– You have been in Bulgarian prison system for a decade now. Do you ever regret stepping in defence of those Roma boys?
In short ‘no’, because I was who I am and not someone who joins a belief to fit into a social group and to look for friends. It is something many people have a problem dealing with, including some people who claim to be Anti-Fascists themselves. They still have a problem accepting that it was and is something they I wholeheartedly believe in. Forget divisions on the Left, what all our beliefs demand of us is an increased sense or responsibility for our own actions and how we interact with the world around us (society), this is how I have always tried to live and I believe I have lived up to this idea that we are responsible for what happens in front of us and around us.
– Since you first landed in prison, what changed?
Wow! So much has changed, it’s hard to know how to summarise it all. Around 2010 I had enough with the prison pushing me around, they set me up with fake violations and they put me into long term isolation. My family has money but they refused to give me any to employ a lawyer to defend my rights in prison, they claimed that the trial was the priority and everything else was a waste of time. But in 2010 I had had enough and to my surprise when I was in the isolation wing of the prison I met other prisoners who had been there for many years and they shared my enthusiasm for a Prisoners’ union, and so the plans to make our union started to ferment in the isolation wing of the prison. As a teenager I had read lots of Left literature and a reoccurring theme was always using the situation to ones advantage against the bigger enemy. So in the isolation wing I made sure that my time there would be a mistake for the prison administration. The draft for the constitution was drawn up and concepts of what we could do were outlined with a group of us in isolation.
In 2012 we finally got our Association registered officially, an important part as it would legitimise us in the eyes of the state and more importantly in the eyes of the prison authorities. In this way we could accomplish more with less. A mass movement of prisoners rebellion and striking of course would be the most effective way, but this wasn’t and isn’t an option in the given environment so we had to utilize the environment we had. Immediately after we registered the prison administration started investigating ways to shut sabotage us as they knew we were a threat to the statuesque, which of course was corruption and torture. They were right to be afraid of us as for the first time there was a collective and organised front against their front of corruption. No longer could they pick us off one by one, instead what happened was that when the guards tortured a prisoner we asked the prisoner if he wanted assistance and organised all the complaints and legal representation as well as alerting inspectors from outside. It became a lot harder for the prison to cover their crimes up. Victims and witnesses felt for the first time that there were people who cared and who had their backs, no longer were prisoners alone and this encouraged more prisoners to speak out and testify against prison staff mistreating themselves or others.
In 2015 our Head Secretary Valio was invited to the Workgroup drafting the penitentiary reform legislation. He was invited after we collected a record amount of signatures on a petition to the Council of Europe that the then government was making only symbolic moves to reform the prison legislation because without the involvement of our prisoners’ association the people in charge of the reforms wouldn’t even know what the problems were. Before our involvement there was only one other non government organisation involved and they were not even taking the reforms seriously as they never believed the draft legislation would even be presented to the Bulgarian Parliament. But we in the BPRA knew that this was our only chance to get through some major reforms maybe in our lifetime, so we fought for a position and then took the work extremely seriously.
Our biggest problem was convincing the other people in the workgroup as to the problems facing the penitentiary system. We sent them copies of the court transcripts from prisoners’ parole hearings where the judges rejected parole based on reasons that had nothing to do with their time in prison or if they were rehabilitated or not. We sent copies of absurd orders and punishments from prison Directors which helped our representative prove his arguments everyday he was in the workgroup. One such example was that a judge in the workgroup proposed that parole be given to those who have been working in prison, but when Head Secretary Valio told him that less than 10% of prisoners had access to work he didn’t believe the ex prisoner, so we had to send the statistics. In Sofia Prison for example there were about 1000 prisoners and there are less than 100 work or student positions. Without the BPRA the Ministry of Justice was giving solutions that were totally out of reality. In February 2017 the new laws passed into force and it has now given every prisoner access to a parole hearing as previously only the Director could allow a prisoner to even have a hearing, which was a major source of corruption and abuse.
– You are a founder of Bulgarian Association of Prisoners BPRA, which is a first initiative of its kind in Bulgaria as far as we are aware. Tell us more about it, about the work that you do and your successes.
I have tried to answer this question as short as possible in the last answer, but in bullet form our successes are:
• Contracted representation for abused and tortured prisoners.
• Helping numerous prisoners make requests for their rights and appeal refusals, including getting prisoners their needed medicines.
