Disorder in Bulgarian Courts BOL - 2005/7/25
Admission into the European Union has been the Holy Grail for Bulgarians since the Communist Party lost power here more than 15 years ago. But one of the EU´s most crucial standards--a fair and well-functioning judicial system--seems beyond the country's grasp.

The EU repeatedly cites Bulgaria's slow pace in judicial reform as the one issue that could hang up its entry into the world's largest group of liberal democracies. American Ambassador James Pardew regularly blasts officials here for not bagging any big fish in a country awash in corruption.

In truth, Bulgarians are pushing for change. But their progress is hampered by the nature of the system they've inherited. Not only are they dealing with a legal bureaucracy that bears the stamp of communist inefficiency and lack of accountability, but the judicial system set up in the wake of the old regime's collapse is also uniquely resistant to reform.

In 1991, Bulgaria established the judiciary as a separate but equal branch of government, as it is in many Western countries. Unlike many Western countries, however, prosecutors were also heaped in with the courts. So the judges who decide cases and the attorneys who prosecute them on behalf of the state are in a sense part of the same institution. The Supreme Judicial Council, a hodgepodge of judges, prosecutors, investigators, prominent lawyers and government ministers, appoints both judges and prosecutors, for example.

At the time, the idea was that the law would be outside the reach of politicians. Bulgaria, after all, had plenty of experience with its rulers using puppet prosecutors and judges to railroad so-called enemies of the state into prison or worse.

Now, however, the problem is reversed, say Bulgarian and foreign legal experts. The politicians don't have any say over how the prosecutors or judges act. They can't pressure them to get in line. So is it any wonder reform has been slow? Few politicians willingly accept the burden of fixing a broken system.

´´The government bears no responsibility in case there is a failure to face crime,´´said Sofia District Court Judge Nelly Koutzkova, chair of the Association of Judges in Bulgaria. ´´This is a very good excuse for their failure to cope.´´

Worse, lacking political intervention, the judicial system has become a fiefdom unto itself, experts say, often more concerned with its own survival than enforcing the law. ´´We have several autonomous bureaucratic mechanisms that are self-regarding to a large extent,´´ said Yonko Grozev of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

The right hand not knowing what the left was doing was evident in the case of Serbian Colonel Cedomir Brankovic.

In late April, Bulgarian police arrested Brankovic on an Interpol warrant. He's accused of torching Catholic churches and killing civilians in Croatia during the Yugolsav war. The courts then released him because he was part of a diplomatic mission. The Foreign Ministry sided with the police. The appeals court reaffirmed the lower court's ruling.

The drama around Brankovic occurred days after Bulgaria signed its EU accession treaty. The EU, remember, put Croatia's membership talks on hold after that Balkan nation was deemed too lax in pursuing its war criminals.

Because judges are supposed to be above political and public opinion, a lack of accountability is especially evident in the prosecutor's office, which Grozev says pursues its own agenda along with its legal work. ´´We expect that system to be more impartial and de-politicized,´´ he said. ´´In practice there is a very high level of politicization. It runs under the surface. It is not based on official power.´´

Crime and corruption are thriving in this environment. In April, the Financial Times reported that 60 organized crime leaders in Bulgaria were assassinated over the past year, many gunned down in the streets of Sofia. Illegal construction on the Black Sea threatens to spoil the ecosystem there. Almost 14 percent of companies doing business in Bulgaria in 2003 obtained licenses or permits by bribing public officials, according to Coalition 2000, a network of NGO's dedicated to stamping out corruption here. In June 2003, according to the coalition, more than 45 percent of firms receiving state contracts bribed officials in the bidding process.

Still more egregious is the lack of action taken against Bulgaria's ex-communist leaders, who absconded with state assets as their regime toppled from power. Bringing them to justice and reclaiming some of the ´´red money´´ would serve the function of ten truth and reconciliation commissions. But prosecutors and investigators are too aloof, too stubborn, too underfunded or too corrupt themselves to receive the training they need to undertake such complicated investigations, observers say.

´´Prosecutors and the system as a whole needs more expertise in tracking down financial crime,´´said Tom Peebles, a legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy here.

Some change of mentality is necessary on the part of the courts as well. Roumen Nenkov, vice president of the Supreme Court of Cassation--the last court of appeals in Bulgaria--was not very sanguine about bringing Bulgaria's former communist leaders to justice. ´´They didn't need to steal from the country, as all the country was theirs,´´ Nenkov said. ´´e have a rule that you cannot convict they guy when something has not been criminalized. Some things cannot be detected at all--the way they trafficked money from the country.´´

When U.S. authorities couldn't nail American gangsters in the 1920's on serious crimes everyone knew they committed, they went after them on lesser charges like tax evasion.

One can see why Europe might be concerned with these issues. The deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior's Counter-Organized Crime Unit, Ivan Yovchev, admitted that more heroin is trafficked through Bulgaria than other European countries. He added that Bulgarian users can't even handle the amount of drugs his officers seize. The extra, therefore, is landing in places like Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Milan and Paris.

´´These are crimes that rise to the level of being a problem in other European countries,´´ Yovchev said. Even when Bulgarian officials take action to satisfy EU demands, it's an uphill battle. Proposed penal code reforms have fallen by the wayside as Justice Minister Anton Stankov, SJC members and Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev quibbled over how they didn't have time to review the documents. Stankov has said Bulgaria will institute a package of reforms by the end of the year. Not at this pace.

Adding to the inertia is a personal feud between the President of the Supreme Court of Cassation, Ivan Grigorov, and Chief Prosecutor Nikola Filchev. The two were once friends, but their relations soured in recent years. Filchev has ordered probes into construction work at the Justice Chamber building on Vitosha Boulevard, the innuendo being that Grigorov might somehow be profiting from the project.

In March, Filchev kicked court workers out of some rooms in the building, saying the space was being transferred to his office. The court workers acknowledged they had to move, but said they needed more time to pack documents and equipment. It was an unseemly episode, the prosecutor forcing clerks to interrupt court business because he wanted space for his staff.

Supreme Court of Cassation Vice President Nenkov, who is widely seen as representing Grigorov's view in public, has fired back. ´´The institution of the investigators and prosecutors was infiltrated by the communists,´´ he said. ´´The prosecutor is acting like a party now. It is high time to say the problem relates to the constitutional place of the prosecution.´´

Bulgarian prosecutors should be part of the government, just as they are in many Western countries, so they are more accountable to the public, Nenkov said.

Filchev's office did not respond to numerous requests for a statement. But you get a sense of his point-of-view from comments he made at a prosecutors' conference earlier this month. According to the Sofia News Agency, he suggested granting amnesty to former officials who exported capital out of Bulgaria before the end of one-party rule. The next day, however, he changed his mind.

´´Amnesty?´´ he told the news agency. ´´Haven't you forgotten about that already?´

Author: Newropeans magazine

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