Bulgarian president urged to veto controversial judicial reforms

Bulgarian president urged to veto controversial judicial reforms
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia August 4, 2017

Five opposition parties and eight civil organisations called on August 3 for Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev to veto controversial changes to two laws that are part of ongoing judicial reforms in the country. 

The ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is making a new attempt at judicial reform having failed to make progress during its previous two mandates. Bulgaria has been strongly criticised by the European Union for the lack of reform of its judicial system. 

However, the latest legal initiatives have been strongly criticised by opposition parties and civil societies a few days after a similar complaint was made by the Union of Judges in Bulgaria.

The amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Judicial System Act were adopted by the Bulgarian parliament in July, using an urgent procedure without any debate. Both were supported by the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is officially in opposition but believed to informally support the ruling coalition. 

According to the political parties Yes, Bulgaria!, right-wing Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), the Movement for European Union and Solidarity (DEOS) ,The Greens and the Agrarian People's Union (BZNS) and the eight civil organisations, one of the changes allowing the prosecution to suspend magistrates without approval by the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) makes judges dependent on the prosecution.

“These [changes] violate the principles of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, as well as the primacy of constitution,” the five parties said in a joint statement, published on the website of Yes, Bulgaria!

The parties also objected to amendments that would prevent magistrates from creating unions and expressing their opinions freely.

“The adopted changes restrict the constitutional rights of the Bulgarian magistrates – the freedom of creating associations (as they will be prohibited from being members of other jurist organisations) and freedom of opinion (with the requirement to declare membership in professional organisations of magistrates), which will create a reason for repression of inconvenient judges,” the statement reads.

The parties believe that these amendments not only contradict the Bulgarian constitution and international standards, but could also create grounds for Bulgaria to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The parties and civil organisations also objected to privileges for magistrates who have been elected to serve on the supreme court. Those magistrates will be allowed to select any position they want after their mandate expires.

This would create “unjustified and discriminatory privileges for members of the outgoing Supreme Judicial Council to appoint themselves without competition to any judicial body, for which some of them do not even have the necessary competence,” the NGOs said in a joint open letter published on the website of Initiative Justice for Everyone.

The same objections were raised by the Union of Judges and by the international organisation MEDEL (Magistrats européens pour la démocratie et les libertés).

The political parties and NGOs also objected to another change, according to which corruption cases will be processed by a special court. They have claimed there is no proof this would speed up the procedure or improve its efficiency.

“The transfer of high-level corruption cases to the Specialised Criminal Court, which has not proved its effectiveness, creates a real risk of becoming a high-profile tribunal that handles politically motivated justice — in line with demands and orders from the authorities,” the political parties said in the statement.

They added that this decision overlaps the underlying problem, which is the lack of qualitative and effective investigations, and strong and well-prepared cases sent to trial.

“The refusal of reform of the prosecution has been concealed by changing the jurisdiction of the cases of political corruption,” the statement said.

In its report on Bulgaria in January the European Commission noted that the country had failed to make any significant progress in the past 10 years. Bulgaria has made slow progress in the fight against top-level corruption and organised crime, which resulted in a lack of trust among citizens in the judicial system, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report said.