Arrests in Bulgaria in 2020: Observations by the BHC and the response of the authorities

“The topic of arrests in Bulgaria is very interesting, including from a human rights point of view. Arrests are part of the penitentiary system, but they seem to remain in the shadow of prisons and what happens in them does not reach the media or there are separate publications only after the detention of some public figures, as was the case with Desislava Ivancheva. Perhaps this lack of information on arrests also affects the pace of reforms in them – if prisons have undergone major repairs in the last 10 years, we are seeing only either cosmetic repairs or the closing and relocation of arrests to prisons in big cities. In the last two years, such shifts have taken place in the arrests in Stara Zagora and Sliven, and this is still a positive development for the system.”

With this comment from the researchers of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee began the information meeting with a team of the General Directorate for the Execution of Sentences (GDIN) and a representative of the National Preventive Mechanism to the Ombudsman, which took place within the project “Evaluation of the Prison Reform in Bulgaria: Legislation and Practice Following the Pilot Judgement of the ECtHR “Neshkov and Others”. The meeting was attended by the Deputy Minister of Justice Prof. Nikolay Prodanov, the Director General of GDIN Ivaylo Yordanov and other specialists from the Directorate, as well as the BHC Chairman Krassimir Kanev and the researchers from the Monitoring and Research Program Stanimir Petrov and Antoaneta Nenkova.

The human rights organization and the administration are partnering on the project in order to identify problems and look for solutions together to support the plans for reform of the penitentiary system in Bulgaria.

The roots of the reform

The BHC has been monitoring the arrests since the beginning of 1999, when they passed from the National Investigation Service to the Ministry of Justice and Legal European Integration, recalled Stanimir Petrov, a specialist in the BHC’s Monitoring and Research Program. At that time, the expectations that the state would pay the necessary attention to this system were reasonable and necessary, he commented.

The reforms began even then with the gradual closure of small detention facilities, the banning of buckets for physiological needs and the installation of separate beds in cells. In several detention centers, according to the available opportunities, dedicated grounds for outdoor stays and visiting rooms have been built, Petrov reminded.

However, according to him, in many cases the material base of the old detention facilities does not allow reconstructions at all, in order to bring their state to compliance with the standards for treatment of detainees. That is why the closure of two thirds of the arrests in the country since then and their concentration in the regional cities, which also allows concentration of the efforts for bringing these places to the standards, is the biggest step in the reform so far. In 1998, there were 89 arrests in the country, and in 2020 there were only one for each of the 28 Bulgarian districts.

(Table: Number of remand centers by years. Source: GDIN)

BHC observations for 2020

The picture today is undoubtedly better than in 1999, but there are still many problems awaiting resolution. In 2020, the BHC team visited 16 of the detention facilities in the country and outlined the problems in terms of facilities and living conditions, the treatment of detainees, as well as other factors such as access to information and activities. The BHC specialists were categorical that the visits to the detention centers took place with full cooperation and responsiveness on the part of the GDIN employees.

Here are some of their major findings:

  • Overcrowding was found in 7 of the visited detention centers – Blagoevgrad, Kyustendil, Sofia, Kardzhali, Vidin, Sandanski and Svilengrad.
  • Lack of toilets in the cells was noted in 10 detention facilities
  • In 4 of the detention facilities there are no conditions for the required one-hour stay outdoors every day, and in another 7 detention facilities this activity is carried out on indoor sites.
  • Access to natural light and ventilation is restricted in almost all detention facilities
  • In some places there is still a problem with bed bugs in the bed linen and the beds in the cells
  • In the general case, arrests are inaccessible to people with mobility difficulties
  • Also on a large scale, detainees were held in permanently locked rooms for 23 hours a day, without access to work, education and any meaningful activities outside the cells.
  • There was a lack of written information on the procedure for exercising the rights to visits and telephone conversations, translated into different languages, as per the recommendation on the implementation of the judgment in the case of Lebois v. Bulgaria in the ECtHR.
  • There are no conditions and rules for the confidentiality of telephone conversations, and the ban on foreign language conversations on the telephone in some arrests is still in force.
  • There is a lack of medical staff and psychological assistance for detainees in need.
  • The Register of Traumatic Injuries, which was introduced as a tool against police violence against detainees, remains inefficient – detainees are limited in their ability to lodge a complaint, and no pre-trial proceedings have been instituted for reported cases.
  • As a positive innovation the researchers point out the introduction of the possibility for online (Skype) conversations and visits of detainees with their relatives during the coronavirus epidemic last year.
  • The most problematic buildings remain the detention center in Gabrovo, which is located underground and therefore there is virtually no possible improvements on it, as well as the detention facilities in Sofia, which are often overcrowded and also in dire need of a new building.

