the severity of sentences for numerous serious crimes.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Police officers used unwarranted lethal force against criminal suspects, as well as against members of minority groups whether or not suspected of any crime, resulting in several deaths.
On January 7, Stefan Stanev, age 50, died under unexplained circumstances while in custody at the police station of Popovo. Responding to pressure by human rights groups, the Military Prosecutor's Office began an investigation in June. To date no results have been released to the public.
On February 2, a Plovdiv traffic police officer shot to death Elin Elenov Karamanov, a 29-year-old Rom from Plovdiv, under questionable circumstances. Karamanov had been with a friend who claimed that they were both looking for scrap iron near the Maritsa River when they suddenly noticed a policeman about 100 feet away. The friend said that he ran away, but Karamanov remained. The next day, Karamanov's wife went to the police station, where she was told that an unidentified man had been killed. When she then went to the morgue she discovered her husband's remains. According to a forensic expert, the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, behind the right ear. An investigation was under way at year?s end.
On February 18, a policeman, and a civilian hunter who came to the assistance of the police officer, shot Boris Vasilev Kalinov and Vasil Strahilov Kalinov, both Romani men, who were allegedly stealing cables. Boris Kalinov was wounded in the knee by the policeman, and Vasil Kalinov was shot to death from a distance of roughly 7 feet. Boris later denied resisting arrest. The policeman claimed that the two men were attacked by 14 Roma wielding pickaxes and shovels and had no other recourse than to use deadly force. An investigation was under way at year?s end. The civilian who fatally shot Kalinov was accused of murder. The military prosecutor in Plovdiv started criminal proceedings, but no progress was reported by year?s end.
Following his arrest and possible mistreatment at the hands of police in Burgas in March, criminal suspect Georgi Biandov died in a hospital under suspicious circumstances. No charges were brought in the case.
Kolo Todorov, a 32-year-old Rom arrested in mid-May for theft, was reportedly shot and killed while trying to escape detention in Assenovgrad.
On June 5, police in Sofia shot in the head a citizen of mixed-race parentage named Petar Robert Karandzha: He died the next day. The police claimed that he was shot while attempting to escape from investigative detention. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee expressed concern that no evidence was presented that Karandzha had threatened others' lives or safety or that the police had exhausted other means of restraint. An internal investigation took place, and the police involved were exonerated.
In mid-November Mincho Simeonov Surtmachev was apprehended as a robbery suspect and later died of wounds sustained from a severe beating while in police custody. A police officer was charged in the case.
On January 29, 1996, a 17-year-old Rom, Anguel Zabchikov, died while in police custody in Razgrad, apparently as a result of a beating. The police told Zabchikov's family that he fell and fractured his skull while fleeing the police and died instantly. The police later reported that he died as a result of excessive alcohol in the bloodstream. In addition to the fractured skull, Zabchikov's family described numerous signs of severe beating and handcuff marks on both wrists. Criminal proceedings were terminated in 1997 by the Military Prosecutor's Office in Varna on the grounds that there had been no abuse committed by the police officers involved. Following an appeal by Zabchikov's mother, the Regional (Civil) Prosecutor's Office in Razgrad initiated criminal proceedings, but on March 4 the investigation was suspended. However, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to try the case.
No progress was registered in the case of the shooting death of former Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov in 1996. In the case of Ivan Benchev, who was beaten to death in 1996, one policemen was convicted. His appeal was pending at year?s end.
Due to public pressure from human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO?s), charges were brought against the police officer accused of fatally shooting Orthodox priest Yordan Tsolov in 1994, although the trial had not begun by year?s end.
Interior Ministry data show 21 complaints of police brutality were filed in 1996, of which 3 were judged justified. For the period January through September 1997, 24 such complaints were received of which 7 were considered to be of merit. The Ministry statistics reflect only those official complaints registered by the alleged victims. Human rights NGO?s report that they receive many more complaints from persons who are too intimidated to lodge an official complaint with government authorities. The Minister of Interior in the new Government publicly acknowledged that abuses exist in the police force and announced his determination to bring offending police officers to justice. For example, he disbanded the renegade Special Police Unit in July after the unit attacked security personnel in a Sofia nightclub in a personally motivated vendetta (see Section l.c.). The police have generally refused to make investigative reports available to the public.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
The Constitution expressly prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Despite this prohibition, police beat criminal suspects, members of minorities, and antigovernment demonstrators.
According to a March report of the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), "criminal suspects deprived of their liberty by the police in Bulgaria run a significant risk of being ill-treated at the time of their apprehension and/or while in police custody, and ... on occasion resort may be had to severe ill-treatment/torture." The CPT delegation included medical professionals who examined detainees and found evidence in the form of "physical marks or other medical conditions consistent with their allegations." The report further described conditions in National Investigative Service detention facilities as "almost without exception...inhuman and degrading."
On January 10, the first day of nearly a month of daily public demonstrations against the BSP Government, a large crowd of antigovernment protesters broke through a police cordon and occupied the National Assembly building. Although there were reports of troublemakers among the crowd, the majority was nonviolent. During the early hours of January 11, special police units forcibly removed the demonstrators, resorting to the indiscriminate use of force. Former Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov was among those severely beaten by police. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that 295 people were injured, 11 of whom required inpatient hospitalization. Then-Minister of Interior Nikolai Dobrev announced an investigation, but no punishment was meted out by year?s end. In January 1998, it emerged following the publication of a previously classified cabinet meeting transcript that the order to use force against the demonstrators was issued by then-Prime Minister Zhan Videnov.
In February masked police raided a Romani neighborhood in Pazardjik and beat local residents in what was seen as retaliation for the theft of food from a grocery earlier that day by several Romani protesters. The Human Rights Project reported that approximately 60 Romani citizens were beaten in the course of the raid. According to family members, one man died in June as a result of improperly treated wounds received from the police during that incident. No criminal prosecution of those responsible for the mistreatment took place, although the district court agreed to consider civil claims.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee also reported that in March police raided the "Flamingo," a Sofia bar run by gay rights activists. No warrant was produced, and police beat several of the bar's employees and patrons. The police allegedly confiscated documents and other items in an attempt to gain access to a list of those who frequent the Flamingo. They also reportedly kept several of those present during the raid in custody at a police station with their hands cuffed to a bar over their heads for 20 hours. None of those involved filed a formal complaint.
