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Bulgarian justice system again in firing line

Sofia — The Bulgarian justice system, often criticised by Brussels for being slow and ineffective, came under fire again last month as two men accused of a brutal murder nine years ago were controversially acquitted.

European Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot complained last month that the Bulgarian judiciary was lax in catching and putting notorious criminals behind bars.

Later the same day, a court in the city of Veliko Tarnovo let two men charged with the brutal stabbing of Bulgarian student Martin Borilski in Paris in 2000 walk free, despite what was described as "overwhelming" evidence of their guilt.

"The justice system is producing very few tangible results. Very few crimes are solved," Barrot said.

The acquittal in the murder trial raised eyebrows in Bulgaria, causing even the French ambassador in Sofia to protest.

Ambassador Etienne de Poncins expressed "amazement and incomprehension" at the ruling, the reasoning behind which the court decided to keep "secret."

The suspects "were never detained and the whole trial contained a number of irregularities," De Poncins said.

The two Bulgarians — Georgy Zhelyazkov and Stoyan Stoichkov — had originally been acquitted in March 2008 of murdering fellow student Martin Borilski in Paris in July 2000 by stabbing him 93 times.

At the time, the victim’s mother, Ivanka Vucheva, accused the judges of being "bought" by the father of one of the defendants.

And prosecutors appealed the original ruling. But it was upheld by the appeals court.
The French police and judiciary had supplied the Bulgarian authorities "with precise, concurring and overwhelming evidence against the two defendants," the French ambassador said.

The case is not the first to raise questions about the effectiveness and impartiality of the Bulgarian justice system.

A 1994 kidnapping case did not come to trial until 2002, but even now has been repeatedly postponed owing to procedural errors and a series of illnesses that has befallen both the main suspect, nicknamed the Baron, and his lawyers.

On Friday, the Trud newspaper reported that the Baron could escape prosecution completely if he is not tried before the case’s statute of limitations expires in August.

In another case, the so-called Margin Brothers stand accused of money laundering, human trafficking, smuggling and even conspiracy to murder. But the case against them has also been stalled by a seemingly never-ending stream of doctors’ certificates attesting to their ill health.

For the head of Bulgaria’s Supreme Court, Konstantin Penchev, it is the country’s future that is at stake.

Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 but has been placed under an unprecedented strict monitoring regime by Brussels, with the judiciary coming under particular scrutiny. Indeed, Brussels has already cut hundreds of millions of euros in EU aid to Bulgaria and is threatening to suspend even more if it decides that Sofia is not sufficiently cleaning up its act.

With the EU Commission set to issue its next progress monitoring report in February, Brussels is keeping a close eye on a whole series of court cases that have dragged on for years.

Among them is a case of fraudulent applications for EU aid in the meat-processing industry by a group of Bulgarian and German businessmen.

While Germany was quick to convict the German culprits, Bulgaria is still nowhere near sentencing its own defendants.

Speaking in Sofia on last month, Barrot urged Bulgaria to make wide-ranging efforts to crack down on corruption and organised crime, which appear to be "a little bit endemic" in the country.

"There’s an urgent need there," he said. "Visible changes are needed. The whole of Bulgaria needs to be mobilised."

Vessela Sergueva/AFP/Expatica