Analysis for Civic Space Watch by Zahari Iankov, lawyer, Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Context – Political Actions
Since the end of the initial state of emergency in relation to COVID–19 and the easing of the anti-pandemic measures in June, Bulgarians took to the streets of Sofia and other towns to protest one of the latest acts of over-construction on the Black Sea coast. This ecologically driven protest wave coincided with a viral Facebook live released by the oppositional leader Hristo Ivanov on 7 July. In the video, he reached by boat a beach on the Black Sea cost which, despite being public property, is unreachable because of the nearby mansion owned by a Bulgarian oligarch. After reaching the beach, Hristo Ivanov was pushed back into the water by unidentified men. Allegations were made that those men work for the National Service for Protection (NSP – in charge of the protection of state VIPs). Although NSP initially declined this information, the next day (8 July), the President himself confirmed that indeed the unidentified men were NSP employees. Instead of undertaking immediate actions to deal with the growing scandal, on 9 July the Prosecution led a spectacular raid in the presidency arresting high–level members of the President’s administration and searching offices in the building. Although it was announced that this action was in connection with a several months old investigation, the general public did not seem to believe this to be a coincidence. That evening the first big demonstration took place in Sofia in a wave which is still continuing in September for the 63 days.
Despite the fact that initially the protest was instigated by the actions of some political figures, it is interesting to note that the protests have no clear leadership, although several civil society entities are mainly organising events and actions in its scope. Despite the participation of different groups and people with variety of views, the following demands can be outlined as common for the majority of the demonstrators:
- resignation of the Prime Minister Bojko Borissov and his government as well as the Chief Prosecutor;
- machine voting at elections;
- reforms in the judicial system, mainly concerning the figure of the Chief Prosecutor.
The government, pro-governmental media outlets and the prosecution are promoting a narrative aiming to delegitimise the protest. The main points of this narrative are:
- The protest does not provide a clear political alternative for the future and, therefore, resignation of the government is not an option;
- The protests are illegal – either because there are not allowed (although permission for a protest is not needed), because they breach the rights of non-participants (e.g. their right of freedom of movement), or because demonstrators breach the traffic laws by blocking roads (by setting camps at intersections);
- The protests are violent or might turn violent at any point – the latter is often hinted by public statements of the police itself;
- The leaders of the protests are civil society leaders with unclear and anti-national goals.
Interestingly the anti-pandemic measures were not used to disperse the protest.
After a public outcry instigated by police brutality during the protest on 10 July, the demonstrations continued peacefully with some minor and isolated incidents. This, however, changed on the 2 September when a big demonstration alongside the return of the Parliament for the first time after a month–long vacation.
Police Brutality and Skirmishes on the Second of September in Sofia
The 56th day of protests in Bulgaria started off early in the morning when people gathered in front of the Parliament building. There, they were met by unprecedented police presence: in previous days, hundreds of policemen were deployed from all over the country to the capital.
From the very morning, it was clear that on this day the protest will not be as peaceful as the previous demonstrations. Skirmishes with the police started right away and by early in the afternoon some 45 people sought medical help mainly due to injuries inflicted by teargas.
In the evening, tensions escalated once more. Small groups and individuals started tossing objects and fireworks against the police while the majority of the people were still protesting peacefully. The police endured the attacks without any intervention until 11:00 p.m. when they started to push back the crowd. This quickly turned in indiscriminate police violence. Several hours after, the protest was successfully dispersed. The police removed camps of protestors set at two intersections in the center of Sofia which were distanced from the main protest sight.
According to the official information released by the police, 80 policemen were injured and 126 people were arrested on the second of September (called by some the Bloody Wednesday). Reports show that amongst the injured there were journalists. A notable case concerns journalist Dimitar Kenarov who was beaten by the police and then held handcuffed on the street. The prosecution indicted 34 people among the arrested. However, all of the arrested but one were released by the court several days later, proving that the police mostly attacked and captured random people and not the actual perpetrators. No policemen were indicted and no information on investigations of police brutality was released.
Violations of the Right to Peaceful Assembly
The events on 2 September might be characterised as a failure of the Bulgarian authorities to guarantee the full enjoyment of the right to peaceful assembly.
According to eyewitnesses the majority of the policemen deployed to guarantee order during the protest were lacking proper identification (ID numbers on their uniforms) making it difficult to identify possible perpetrators of police violence. On the other hand, some policemen were spotted wearing insignias (which are not part of the official uniforms) depicting skulls and even writings such as “one shot, one kill.” A policeman was also caught on camera wearing brass knuckles. This behaviour and the fact that policemen from all kinds of task forces – from traffic police to special task force meant to investigate animal abuse, were deployed in the protest raises the question if the policemen were properly trained for policing assemblies.
The police also failed to identify the groups and individuals who were violent during the protest, thus failing to assure the right to peaceful assembly to the non-violent majority. Many people present at the protest claimed to have pointed out to policemen the perpetrators of violent acts, but no actions were taken until an all out dispersion of the protest was started. Consequently it turned out that next to none of the arrested people were involved in violent acts.
The authorities are also failing to prosecute or punish any policemen involved in police brutality or arbitrary arrests. The biased approach of the prosecution became even more evident when it did not start an investigation against a policeman who’s testimonies before the court were disregarded because he claimed to have been present on several arrests at different locations and at same time.
The authorities also failed to investigate police violence against journalists covering the protest triggering a reaction by the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights.
Since the beginning of the protests in July, authorities are also failing to recognise the road blockades as legitimate form of protest by obstructing or removing them using various excuses – breach of traffic laws, obstruction of the freedom of movement and on the second of September in particular – claiming that there is a possibility for objects that could be used as weapons to be stored in the tents put on the roads.
Despite the violence that unveiled on 2 September, the protests continue in Sofia, other cities in Bulgaria and even in cities abroad. The main mean of information for the organisation remains Facebook as there is no evidence of Internet blackouts or other forms of censorship of the Internet as observed in some other countries.