Human Rights Project reported that in April two Romani theft suspects in Nedyalsko were handcuffed by police and tied to a tractor. The police, who had earlier beaten the suspects along with two others, forced the Roma to run after the tractor for approximately 1 kilometer. The police then drove the tractor (with the two Roma still attached) to the village square, where villagers stoned and beat the two men. The victims are preparing to file a complaint.
In June a raid at an outdoor disco in Sofia resulted in 51 complaints of inappropriate police behavior reported to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Several officers reportedly harassed and mistreated those patrons who did not produce identification in a timely manner.
On June 4 and 5, Danail Mladenov, a 23-year-old Rom from Valchedram was taken to a police station and questioned regarding a theft. Although police records indicated that he was not implicated in any theft, police officers allegedly attempted to obtain a confession by beating the soles of his feet (as well as his palms). His family asserted that he had visible injuries resulting from mistreatment. Mladenov filed a complaint with the Military Prosecutor's Office, but the prosecutor refused to initiate criminal proceedings.
Also in June, several Sliven policemen beat theater director Zlatko Gulekov, allegedly for making excessive noise in public. Gulekov was reportedly beaten in a police station.
Fifteen members of the Special Police Unit went to another Sofia nightclub in July to avenge the ejection of one of their colleagues the night before. According to news reports quoting security employees of the club, an officer was ejected the night before because he was intoxicated and behaving aggressively. The 15 officers severely beat several employees of the club, 3 of whom subsequently required hospitalization. Interior Minister Bogimil Bonev reacted quickly by disbanding the unit. Despite an announcement that those officers responsible would be turned over to the military prosecutor, to date no reports of further prosecution have emerged.
Also in July, the families of three Romani girls between the ages of 10 and 14 accused the Elhovo police of brutality. They alleged that the police threatened the children with firearms, forced them to crawl on the ground while verbally abusing them with ethnic slurs, and then slapped the eldest and hit her with a truncheon. The girls were then reportedly intimidated into confessing to theft. The parents maintain that they were not informed of the detention of their daughters and have submitted a complaint to the Military Prosecutor's Office in Sliven; no action was taken on the complaint by year?s end.
In September a Rom, Ivo Karlovo, was arrested on suspicion of theft of a cow in Sopot. The police allegedly beat Karlovo with batons and metal wire and extinguished a cigarette in his palm while verbally abusing him with ethnic slurs. The Human Rights Project filed a complaint with the Military Prosecutor?s Office but has yet to receive a reply.
In October four police officers allegedly assaulted Roma in three cafes in Sofia?s Hristo Botev neighborhood. Witnesses claimed that the officers, who were drunk, beat bystanders and forced a couple out of bed and then made them crawl naked on the floor. Yanko Atanassov and his son Nikolai told Human Rights Project personnel that they were seriously injured in the attack. Yanko claimed to have been handcuffed and then beaten by the officers, and Nikolai said the policemen forced him to burn his father's genitals with a lighter.
A Human Rights Watch report released in 1996 documenting police mistreatment of Romani street children stated that police harass and physically abuse the children. Children described being chased, kicked, and grabbed by police on the street.
Conditions in some prisons are harsh, and iclude severe overcrowding, inadequate lavatory facilities, and insufficient heating and ventilation. Credible sources reported cases of brutality committed by prison guards against inmates; in some cases, prisoners who complained were placed in solitary confinement. The process by which prisoners may complain of substandard conditions or of mistreatment does not appear to function. Deputy Minister of Justice and Legal Euro-Integration Zlatka Rousseva visited 10 of Bulgaria's 13 prisons after taking office.
The Government cooperated fully with requests by independent observers to monitor conditions in those prisons under the authority of the Ministry of Justice. Such cooperation was not the case for the detention centers operated by the National Investigative Service (see Section l.d.).
The Constitution provides for protection against arbitrary arrest and detention; however, police often arbitrarily detain street children. The Constitution provides for access to legal counsel from the time of detention. Police normally obtain a warrant from a prosecutor prior to apprehending an individual; otherwise, in emergency circumstances judicial authorities must rule on the legality of a detention within 24 hours. Defendants have the right to visits by family members, to examine evidence, and to know the charges against them. Charges may not be made public without the permission of the chief prosecutor. Pretrial detention is limited to 2 months under normal circumstances, although this may be extended to 6 months by order of the Chief Prosecutor, who may also restart the process. In practice persons are often detained for well over 6 months. In an August interview, Deputy Minister of Justice Rousseva said that people were known to have spent up to 4 years in prison without an indictment. Under the terms of an August amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure, pretrial detention for new detainees can last no more than 1 year or, if the alleged offense is punishable by over 15 years? imprisonment, life imprisonment, or capital punishment, no more than 2 years.
As of August 1, According to the Ministry of Justice, 1,516 inmates were in pretrial detention, 2,403 were on trial, and 7,857 had been convicted (for a total inmate population of 11,776). These figures do not include those held in custody by the National Investigative Service (NIS), for which figures are not available. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has attempted without success to gain access to NIS facilities in order to investigate allegations of abuse. Attempts to obtain information on the numbers held have also met with frustration.
In the event of a conviction, time spent in pretrial detention is credited toward the sentence. The Constitution provides for bail, and some detainees have been released under this provision, although bail is not widely used.
A Human Rights Watch report in 1996 found that "police often arbitrarily detain street children, hold them in custody, question them, and then release them after registering the children with the Children's Pedagogic Office or referring them to a local Commission, the body which is authorized under the Juvenile Delinquency Act to recommend confinement of a child in a Labor Education School."
The Government does not use forced exile.