The authority’s answer

According to the Deputy Chief Minister of Justice Prof. Nikolay Prodanov, the administration is fully aware of many of the problems, especially those related to the material bases and living conditions in the detention centers, and is already actively working on, as is most evident from the ongoing relocation of arrests. For example, the opening for exploitation of a new three-storey building at the Dobrich prison for detention is expected very soon. The official opening, to which the BHC representatives were also invited, if the epidemic situation allows, will take place this March.

Regarding the arrest in Gabrovo, Prodanov admitted that this is a very old building and impossible for improvements, but the project for the building in Veliko Tarnovo, where the facility will be relocated, is ready. For this purpose, two buildings from the former sergeant school will be adapted, which are still in good condition, but within the next year and a half will be renovated and brought to the requirements for a place of detention. As for the conditions in Sofia – the location of the new detention center is still in question and the acquisition of a more suitable place for the new building has been set in motion.

The General Director of GDIN Ivaylo Yordanov also assured that the improvement of the conditions is a priority for the Directorate and the goal is to meet all European requirements. He confirmed that there is a serious problem with bed bugs in some of the detention facilities and that the GDIN is constantly fighting it. At the moment, a contract has been signed with a new extermination company and its effectiveness is yet to be seen.

Regarding the shortage of medical staff, Yordanov explained that the positions in the detention centers are not attractive and cannot offer good remuneration. With regard to police violence against detainees, according to the Director General of the General Directorate of Internal Affairs, this is a practice that has remained almost entirely in the past since the introduction of the register of traumatic injuries. According to him, “there is tremendous progress in terms of excessive use of physical force” and each such case is described in detail. The fact that no pre-trial proceedings have been initiated speaks of the positive effect of the measure. However, there are still cases of misuse of force, which are immediately inspected, and currently two similar disciplinary inspections have been initiated – in Sofia and in Lovech.

During the meeting, Yordanov stated that GDIN will take immediate measures in connection with the BHC’s finding of lack of regulation instructions in different languages, as well as measures to improve the conditions in the sanitary facilities as soon as possible.

This publication was created with the financial support of Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the EEA Financial Mechanism The sole responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and under no circumstances can this publication be considered to reflect the official opinion of the EEA Financial Mechanism or the operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria.


A new BHC project tracks the implementation of the reform in Bulgarian prisons and remand centers

A new project of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee ( BHC) tracks the implementation of the reform in Bulgarian prisons and remand centers. This reform has begun after a series of convictions by the European Court of Human Rights. A special website prisonreform.bg will collect and provide detailed information on exactly how this reform is being implemented.

The three-year long  project “Evaluation of the Prison Reform in Bulgaria: Legislation and Practice Following the Pilot Judgement of the ECtHR “Neshkov and Others was launched on January 1st 2020. It tracks through different activities and methods if there is and how the reform in Bulgarian places of imprisonment is implemented.  

The project is funded by the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the European Economic Area (EEA) Financial Mechanism.

The main goal of the project is to improve the implementation of international human rights standards in remand centers and prisons in Bulgaria. The initiative is a continuation of the BHC’s long-term activity in monitoring the situation in closed institutions, advocating for the respect of the rights of prisoners and empowering vulnerable groups.

Besides tracking the progress of the project, the idea of this website is to offer important information on the penitentiary reform in Bulgaria and prisoners’ rights. National legislation, international standards and case law, reports and data closely related to the order in prisons and remand centers and the process of execution of sentences are now available in one place in the “Library” section of the specialized site in Bulgarian language.

Why is a prison reform needed

In 2015 the European Court of Human Rights delivered the pilot decision in the case of “Neshkov and Others v. Bulgaria”. In it the Court found violations of Article 3 and of Article 13 of the Convention concerning the inhuman and degrading conditions in several Bulgarian prisons and the lack of effective remedies in this respect. Considering the recurrence and persistence of the violations, the Court found that breaches originated in a widespread problem resulting from malfunctioning of the Bulgarian penitentiary system and insufficient safeguards against treatment incompatible with Article 3. Pursuant to this and other decisions of the ECtHR related to imprisonment in our country, in the following years Bulgaria started reforms, including amendments to the penitentiary legislation,  large-scale improvement of the material conditions in the detention centers and prisons. However, despite the partial improvement of the situation, some major problems remain and even deepen.

BHC activities in the project

During the three-year project the specific activities of a BHC team will be:

  • to conduct a multilateral evaluation of the real effect of the practical and legislative measures undertaken by the government after the decision “Neshkov and Others v. Bulgaria“;
  • To  identify existing weaknesses and deficits and outline the areas in which the reform must continue in order to implement the general measures of the European Court of Human Rights;
  • to propose lasting strategic solutions for the full implementation of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights regarding remand centers and prisons.

The project team reminds that prison reform cannot be seen in isolation from criminal justice reform in general, as well as the need to improve crime prevention policies and provide adequate care and treatment to vulnerable groups in the community.

More details about the activities and the project can be read here.