• Informing prisoners of their rights, including the mass distribution of the [texts of the relevant] laws, as there are many prisons in Bulgaria where the prisoners don’t have access to [these texts] and the prison staff lie to them. Even to this day there are prison directors who lie to prisoners, claiming that “there are no law changes”.
• Creating a collective and unified identity amongst prisoners; many prisoners identify with the BPRA as [being] their organisation even though they are not officially members (which is what we want), and prisoners proudly display our logo as both a symbol of resistance and also as a symbol for our fight for dignity.
• Law reforms, helping individual prisoners one by one is important, but law reforms help every prisoner at once. So the law reforms were a major accomplishment and, more importantly, what they included which wouldn’t have been without the involvement of the BPRA as a team.
• Team building amongst those most active in the BPRA, learning how to delegate work to maximise efficiency.
• The first mass case, as far as we know, where prisoners from all over Bulgaria have united against the national prison authority, the case is not as important as the fact that we are united and will prove to be a stepping stone for more national actions and coverage of the BPRA.
• The webpage is also a major accomplishment as previously prisoners in Bulgaria didn’t have a way to mass distribute information.
– Do you have any more plans regarding BPRA?
We have many plans for the BPRA! We are working on an archive project where we will collect all the prison related files – court decisions, orders, laws and reports – into one data base so that prisoners and their families or lawyers can access this data base to help them in their own legal battles. “Teach a person how to fish and you have fed them for life” is the idea; if we can supply prisoners with our collective pooling of important documents then other prisoners will be able to defend themselves better.
At the moment the Ministry of Justice is refusing to meet with our representatives as they say that we are not the legitimate representation of prisoners in Bulgaria. Someone asked me “Well then who is?” And the answer is according to the Ministry, ‘No one’…. So we have to find a way to convince the Ministry that we really DO represent prisoners, and that the overwhelming majority of prisoners support the BPRA representing them. The problem is difficult as we have always tried to be respectful of the Ministry, but they are provoking us to [try and ] prove that prisoners stand behind our representatives. The Vice Minister of Justice doesn’t believe that we are an organised prisoner association and he believes that we are the puppets of some mastermind outside who is using us for their own agenda, which happens a lot in Bulgaria, but obviously not in our instance. All the Vice-Minister would say to our lawyer was “But why does the webpage of the BPRA have so much black and red?” Hahahaha… the irony is that he was put in his position by a party whose colours are also black and red.
– Do you have a lot of problems with authorities because of your political and union work?
Yes and no… The prison authorities started the problem from the very beginning. There was a lot of racism and all they knew about me was what was written in the newspapers, which was all tabloid lies. Also I didn’t know how to speak Bulgarian and none of the prison staff spoke English. But I learnt that I was facing massive racism for being a foreigner in the prison. They gave me punishment documents I couldn’t read or understand and now I know how bullshit these documents were and I could have easily appealed them in court. But for my first few years in prison I didn’t understand Bulgarian and I didn’t have money for a lawyer outside of my court case. Forming the union was also when I started to defend myself as well and for sure I have improved my own conditions drastically. Now the old director who was fired at the end of 2014 has been returned and he is persecuting me for my previous activism, which was primarily reporting violations occurring under his command. But even with this repression now, I am still overall in a better position than I would have been if I had not defended myself or [taken part in] the union work. After all the law reforms affect everyone, including me.
– Could you tell us a bit about Bulgarian prisons in general? Conditions, social and national make of prisoners? Is there a lot of racism?
There is of course racism here, but it’s more opportunistic racism rather than really being racist. If a white Bulgarian has a problem with a Roma prisoner, the white Bulgarian often will appeal to the guards to help deal with the Roma, as often white prisoners associate more with white guards then with their fellow prisoners. The guards too do this as the white Bulgarians are the minority in Bulgarian prisons; so often they form a privileged elite that works in collusion with the guards and prison administration to suppress the Roma prisoners who are the majority. Roma make up over 70% – but probably it’s closer to 80% – of Bulgaria’s prison population, but on a national level outside of prison they make up around 10%. The level of illiteracy is massive, maybe over 70% are totally illiterate and this is why the BPRA is so integral to defending prisoners’ rights, as the majority of prisoners can’t read laws or write complaints, requests or appeals. When I say that racism is “opportunistic”, I mean racists exploit racism to either demonise an enemy or to gain privilege. If those same people need something from a Roma prisoner, they will have no problems becoming best friends. This happens a lot with a lot of prisoners who claim to be neo-Nazis, but then in prison become best friends with Roma as there is no one else to play football with. Ironically, in general the Bulgarians and Roma unite when it comes to foreigners. No wing in Sofia Prison experiences as many assaults as the foreigners’ wing does, and many Bulgarians and Roma are shocked to hear how [regularly] the prison guards have beaten and tortured foreigner prisoners.