Under the Constitution the judiciary is granted independent and coequal status with the legislative and executive branches. However, the judiciary continues to struggle with problems such as corruption, low salaries, understaffing, antiquated procedures, and a heavy backlog of cases. Partly as a legacy of communism and partly because of the court system's corruption, structural, and personnel problems, many citizens have little confidence in the judicial system. Human rights groups complain that local prosecutors and magistrates sometimes fail to pursue vigorously crimes committed against minorities. Few organized crime figures have been prosecuted to date, but the new Government has made the battle against organized crime a priority and has reformed the Penal Code and sought external assistance to that end.
The court system consists of regional courts, district courts, and Supreme Courts of Cassation (civil and criminal appeal) and Administration. The Government has not yet carried out several of the reforms provided for in a 1994 judicial reform bill, including revised procedures for the two separate Supreme Courts. The Constitutional Court, which is separate from the normal court system, is empowered to rescind legislation it considers unconstitutional, settle disputes over the conduct of general elections, and resolve conflicts over the division of powers between the various branches of government. Military courts handle cases involving military personnel and some cases involving national security matters. The Constitutional Court does not have specific jurisdiction in matters of military justice. Judges are appointed by the 25-member Supreme Judicial Council and, after serving for 3 years, may not be replaced except under limited, specified circumstances. The 12 justices on the Constitutional Court are chosen for 9-year terms as follows: a third are elected by the National Assembly, a third appointed by the President, and a third elected by judicial authorities.
The Constitution stipulates that all courts shall conduct their hearings in public unless the proceedings involve state security or national secrets. There were no reported complaints about limited access to courtroom proceedings. Defendants have the right to learn of the charges against them and are given ample time to prepare a defense. The right of appeal is provided and widely used. Defendants in criminal proceedings have the right to confront witnesses and to have an attorney, provided by the state if necessary, in serious cases.
Human rights observers consider so-called "Educational Boarding Schools" (formerly known as "Labor Education Schools") to which problem children can be sent to be little different from penal institutions. However, since the schools are not considered prisons under the law, the procedures by which children are confined in these schools are not subject to minimal due process. This denial of due process is criticized by human rights observer groups such as the Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights. Children sometimes appear alone despite the requirement that parents attend hearings; the right to an attorney at the hearing is expressly prohibited by law. Decisions on these cases are not subject to judicial review, and children typically stay in the Educational Boarding Schools for 3 years or until they reach majority age, whichever occurs first. In late 1996, the National Assembly enacted legislation providing for court review of sentencing to such schools, setting a limit of a 3-year stay, and addressing other problems in these institutions (see Section 5). Some observers dismiss these provisions as a formality, as the child is not present to speak on his or her own behalf (nor is the defense lawyer, nor the child's parents).
Until September former dictator Todor Zhivkov remained under house arrest on charges stemming from his involvement in the coercive campaign to rename and assimilate ethnic Turks in the mid-1980's, channeling funds to arm third-world countries, and establishing a fund to assist leftist workers' organizations worldwide. Zhivkov was granted a temporary release in August in order to attend a function in his honor. In September the Military Prosecutor's Office released Zhivkov from house arrest but imposed parole-like conditions that require him to report regularly to the police and forbid him from leaving the country.
One of the primary figures in a long-running case involving the prosecution of former high-level Communists for various financial misdeeds, former Prime Minister and one-time senior Communist official Andrei Lukanov, brought a complaint against these proceedings to the European Commission of Human Rights. In 1996 the Commission ruled that the detention of Lukanov from July to December 1992 was unlawful. Although Lukanov was shot and killed in Sofia on October 2, 1996, the European Court of Human Rights found in Lukanov's favor in March and ordered the Government to pay damages, legal costs, and expenses to Lukanov's next-of-kin. The Government complied.
There was no progress in a case begun in 1993 relating to the forced assimilation and expulsion of ethnic Turks in 1984-85 and 1989, nor in a trial relating to the notorious death camps set up by the Communists after they came to power in 1944.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home, the right to choose one's place of work and residence, and the freedom and confidentiality of correspondence. Human rights observers expressed concern that illegal wiretaps may persist; speculation was fueled by an incident in January when, immediately after a journalist revealed in a telephone conversation his possession of a videotape allegedly incriminating the security services in police brutality, the police arrived at his home and confiscated the tape. Procedures were subsequently introduced by the Government that are designed to prevent the abuse of legal wiretaps by the security forces.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. In 1996 the National Assembly passed, over President Zhelev's veto, legislation that was publicly criticized by Council of Europe experts and Bulgarian journalists for the inhibitions it would impose on freedom of the broadcast media. Critics of the media law were concerned, for example, that the makeup of the National Council for Radio and Television would subject the media to political influence by the party in power. Asked by 74 opposition Members of Parliament to rule on the law, the Constitutional Court in November 1996 declared this and numerous other provisions unconstitutional. Until a revised bill is enacted, the broadcast media are left in a legislative void but operate freely. Meanwhile the Government appointed a new National Council.
A variety of newspapers are published freely by political parties and other organizations representing the full spectrum of political opinion, although journalists frequently color their reports to conform with the views of the political parties or economic groups that own their respective newspapers.
Some human rights observers charge that prosecutors use their authority to issue arrest warrants to intimidate reporters who criticize their work. However, only one case apparently occurred during the year, when journalist Yovka Atanassova was convicted in March of allegedly libeling prominent business and political figures whom she reported had worked as State Security Organization informants. Another journalist was released from prison after serving the full term of a 6-month sentence begun in 1996; he was convicted of libel for accusing a prosecutor of corruption.
Pending enactment of the new media legislation, national television and radio broadcasting both remained under parliamentary supervision. Some media observers expressed concern that such parliamentary supervision fosters censorship and a lack of balance in the state-controlled media. After confidential records of his government were made public in January 1998, it emerged that Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov restricted the national television network?s coverage of antigovernment demonstrations in January 1997.
