In 2017, for the first time since the beginning of the democratic transition, a party whose political behavior is linked to the denial of basic principles of political democracy and human rights is part of the government formation. These politicians used hate speech and aggressive behavior towards certain vulnerable groups of the Bulgarian society to stoke people's fear and gain votes.
Meanwhile, the media environment has worsened. There is now a massive amount of false news, slander and manipulation. This has led to a serious restriction and discrediting of civil society organizations promoting human rights.
These factors have significantly influenced the direction of the government concerning the most vulnerable groups in our society - women, people with disabilities, LGBTI, ethnic and religious minorities. This is the conclusion of the Annual Report on human rights of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). The BHC has issued such reports since 1992.
"Overall, 2017 was a year of stagnation in the protection of human rights. In several major areas we observe significant deterioration. The authorities and the official institutions in Bulgaria have been deaf to human rights. Bulgarian civil society and the groups that protect the rights of vulnerable people have not been able to raise their concerns. This task is on our agenda for 2018," said Krasimir Kanev, chairman of the BHC.
The BHC highlights the following issues and improvements in Bulgaria in 2017:
- In 2016, Bulgaria signed the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention). However, a campaign of slander and manipulation with regard to the content of this international treaty was launched at the end of 2017, leading to the withdrawal of its ratification. The Istanbul Convention guarantees the highest standards for the prevention and protection from violence against women. The non-adoption of this international treaty has caused a serious slump in the protection of women's rights.
- In 2017, the forced evictions of Roma from their only homes continued to be a serious problem in Bulgaria. The situation has worsened due to a marked rise in racism, especially through public statements. Racist acts are often inspired or supported by extreme nationalists in the government. Six years have passed since the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case Yordanova and others v. Bulgaria, but no measures have been taken to implement it. The case was about the forced destruction of Roma homes.
- The steady and dramatic deterioration of freedom of expression in Bulgaria continued in 2017. The year was marked by unprecedented political pressure, threats and attacks against journalists and the media.
- No progress was made in the investigation of the deaths of 238 children in homes for children with intellectual disabilities. The cases were revealed during a joint inquiry of the Prosecutor's Office and the BHC in 2010-2011. In December 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture requested that the Bulgarian government resume the investigations. By the end of 2018, the government must release a report about the outcome.
- The long-awaited reform to juvenile detention did not take place in 2017. Although it was enshrined in the new government's official program, the draft law on the deviation from criminal proceedings of juveniles and the imposition of remedial measures was not introduced.
- The process of deinstitutionalization continued to slow down. Almost nothing is done in this field, especially for disabled children under the age of three. The state is far away from its target of a 30% decrease in the number of children in institutional care by 2020.
- The tendency that we have observed for many years - to allow, approve, and even praise speech that incites hate or instigates violence against some of the most vulnerable groups in society - continued in 2017. In October, the leader of the ultranationalist NFSB party, Valeri Simeonov, who is currently a deputy prime minister and chairman of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Affairs, was convicted for anti-Roma hate speech.
- There wasn't any progress as far as religious freedoms are concerned. The United Patriots, a coalition that makes up part of the government, submitted to the Parliament a draft law against "radical Islam." If this draft is adopted, it will restrict significantly the religious freedoms of many denominations, but most directly Muslims in Bulgaria. In 2017, we witnessed a series of attacks against mosques, as well as a spike in anti-Semitic acts.
- The situation of zero integration of refugees in Bulgaria has been going on for a fourth year in a row. Moreover, throughout 2017 asylum seekers repeatedly reported about incidents of verbal and physical hostility, as well as direct attacks and robberies near their housing centers. These acts are never investigated. There is a big decline in the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria due to the measures of draconian control that Turkey introduced at its borders.
- No significant progress has been made on the issue of LGBTI rights. These people need protection because they are among those who are most vulnerable to violence and harassment. They have no access to education for the specific sexual and reproductive health concerns of their communities. Moreover, Bulgarian legislation doesn't recognize same-sex couples. Another ongoing concern is the fact that homophobic and transphobic incidents are almost never reported. The Penal Code still does not recognize hate crimes incited by sexual orientation or gender identity.
- The illegal use of force by law enforcement officers remains a serious problem. A quarter of the detainees who were interviewed by the BHC said that they had been the victim of police violence during their arrest. In general, these abuses remain unpunished. In 2017, no measures were taken in relation to the recommendations that the European Anti-Torture Committee made in a public statement in 2015.
- Civil access to closed institutions for the purpose of monitoring human rights was restricted. Researchers of the BHC were denied access to the country's boarding schools, as well as to psychiatric hospitals and homes for medical and social care for children. In the past, the monitoring of the BHC and other independent organizations has revealed systemic violations in these institutions. They were acknowledged only when they became public.
- By the end of the year, the number of ECtHR's outstanding decisions was lower in comparison with the end of 2016: 262 versus 291. But the cases for which the monitoring was terminated during the year are mainly those that are relatively trivial. The cases with regard to serious structural human rights problems in Bulgaria are still under strong monitoring.
- In 2017, prison conditions did improve. Legislative changes were adopted in order to combat the main problems of Bulgarian prisons: overcrowding, poor material conditions and bad hygiene. Prisons continued to make important repairs and renovations. During the year, new wings were opened to the prisons in Varna, Sliven and Belene. Prisoners now have more possibilities to challenge the actions of the administration which affect them.