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NEWS 31 May 16

Delayed EU Audit of Bulgaria Prosecution Raises Concern

A last-minute decision by the European Commission to delay a belated external audit of Bulgaria’s powerful prosecution had posed questions about the country's progress in judicial reform.

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
The Palace of Justice in Sofia. Photo: Foxj.

An expert mission of European magistrates which was expected to arrive in Sofia on Monday to conduct an independent review of the work of the Bulgarian prosecution has been delayed for “a few weeks”, the Bulgarian judicial ministry announced.

“A large volume of acts has been translated into English, but as a great part of the technical details of the methodology of the mission’s work remains to be clarified… our partners from the European Commission decided that it would be better to delay the mission for a few weeks,” the ministry’s statement said.

Four prosecutors from Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands were expected to spend one week in Sofia, interviewing different organisations and reviewing the state prosecution’s hierarchy, specialised structures, integrity, transparency and caseload.

The independent EU audit of the prosecution was requested by Bulgaria following a critical report by the European Commission on Sofia’s progress in reforming its judiciary and boosting anti-corruption efforts, published in January.

The report recommended the creation of a new unified anti-corruption authority and independent analysis of the work of the state prosecution, viewed as too powerful and centralised by various expert bodies, including the Venice Commission to the Council of Europe.

In a report on Bulgaria published in October 2015, the Venice Commission said that “there is a legacy of too powerful prosecution systems, which endanger the independence of the judges” in the former Communist country.

“The Soviet model of the prosecution must be decisively turned down. It turns it into a source of corruption and blackmail and creates opportunities for its use for political aims,” the president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, also said at a conference in Sofia on April 21.

Bulgaria’s state prosecution has been involved in numerous controversial investigations, which have casted doubts that under the control of Sotir Tsatsarov, it is being used to serve political interests.

The most recent controversial case was the action against the management of the Fund for Treatment of Children Abroad, whose members were all arrested by special police forces and charged with large-scale corruption.  

Later the prosecution rescinded some of its serious allegations against the fund’s officials, but public trust in the body has been seriously compromised.

The investigation that has raised most concerns about Tsatsarov’s independence was the so-called ‘Kostinbrod Affair’ in 2013.

On May 12, 2013, just two days before early parliamentary elections, prosecutors raided a printing house in Kostinbrod which produced the ballots for the election, finding 350,000 allegedly illegal ballot papers.

Media broadcast allegations that the ballots would have been used by Boyko Borissov’s party, GERB, to manipulate the vote. The case polarised public opinion, raising serious concerns about whether the election was fair.

Two years later, however, all the prosecutor’s charges relating to the affair were rejected by the court.

The last-moment delay of the EU audit of Bulgaria’s prosecution has worried experts.

Former justice minister Hristo Ivanov, who resigned in December 2015 over the compromised judicial reform, claimed that the Bulgarian authorities were trying to postpone and eventually block the independent review.

“But the delay of the mission also has to be understood as a signal from the European Commission that it will not let [Bulgaria] twist its arm,” Ivanov said.

Bilyana Wegertseder, the head of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives told BIRN that the independent probe could provide an “objective and critical” view of the work of the prosecution.

But she noted however that the conclusions of monitoring mission will not be legally binding for the Bulgarian government and prosecution, and “the ball will still remain in our own court”.

A source from the justice ministry denied the accusations and told BIRN that for the ministry it was very important for the monitoring to be carried out, as it can help the state in revising the Law on the Judiciary and completing the judicial reforms. 

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