There are two state-owned national television channels that broadcast in Bulgarian. Until the end of August, there was also a national channel that broadcast Russian programming and another that carried a mixture of Cable News Network International and French-language programming. All foreign broadcasts ended in the autumn when previously-granted broadcast licenses expired. Bulgarian National Television has been planning Turkish-language programming for at least 4 years, but broadcasts have not yet begun (there are, however, two daily half-hour radio broadcasts in Turkish). There is no private national broadcast station, but a number of privately owned regional stations operate. After initial government approval in the fall of 1994 of an application to create a privately owned national broadcast television station, no further steps have been taken by either the current or previous governments to license such a station.
Foreign government radio programs such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutsche Welle, and the Voice of America had good access to commercial radio frequencies. Television and radio news programs on the state-owned media present opposition views, but opposition members claim that their activities and views are given less air time and exposure than the those of the ruling party. There are no formal restrictions on programming. Both television and radio provide a variety of news and public interest programming, including talk and public opinion shows.
More than 30 independent radio stations are licensed. Some private stations complained that their licenses unduly restricted the strength of their transmissions in comparison with state-owned stations. Radio transmitter facilities are owned by the Government.
Private book publishing remained unhindered by political considerations, but publishers suffered heavy losses as a result of the economic crisis. Additionally, many publishing houses are small and operate on slender profit margins.
The Government respects academic freedom.
The right to peaceful assembly is provided for by the Constitution, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The authorities require permits for rallies and assemblies held outdoors, but most legally registered organizations were routinely granted permission to assemble. However, on several occasions police broke up gatherings and services of unregistered religious groups, including those of Jehovah's Witnesses, Word of Life, The Unification Church, and Baha'is. These religious groups were denied registration by the Council of Ministers. The Government also broke up a Muslim religious gathering in August; although the Muslim religion is recognized and subsidized by the State, this particular gathering was deemed "nonauthorized" (see Section 2.c.).
Vigorous political rallies and demonstrations were a common occurrence. Most took place without government interference, with the notable exception of the controversial events at the National Assembly building on January 10 and 11 (see Section l.c.).
The Government has undertaken to respect the rights of individuals and groups freely to establish their own political parties or other political organizations. However, there are constitutional and statutory restrictions that limit the right of association and meaningful participation in the political process. For example, the Constitution forbids the formation of political parties along religious, ethnic, or racial lines and prohibits "citizens' associations" from engaging in political activity. This provision is designed to prevent the development of parties based on a single ethnic or other group that could prove divisive for national unity by stirring up ethnic tension for political purposes. Nonetheless, the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) is represented in the National Assembly. The other major political parties generally accept the MRF's right to participate in the political process.
The Constitution also prohibits organizations that threaten the country's territorial integrity or unity or that incite racial, ethnic, or religious hatred. The Government has refused since 1990 to register a self-proclaimed Macedonian rights group, Omo-Ilinden, on the grounds that it is separatist. In April and again in May, police broke up attempts by the group to hold public meetings. There were no known prosecutions for simple membership in this group.
Although the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the Government restricts this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups. The ability of a number of religious groups to operate freely continued to come under attack, both as a result of government action and because of public intolerance. The government requirement that groups whose activities have a religious element register with the Council of Ministers remained an obstacle to the activity of some religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Word of Life, the Unification Church, and Baha'is, which have been denied registration. In December the Directorate of Religious Affairs registered the "United Evangelical Churches," an alliance of five evangelical churches, and in August it registered the Gideons as a "religious group."
The Ministry of Education announced plans to include a course on religion in the high school curriculum beginning with the 1998-99 school year. The plan reportedly calls for a "world religion" course that avoids endorsing any particular faith.
The Government refused many requests for visas and residence permits for foreign missionaries, some of whom came under physical attack in public places. Members of the Mormon Church reported continued acts of harassment and assault, including some perpetrated by government authorities themselves. Two groups of Mormon missionaries were singled out for extensive searches and had religious and other literature as well as personal belongings confiscated at Sofia Airport in April. At no point did the customs officials cite any law that would have been breached by the importation or possession of the Mormons' literature but insisted that they were acting under orders from their superiors. When one missionary was later advised that the items could be retrieved at the airport, he was arrested for alleged possession of methamphetamines which, according to customs authorities, were contained in over-the-counter dietary supplements that were removed from the missionaries' luggage at the time of confiscation. The Minister of Interior acted promptly to obtain his release. A criminal investigation is still pending.
In late 1995, Jehovah's Witnesses brought a complaint to the European Commission of Human Rights about the Government's refusal to register the organization. The Commission ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses' appeal was admissible before the Commission, and the Government subsequently indicated in the press that it might be willing to come to terms out of court with Jehovah's Witnesses on those practices that the Government has considered objectionable. Talks were continuing between the two parties at year?s end. Proposed legislation allowing alternatives to compulsory military service provided a possible opportunity for agreement. One member of Jehovah's Witnesses who was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military was released in 1997. Another member of Jehovah's Witnesses, an Austrian citizen, was ordered to leave the country in September.
On several occasions the police shut down religious meetings of unregistered groups. In April and August, police broke up Word of Life religious gatherings, and in May customs officials at Sofia Airport confiscated videotapes belonging to the same religious group. In April and in June, police broke up meetings of the Unification Church and confiscated literature and other items. In May two members of Jehovah's Witnesses in Petrich were beaten and driven out of town by local members of the political party "Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization." No action was taken by law enforcement authorities. In June police broke up a Jehovah's Witness gathering in Plovdiv and confiscated religious materials. In August police entered the home of a Jehovah's Witness member to break up a religious gathering, confiscated religious materials, books, and personal videos, and filmed those present at the meeting. Also in August, Haskovo municipal authorities banned a public meeting of Baha'is and forced them to abandon an apartment in the city. Later in August, police raided an Islamic religious seminar on the grounds that it was not registered. On this occasion, the police brought cameramen with them who recorded the raid for broadcast on national television news. These incidents lend credence to charges by human rights activists that the police are monitoring and interfering with the activities of many unregistered groups.
