Civil society coalition denounces attack on the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
On 30 September 2019, a request to initiate proceedings for de-registration of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the leading Bulgarian human rights NGO and member of the Civic Solidarity Platform, was submitted to the Prosecutor General of Bulgaria by one of the parties of the ruling coalition in Bulgaria, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VRMO). The VRMO representatives called for the withdrawal of the BHC’s legal status, which de facto would mean that the organization would be prohibited from undertaking its work.
Members of the Civic Solidarity Platform have issued a statement deploring the VRMO’s actions and call on the Bulgarian government to abide by its international obligations with respect to freedom of association and other fundamental freedoms. The Bulgarian government should unequivocally distance itself from the threats against the BHC and ensure that this legally registered organization can carry out its legitimate and important human rights work without interference and harassment. CSP members are urging diplomatic representatives and European Union and Council of Europe bodies to express their concern about the situation.
The BHC is a well-known and respected NGO that promotes respect for international human rights standards and protects the rights of victims of human rights violations, including minorities and migrants in Bulgaria. It provides submissions to courts, organizes seminars and other educational events for prosecutors and judges, and represents clients before domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In the opinion of the VRMO party, these important activities constitute “interference with the judiciary”, contrary to Article 117 of the Bulgarian Constitution, which provides that the judicial power is independent.
The VRMO position implies an attack on the work of dozens of non-governmental organizations across the country, assisting the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. It is also an attack on the ability of active citizens to participate in various processes of decision-making.
This is not the first time the VRMO initiates such actions. On two occasions in the past VRMO has used intimidation and harassment against BHC and its Director Krassimir Kanev, a leading human rights expert. In 2017, party representatives asked the Prosecutor General to initiate prosecution against Mr. Kanev for “sabotage”, with reference to his letter to the European Commission in which he expressed concern that the rights of LGBTI in Bulgaria are not guaranteed neither in law nor in practice. In 2014, the same party wrote to the National Revenue Agency requesting an investigation of the BHC’s finances after the organization condemned the racist rhetoric of VMRO politicians against migrants. Although the 2017 request was not acted upon by the Prosecutor General and the National Revenue Agency did not find any irregularity in the BHC’s finances, these actions nevertheless put pressure on Mr. Kanev and the BHC. Also, in 2016, Mr. Kanev was physically attacked in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia by unknown people who were never found and prosecuted.
The developments described above are of particular concern in a country where intolerance is on the rise, and where the safety of those who work for the protection of minorities and the most vulnerable groups of the population can no longer be taken for granted.
There is currently no human rights organization in Europe that has been banned. Despite repressive measures in a number of front-line democracies in Europe, no European country has so far allowed itself to ban citizen organizations. Bulgaria should not set a dangerous precedent.
Photo: © CC BY-SA 3.0/from Bulgarian Helsinki Committee