– Do you receive any support from the outside? Do people write to you? What is the importance of support network for prisoners in your opinion?
In Bulgaria there are four people who help us directly and we are in massive need of a lot more support, but due to a total lack of political awareness, all the people we would typically be expecting solidarity from have actively attacked us. This includes people from the Federation of Anarchists in Bulgaria and also people from the Autonomous Workers’ Syndicate who wrote in our Facebook page comments that all prisoners were rapists and murderers. The Left in Bulgaria has actually gone out of its way to attack us rather than simply stay silent. That said, there is a human rights organisation that has always helped us called the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. They are a Liberal organisation that puts to shame all the so called “Anarcho” or “Communist” groups in Bulgaria, as they are the only organisation that shows solidarity to prisoners in Bulgaria, even though it should be a core principle of any Socialist organisation.
It is absolutely essential the prisoners have a support network around them outside otherwise if the prison understands that you’re alone they put the bullshit into overdrive! When the prison knows there are people who are interested in your health and safety they are a lot more cautious about playing with you. They are essentially cowardly bullies who will only pick on prisoners who are defenceless, such as the prisoners who are too poor [to pay] a lawyer or who can’t read the documents or write an appeal. Once the prison knows that a prisoner can defend themselves everything changes and this is what the BPRA had been able to accomplish to a large extent. I even heard guards saying to one another “don’t beat him, he’s friends with Jock”.
– For some time your case had been quite big in Australia, especially after Belinda Hawkins published a book about you. Now it seems like the interest died down a bit.
I don’t really have a comment about this. I was abandoned by the Australian government from the beginning and even for the smallest of requests we had to complain endlessly. There has been little to no support from the Australian public, with a few individual exceptions. I think my support base is incapable of understanding that the Australian government and their organs are as much, if not more, of a problem as the Bulgarian authorities. There is a bias that Bulgaria is the bad guy in the equation and that Australia is the good guy, when in reality they are both the bad guys just for different reasons. The Bulgarian state actively persecutes me but the Australian state is actively apathetic and always has been. The Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs (DFAT) is more interested in public relations damage control than is championing my needs. The then Prime Minister of Australia appeared on TV to speak out against possible injustice in a trial against an Australian Businessman in China, but in my situation DFAT even reduced its visitations to see me.
– Do you think there is any realistic chance of you getting extradited to Australia?
Depends on the definition of “realistic” and the context. Realistically, if Australia had defended me during my trial I believe I never would have received such a large sentence to begin with. Realistically, if Australia fought to have me transferred to Australia then it would have happened years ago. But realistically I am not a high enough priority for Australia and they have taken no measures to guarantee a transfer, other than the standard procedure, which no one accepts as my situation is not standard. There is a lot of corruption and games played on the Bulgarian side and the Australian side wants me and my family to take all the risks without any protections or guarantees from either Australia or Bulgaria. I even said to the Australian representatives, “Don’t think I am stupid enough to trust Australia anymore than Bulgaria?” Too often the Australian representatives make a lot of false promises, mess everything up and then get rotated out, leaving us with the fallout.
– Tell us what do you know about situation in Poland?
I don’t know much about the situation in Poland. I’ve seen mass rallies of the ultra Right and nothing much more. I am overwhelmed with work in Bulgaria, and now a little with Turkey and Greece, and I am not follow much about the rest of the world news. But in general all the former Warsaw Pact states are overran by fascists.
– Thanks for the interview Jock. Anything else you would like to say to readers of ‘Alerta’?
We will be organising a protest soon against the Director of Sofia Prison and I will write a text soon about this problem calling for international solidarity with our protests in Sofia Prison. So please, if everyone could start preparing for solidarity actions at the Bulgarian embassies and the offices of the European Commission, that would be a great start.
Thank you for your interest and solidarity.
Rage from the cage. Fire to capitalism!
Although the Ministry of Justice has been congratulating itself in 2016 for having given drinking water to prisoners. Repression against activist prisoners continues and indeed against the very prison whose case in the European Court of Human Rights forced the Ministry of Justice to improve the conditions in the first place, in case someone has made the mistake that the Bulgarian state has given toilets and drinking water to prisoners out of the goodness of their hearts.