The Constitution designates Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the "traditional" religion. Along with the Orthodox Church, a number of major religious bodies, including the Muslim and Jewish communities, receive government financial support. There was no evidence that the Government discriminated against the members of any religious group in making restitution to previous owners of properties that were nationalized during the Communist regime. The Government actively supported property restitution for a group representing the Jewish community. For most registered religious groups, there were no restrictions on attendance at religious services or on private religious instruction. A school for imams, a Muslim cultural center, university theological faculties, and religious primary schools operated freely. Bibles and other religious materials in the Bulgarian language were on most occasions freely imported and printed, and Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish publications were published on a regular basis. Nevertheless, police confiscated religious literature during searches of Mormon missionaries, a visiting Word of Life minister, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
In September three Bulgarian Socialist Party members of Parliament proposed the levying of fines against those leaders of religious groups who have been denied registration yet continue to perform religious ceremonies. The fines would range from $56 to $560 (100,000 to 1 million Leva).
During compulsory military service most Muslims are placed in construction units where they often perform commercial or maintenance work rather than serve in normal military units. The mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) protested this practice (see Section 5).
A long-running feud in the Muslim community ended in October. Until then many Muslims viewed the Government?s recognition of Nedim Gendjev as Chief Mufti to be interference in their affairs. Many members of the ethnic Turkish minority viewed Gendjev as a collaborator with the "Regeneration Process" of the Zhivkov regime in the 1980's, during which many ethnic-Turkish citizens were intimidated into exchanging their Turkish names for Bulgarian ones. The Government continued to refuse to recognize the election of a rival Chief Mufti, Fikri Sali, who was elected at an alternative Islamic conference in 1995. In late October, the leadership of the Muslim community participated in a unification conference organized by the Government and elected a new Mufti, Mustafa Alish Hadji, who was found acceptable by the majority of supporters of both former rival muftis. The Government thereupon registered both Hadji and the new statutes of the Muslim leadership as adopted by the conference.
At the Department of Theology of Sofia University all students are required to present a certificate of baptism from the Orthodox Church, and married couples must present a marriage certificate from the same in order to enroll in the Department's classes; in 1996 two non-Orthodox applicants were denied admission to the Department when they were unable to present such certificates. The applicants then appealed to the local courts. One local court has already decided in favor of one applicant.
The schism that opened in the Orthodox Church in 1992 continued, and the Government refused to recognize an alternative Patriarch elected by his supporters in 1996. The Supreme Court ruled that the decision was unlawful, but the alternate Patriarch remained unregistered by the new Government.
The Constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave it, and these rights are not limited in practice, with the exception of limited border zones that are off limits both to foreigners and citizens not resident therein. Every citizen has the right to return to Bulgaria, may not be forcibly expatriated, and may not be deprived of citizenship acquired by birth. A number of former political emigrants were granted passports and returned to visit or live. The new Government revoked the passports of several former government figures who were under investigation for charges of corruption.
Bulgaria has provisions for granting asylum or refugee status in accordance with relevant United Nations acts in this field, and the Government provides first asylum. However, domestic and international human rights organizations expressed concern over the Government's handling of asylum claims and reported that there may be cases in which bona fide refugees are forced to return to countries where they fear persecution. In the absence of a refugee law, the procedures followed by the Government?s National Bureau for Territorial Asylum and Refugees (NBTAR) are regulated by an Ordinance for Granting and Regulating Refugee Status. The NBTAR is currently drafting a proposed refugee law, which has yet to be submitted to the National Assembly. The NBTAR asserts that it gives a fair hearing to all persons seeking asylum or refugee status but admits that there may be cases that do not come to its attention before the applicants are returned to the country from which they came. In 1996 the Ministry of Interior reported that 2,600 people were denied entry at borders over the past few years. It is not known how many of these persons requested asylum; no figures for 1997 were available.
The NBTAR reports that, from its inception in 1993 until August 31, a total of 1,798 people applied for asylum. Of these cases, 341 persons were granted asylum, 73 were denied, and for 186 applicants the procedure was terminated (usually because the applicant could not be found). Domestic and international human rights organizations complained that the asylum process is slow (it can take up to 4 years), and that many of those who have been granted refugee status have yet to receive the necessary documents enabling them to move about freely and work. Due to the arrival of only a relatively low number of refugees, the NBTAR is no longer seeking to establish reception centers (blocked in 1994 by skinheads and local citizens groups) but still plans to open transit centers.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens have the right to change their government and head of state through the election of the President and of the members of the National Assembly, although the constitutional prohibition of parties formed on ethnic, racial, or religious lines has the effect of circumscribing access to the political process for some groups (see Section 2.b.). Suffrage is universal at the age of 18.
Citizens exercised the right to change their government in April. Popular unrest in the form of general strikes and daily protests during the political crisis of January and early February led to a political capitulation by an extremely unpopular and widely discredited government and agreement to move immediately to new elections. The populace believed that the Government, dominated by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, bore the brunt of the blame for the economic malaise that began with the banking crisis in the spring of 1996 and worsened with the collapse of the national currency (Lev) in late 1996 and early 1997. The Government bowed to popular pressure and agreed on February 4 to allow President Petar Stoyanov (who was elected in late 1996 and took office in January) of the United Democratic Forces to select a caretaker government in preparation for early parliamentary elections in April. Free and fair elections, which were observed by international monitors, were held on April 19 and resulted in an absolute majority for the UDF. UDF parliamentary group leader (and former opposition leader) Ivan Kostov was chosen by his party as Prime Minister.
There are no restrictions in law on the participation of women in government. A number of women hold elective and appointive office at high levels, including three cabinet-level posts and several key positions in the National Assembly. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and the leader of the UDF parliamentary group (the dominant party in the new Government) are both women. Women hold just under 11 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
Local and international human rights groups operate freely, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Local human rights groups did not report significant improvement in their dealings with government officials. Government officials, especially local officials, are occasionally reluctant to provide information or active cooperation. The failure of the National Investigative Service to allow access by human rights groups to its detention centers is of particular concern.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution provides for individual rights, equality, and protection against discrimination, but in practice discrimination still exists, particularly against Roma and women.
