The court in the Bulgarian city of Burgas has found Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov guilty for using hate speech against the ethnic minority Roma population, following a complaint filed by two Roma-national journalists, but it did not impose him any real punishment, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), which has supported the claim, said in a statement on October 25.
Simeonov, who is deputy prime minister without portfolio, is the loudest of the three leaders of the United Patriots, a group of nationalist parties that became the coalition partner of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) earlier this year.
Although this is the first case of a Bulgarian politician being found guilty for racism and hate speech so far, the court has not imposed any punishment, but ordered Simeonov to stop using hate speech from now on. However, that was what the two journalists – Kremena Budinova and Ognyan Isaev – actually asked for as their claim had not included any demand for financial penalty.
The court in Burgas ruled that Simeonov was using hate speech against the Roma population in Bulgaria and concluded that a statement he made during a parliament session in 2014 constituted harassment as it could lead to the “violation of the dignity of a person and create a hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment, and anyone with a Roma ethnicity may be affected by it,” BHC said in a statement, quoting the court’s ruling.
The offending statement made by Simeonov in parliament in 2014 was: “There’s no doubt in the fact that [a] big part of the gipsy ethnicity lives beyond any laws, rules and human norms of behavior. Laws do not apply on them, taxes and fees are incomprehensible terms, the [payment of] electricity, water bills, social and health insurances are replaced by the persuasion that they have only rights, not responsibilities.”
Simeonov has also accused Roma people of being criminals and giving birth to children only to benefit from state aid and called them "insolent, self-confident and brutalised humanoids ready to murder anyone for [a] few levs”.
The court’s ruling was welcomed by the two journalists and their lawyer who said that the court had shown independence in this case.
Currently, several opposition parties are seeking Simeonov's resignation after he verbally threatened popular talk show host Viktor Nikolaev in a live studio discussion. Earlier in October, Jordan Tsonev, an MP from the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), announced that he is demanding his resignation as he is becoming "a symbol of hate speech". The Socialist Party (BSP) is also demanding Simeonov’s resignation.
Another leader of the United Patriots – Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka – has been tried for several cases of violence and offences. He has started physical fights on numerous occasions, offended people and parties and has even broken into the office of the public broadcaster BNT. Although he has been under investigation several times and pleaded guilty in three cases, he has never been sentenced to jail.
The parliament voted to lift Siderov’s immunity after he reportedly harassed students from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts (NATFA) in Sofia on several occasions. Claiming he had information about drug dealing and drugs hidden in the building, he made several personal inspections at small shops around the university. On October 23, 2015, Siderov, along with the Ataka Party deputy, Desislav Chukolov, and around a dozen Ataka supporters entered NATFA's building, and allegedly shouted insults and tried to beat students.
Two days later, after polls closed in Bulgaria’s local elections, Siderov and his supporters again visited NATFA, angering students and local residents. Police had to rescue Siderov from the angry crowd, but not before a man managed to hit him in the face.
However, since then Siderov seems to have calmed down and the court ruling may discourage further cases of hate speech.