There have been reports of inadequate police response to incidents of societal violence against homosexuals, but few victims of such assaults are willing to press charges. Police also beat homosexuals during one incident in March (see Section 2.c.).
Domestic abuse is a serious and common problem, but there are no official statistics on its occurrence. The Animus Association (AA), a nongovernmental organization that offers help and support to female victims of violence, reported 65 cases of domestic violence and 5 cases of trafficking in women between May 1996 and September 1, 1997. The actual incidence of each is certainly much higher, as these represent those cases in which the victim (or, in some trafficking cases, an overseas women's group) was willing and able to contact Animus.
Currently the law exempts from state prosecution certain types of assault if committed by a family member, and the Government does not assist in prosecuting crimes of domestic assault unless the woman has been killed or permanently injured. The courts prosecute rape, although it remains an underreported crime because some stigma still attaches to the victim. The maximum sentence for rape is 8 years; convicted offenders often receive a lesser sentence or early parole. Ministry of Interior figures reveal that from January through April, 14 women were murdered, 14 were victims of attempted murder, 53 suffered serious injuries, 119 were reported raped, and 16 were reported as victims of attempted rape. Marital rape is a crime but is rarely prosecuted. Courts and prosecutors tend to view domestic abuse as a family rather than a criminal problem, and in most cases victims of domestic violence take refuge with family or friends rather than approach the authorities. No government agencies provide shelter or counseling for such persons, although there is a private initiative to address the problem.
In 1997 the Government for the first time enacted a law against trafficking in women. Several cases of trafficking in women were uncovered between May 1996 and September 1997. The AA reports that, according to foreign women's organizations, Bulgarian women comprise the fourth largest group of victims of forced prostitution in Western and Central Europe. Typically, the women are lured away with offers of overseas jobs as nannies, waitresses, dancers, shop assistants, or fruit-pickers and are surprised to discover that virtual indentured servitude in prostitution awaits them. The AA also reports that the most common destination for such women is Cyprus, but that Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Macedonia have all been used either for the transit or "sale" of victims. One victim alleged that the police were involved in trafficking her in the town of Petrich, although this report has not been confirmed. Women have reportedly been lured into Bulgaria from the former Soviet Union and Macedonia, also for forced prostitution.
Many of the approximately 30 women's organizations are closely associated with political parties or have primarily professional agendas. Some observers believe that women's organizations tend to be associated with political parties or professional groups because feminism in itself has negative connotations in Bulgarian society. Of those that exist mainly to defend women's interests, the two largest are the Women's Democratic Union in Bulgaria, heir to the group that existed under the Communist dictatorship, and the Bulgarian Women's Association, which disappeared under communism but has now reemerged and has chapters in a number of cities.
The Constitution forbids privileges or restrictions of rights on the basis of sex. However, women face discrimination both in terms of recruitment and the likelihood of layoffs. Official figures show the rate of unemployment for women to be higher than that for men. Women are much more likely than men to be employed in low-wage jobs requiring little education, although statistics show that women are equally likely to attend university. Women, in the main, continue to have primary responsibility for child rearing and housekeeping even if they are employed outside the home. There are liberal provisions for paid maternity leave.
The Government is generally committed to protecting children's welfare but, with limited resources, falls short in several areas. It maintains, for example, a sizable network of orphanages throughout the country. However, many are in disrepair and lack proper facilities. Government efforts in education and health have been constrained by serious budgetary limitations and by outmoded social care structures. The Constitution provides for mandatory school attendance until the age of 16. Groups that exist to defend the rights of children charge that an increasing number of children are at serious risk as social insurance payments fall further behind inflation and are often disbursed as much as 6 months late; this situation was compounded in the early months of the year when the Lev was losing value rapidly. The most egregious example of neglect occurred at the Home for Mentally Handicapped Children in Djurkovo, where seven children died from malnutrition and hypothermia in January and February. According to Amnesty International, 9-year-old Angelina Atanasova weighed 7 kilograms (15 1/2 pounds) when she died on February 25, and 18-year-old Diana Dechkova weighed 11 kilograms (24 pounds) when she died 2 days later.
There is apparently no provision for due process of law for Romani and other juveniles when they are detained in Labor Education Schools run by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Living conditions at these reform schools are poor, offering little medical, educational, or social opportunities. Generally, staff members at these institutions lack the proper qualifications and training to adequately care for the children. Degrading and severe punishment, such as the shaving of a child's head, reduction in diet, severe beatings, and long periods of solitary confinement, are common at the schools. In 1996 the MOE acknowledged problems at the schools, attributing the cause to a lack of funding. In late 1996, the National Assembly enacted legislation providing for court review of sentencing to such schools and addressing other problems in the reform school system (see Section 1.e.).
The vast majority of children are free from societal abuse, although some Romani children are frequent targets of skinhead groups; homeless or abandoned children were particularly vulnerable. Some Romani minors were forced into prostitution by family or community members. Little police effort was expended to address these problems. New legislation calls for the establishment of shelters for homeless children.
People With Disabilities
Disabled persons receive a range of financial assistance, including free public transportation, reduced prices on modified automobiles, and free equipment such as wheelchairs. However, as in other areas, budgetary constraints mean that such payments have fallen behind. Disabled individuals have access to university training and to housing and employment, although no special programs are in place to allow them to live up to their full employment potential. To date little effort has been made at the national level to change building or street layouts to help blind or otherwise physically disabled persons. A pilot project for minibus transportation of people with disabilities began operation in December in six major cities.
In 1995 the National Assembly passed legislation requiring the relevant ministry and local governments to provide a suitable living and architectural environment for the disabled within 3 years. However, a moratorium on the law continues until the Ministry of Construction has completed issuing new construction standards that more fully take into account the needs of the disabled. The Union of Disabled People in Bulgaria reports that minor improvements (i.e., ramps in hospitals) are being made on a local level in some areas. Policies of the Communist regime, which separated mentally and physically disabled persons, including very young children, from the rest of society have persisted.
Discrimination, harassment, and general public intolerance of "nontraditional" religious minorities (i.e., the great majority of Protestant Christian religions) remained a problem. Deep-rooted suspicion of Evangelical denominations among the populace is widespread and pervasive across the political spectrum. Often cloaked in a veneer of "patriotism," a lack of tolerance for the religious beliefs of others enjoys significant popularity, and mainstream public pressure for containment of "foreign religious sects" inevitably influences policymakers.
An Evangelical Congress held in May in Sofia was greeted with an outpouring of hostility. A purported provocative comment by a visiting American pastor (who allegedly referred to Bulgarians as "pagans") triggered demonstrations by clergy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, certain political parties, University of Sofia theology students, and other students who joined the theology students in a gesture of solidarity. Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim referred to the Evangelicals as "traitors of faith and country." Orthodox priests were among the most militant protesters, engaging in disorderly conduct that tried the patience of riot police on the scene. In one instance, police were seen to react quickly in defense of four Evangelical churchgoers when mob behavior threatened their safety. One newspaper ran a story during the Evangelical Congress in which an apparently gratuitous link was made between the suicide of a 15-year-old boy and "the influence of a sect." Chief prosecutor Ivan Tatarchev later commented that the May Evangelical Congress "should have been banned." The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (a political party represented in the governing coalition, with two seats in the National Assembly) also condemned Evangelical groups. In the face of this religious harassment, not a single Bulgarian politician spoke out in favor of the right of all citizens to worship according to their own beliefs.
Numerous articles in a broad range of newspapers depicted lurid and inaccurate pictures of the activities of non-Orthodox religious groups, attributing the breakup of families to the practices of these groups.
Groups denied registration such as Word of Life and Jehovah's Witnesses faced discriminatory practices (see Sections 2.b. and 2.c.), as did registered groups which, despite full compliance with the law, were greeted with hostility by the press, public, and certain government officials. Mormon missionaries reported numerous incidents of both official and private harassment, most notably by customs officers (see Section 2.c.). They were also assaulted on occasion. The police took no action when two members of Jehovah?s Witnesses were beaten in Petrich in May (see Section 2.c.).
Ethnic Turks comprise almost 10 percent of the population. Although estimates of the Romani population vary widely, several experts put it at about 6 percent. (Bulgarian Muslims or "Pomaks" are a distinct group of Slavic descent, comprising 2 to 3 percent of the population, whose ancestors converted from Orthodox Christianity to Islam. Most are Muslim, although a number have become atheists or converted to Christianity.) These are the country's two largest minorities. There are no restrictions on the speaking of Turkish in public or the use of non-Slavic names.
Voluntary Turkish-language classes in public schools, funded by the Government, continued in areas with significant Turkish-speaking populations, although some observers complained that the Government was discouraging the optional language classes in areas with large concentrations of Bulgarian Muslims. According to MOE figures, there are 844 Turkish language teachers for 64,000 children who study Turkish as their mother tongue. Some ethnic Turkish leaders, mainly in the MRF, demanded that Turkish-language schooling be made compulsory in ethnic Turkish areas, but the Government has resisted this.
In the 1992 census approximately 3.4 percent of the population identified itself as Romani. The real figure is probably about twice that high, since many persons of Romani descent tend to identify themselves to the authorities as ethnic Turks or Bulgarians. Romani groups continued to be divided among themselves, although several groups had some success presenting Romani issues to the Government. As individuals and as an ethnic group, Roma faced high levels of discrimination.
Attacks by private citizens on Romani communities continued. On July 20 in Sliven, four youths ranging in age from 12 to 16 beat a Roma woman, continuing to kick her after she had fallen to the ground. The woman died of her injuries the next day. When asked why they committed such a crime, one boy replied that he wanted to kill her because she was a Gypsy. In December the district court at Sliven sentenced Miroslav Karapetkov, age 16, to 1? years in prison and Hranimir Petkov, age 16, to 6 months? imprisonment on probation. Two of the other attackers, both age 13, could not be tried, since they were juvenile offenders.
On April 6, according to Human Rights Project, 5 Roma were beaten in front of the town hall in Sredno Selo by a crowd of approximately 100 persons after they were accused of stealing cattle from a nearby village.
On June 1, three apparently drunken soldiers violently harassed Roma in the village of Sarantsi. According to witnesses, they entered the Roma neighborhood and beat several passers-by while shooting at others. One man was shot in the stomach at close range. The police arrested the soldier who fired the weapon, and an investigation is under way.
The investigation into the death of Anguel Ivanov, who was killed by seven teenagers in Shumen in 1996 remains incomplete. One of the victims of an attack by skinheads on three Roma in Samokov in 1996 filed charges, which were refused by the District Prosecutor?s Office in February. After an appeal by an attorney from Human Rights Project, the case was reopened for additional investigation.
Police harass, physically abuse, and arbitrarily arrest Romani street children (see Sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Roma encounter difficulties applying for social benefits, and rural Roma are discouraged from claiming land to which they are entitled under the law disbanding agricultural collectives. Many Roma and other observers made credible allegations that the quality of education offered to Romani children is inferior to that afforded most other students. The Government has been largely unsuccessful in attracting and keeping many Romani children in school.
Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem, especially for Roma. Employers justify such discrimination on the basis that most Roma have relatively low training and education. Supervisory jobs are generally given to ethnic Bulgarian employees, with ethnic Turks, Bulgarian Muslims, and Roma among the first to be laid off.
During compulsory military service most Roma (and Muslims--see Section 2.c.) are shunted into units where they often perform commercial, military construction, or maintenance work rather than serve in normal military units. The MRF protested this practice, as did human rights groups and labor observers who cited it as a violation of International Labor Organization (ILO) accords. There are only a few ethnic Turkish and Romani officers in the military, and reportedly only one high-ranking Muslim officer.
Thousands of Bulgarians, mainly in the southwest, identify themselves as Macedonians, most for historical and geographic reasons. Members of the two organizations that purport to defend their interests, Omo-Ilinden and Tmo-Ilinden, are believed to number in the hundreds (see Section 2.b.).
Section 6 Worker Rights
The 1991 Constitution provides for the right of all workers to form or join trade unions of their own choice, and this right was apparently freely exercised. Estimates of the unionized share of the work force range from 30 to 50 percent. This share continues to shrink as large firms lay off workers, and most new positions appear in small, nonunionized businesses.
There are two large trade union confederations, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB), and Podkrepa. CITUB, the successor to the trade union controlled by the former Communist regime, operates as an independent entity. Podkrepa, an independent confederation created in 1989, was one of the earliest opposition forces but is no longer a member of the Union of Democratic Forces, formerly the main opposition party and now in Government. In 1995 a third trade union confederation, the Community of Free Union Organizations in Bulgaria (CFOUB), was admitted to the National Tripartite Coordination Council (NTCC), which includes employers and the Government (see Section 6.b.). In 1996 a new self-described labor union/civic organization called "Promyana" (Bulgarian for "change") was founded with the explicit goal of removing the Bulgarian Socialist Party from power via early elections. Although never officially registered as a labor union, Promyana attracted members of various professions and trades to its ranks and participated visibly in the January and early February demonstrations.
The 1992 Labor Code recognizes the right to strike when other means of conflict resolution have been exhausted, but "political strikes" are forbidden. This prohibition was widely ignored in January and early February when workers across the country from a variety of industries joined with students and then-opposition political parties in massive general strikes that brought much of the country?s economic activity to a halt. The strikes ended when agreement was reached on February 4 to hold early parliamentary elections in April.
Workers in essential services are prohibited from striking, but a common practice of such workers is to hold an "effective strike" in which they stop or slow their activities for an hour or two. This practice was employed repeatedly in the politically motivated popular unrest in January and early February.
No evidence emerged that the Government interfered with the right to strike, and several work stoppages took place. The Labor Code's prohibitions against antiunion discrimination include a 6-month period of protection against dismissal as a form of retribution. While these provisions appear to be within international norms, there is no mechanism other than the courts for resolving complaints, and the burden of proof in such a case rests entirely on the employee.
No restrictions exist on affiliation or contact with international labor organizations, and unions actively exercise this right.
The Labor Code institutes collective bargaining, which is practiced nationally and on a local level. The legal prohibition against striking for key public sector employees weakens their bargaining position; however, these groups were able to influence negotiations by staging protests and engaging in other pressure activities without going on strike. Both CITUB and Podkrepa complained that while the legal structure for collective bargaining was adequate, many employers failed to bargain in good faith or adhere to agreements reached. Labor observers viewed the Government's enforcement of labor contracts as inadequate.
There were several instances in which an employer was found guilty of antiunion discrimination, but the employers appealed the decisions. The backlog of cases in the legal system delayed further action, effectively postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the redress of workers' grievances.
The same obligation of collective bargaining and adherence to labor standards prevails in the export processing zones, and unions may organize workers in these areas.
The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including that performed by children. Many observers argued that the practice of shunting minority and conscientious-objector military draftees into work units that often carry out commercial construction and maintenance projects is a form of compulsory labor (see Section 5). The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) reported in December that the Slavovitsa Labor Educational School employs forced child labor to produce articles sold in domestic and international markets. According to the report, minors are used as prison laborers for agricultural and industrial tasks as well. The BHC claims that forced labor by underage detainees occurs in many "Labor Educational Schools," but cites Slavovitsa as the most egregious offender.
The Labor Code sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years; the minimum age for dangerous work is set at 18 years. Since children are not legally permitted to work, and the Constitution forbids forced or compulsory labor for all, forced and bonded labor by children is also forbidden by law. However, reports of such practices emerged during the year (see Section 6.c.). Employers and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) are responsible for enforcing these provisions. Child labor laws are enforced well in the formal sector, but at least one child protection group believes that children are increasingly exploited in certain industries (especially small family-owned shops, construction, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution and distribution of narcotics). No reliable data are currently available for the informal sector. According to the ILO, to date no violators of child labor laws have been fined or imprisoned. Underage employment in the informal and agricultural sectors is increasing as collective farms are broken up and the private sector continues to grow. In addition, children are known to work on family-owned tobacco farms.
The national monthly minimum wage at the close of the year was approximately $25 (45,500 Leva). The minimum wage is not enough to provide a wage earner and family with a decent standard of living. Nonpayment of wages and wage payments in arrears increased as many firms registered increasing losses in the opening weeks of 1997 during the worst days of the economic crisis. Twelve state-owned plants reportedly paid no wages at all in the second quarter. The extremely high inflation (and accompanying devaluation of the Lev) prevailing at that time further eroded the value of delayed salary payments. The Constitution stipulates the right to social security and welfare aid assistance for the temporarily unemployed, although in practice such assistance is often either late or not paid.
The Labor Code provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours with at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The MLSW is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. Enforcement has been generally effective in the state sector but is weaker in the emerging private sector.
A national labor safety program exists, with standards established by the Labor Code. The Constitution stipulates that employees are entitled to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions. The MLSW is responsible for enforcing these provisions. Under the Labor Code, employees have the right to remove themselves from work situations that present a serious or immediate danger to life or health without jeopardizing their continued employment. In practice a refusal to work in situations with relatively high accident rates or associated chronic health problems would result in the loss of employment for many workers. Conditions in many cases are worsening due to budget stringencies and a growing private sector that labor inspectors do not yet supervise effectively. Protective clothing is often absent from hazardous areas (goggles for welders, helmets for construction workers, etc.) since employers often imply that payment for such measures would have to be deducted from the overall budget used to pay workers' wages. Although the prestige of organized labor rose with the ultimate success of the popular general strikes early in the year, the overall well-being of workers deteriorated in 1997. The pervasive economic crisis and imminent, long-overdue privatizations have created a heightened fear of unemployment, leading to a reluctance on the part of workers to pursue wage and safety demands.
On September 1, the country suffered its worst mining disaster when seven miners were killed and many more were injured in an accident at the Bobov Dol pits (three more miners later died of their injuries). An investigation revealed that negligence due to a lack of proper safety precautions was responsible for the disaster.