The repression was instigated by the old guard from the former governments however it continues to this day, specifically I am referring to one of the most prolific prison activists in Bulgaria, the name of whom is on the lips of every single jurist in Bulgaria, yet as a person he is almost totally unknown. His name is Svetlomir Neshkov (Светломир Нешков) and he possibly has the most successful cases against the national prison authority (Head Directive for the Fulfillment of Punishments) of any single prisoner in Bulgaria ever.
In almost every prison where Neshkov has been housed he has met with reprisals for his immediate and valid requests and complaints to defend his rights. It is somewhat stereotypical, but nevertheless a reality, that the prison administrations would take repressive actions against any prisoner who defends their rights in Bulgaria, it is not only well known to all prisoners, but even referred to by inspectors from the Council of Europe – Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
However now the Bulgarian state is faced with a Pilot Decision from the ECHR which establishes Bulgarian prisons as fundamentally and systematically in violation of the human rights of all those who are housed there. Essentially, the very act of putting people in prison, be they criminals or not, is itself a crime.
The Ministry of Justice is eager to prove to the Council of Europe and the ECHR that they have made advances in elementary human rights that even farm animals have, for example drinking water. But the man greatly responsible for the course of events that have led to this point has been charged with a trumped up politically motivated accusation.
Neshkov has been accused by the Belene prison administration of having broken an already broken TV in June 2015. With unprecedented pressure from the prison administration the Regional Court was pushed into charging Neshkov with Article.216 – hooliganism, a form of social disruption that comes with a sentence of up to 5 years prison.
Amazingly the Regional Prosecutor initially refused to charge Neshkov, citing it as too petty and irrelevant to warrant the state’s time. The TV in question was already garbage; there are no witnesses other then the alleged “victim”, a prisoner who is well known for being a lackey of the corrupt Belene prison administration. The “victim” also can’t prove that the TV was his or that he bought it or for how much.
The Belene prison administration pressured the prisoner who is alleged to have owned the broken TV, privileges were offered and given to the prisoner for testifying. The Belene prison administration couldn’t officially appeal the Regional Prosecutor’s refusal to start criminal proceedings so through a proxy prisoner Yordan Hristov Jaferov (Йордан Христов Джаферов), the prisoner appealed the refusal of the Regional Prosecutor to the Regional Court. The Regional Court overturned the refusal and so gave the go ahead for criminal proceedings, the Prosecutor’s office appealed the overturned decision to the County Court but lost the appeal and so the decision to continue criminal proceedings was confirmed. As a form of bribe for the perjury, Yordan Jaferov had his security classification (Тип) dropped and he now enjoys his time in prison in a villa environment, a house separated from the prison without guards, and he’s allowed to work outside. If he withdrew his testimony, he would be moved back into closed prison conditions.
This is the typical reaction of corrupt prison authorities and courts, what is amazing is that usually it is through the Prosecutor’s office that the prison authorities repress activist prisoners as every prison has a permanently attached Prosecutor who becomes friends with the prison administration. But the audacity of the prison authorities is even more evident when even the Prosecutor refused to charge Neshkov. The courts are easily influenced by prison authorities as they are extremely incestuous. Furthermore, there are only two judges for criminal proceedings in the Regional Court of Levski and the judge allocated is also a judge who Neshkov has had extensive dealings with over his fight for basic human rights within the Belene prison. Indeed many of Neshkov’s cases were thrown out by the same judge only to be successful in other courts.
Neshkov requested that the case be heard in Sofia where there could be guaranteed a random selection of a judge, as the judges in Levksi Regional Court are biased towards him but his request was denied. As one of the judges had already overturned the Prosecutors refusal to prosecute, it meant that there was only one eligible judge left in Levski Regional Court. So he was allocated at “random” a judge out of a group of judges that has only one judge. Obviously this means that the court proceedings are a total façade right from the beginning.
Neshkov was already punished several times for the same accusation by the Belene prison and indeed the prosecutor and courts. He was put in an isolation punishment cell, stopped from work and he even had his sentence increased when time off accrued by working was annulled by the same court who is currently looking at his case now. The time off his sentence was annulled as a form of arbitrary punishment directly connected to the breaking of the already broken TV. If convicted now for hooliganism, it will be in effect his 3rd punishment for a violation that he didn’t even commit; all because he was relentless in defending his rights and the rights of those around him in Belene and other prisons around Bulgaria.
Even if Neshkov is given a light sentence, a sentence given to a prisoner whilst they are already serving a sentence has very serious results and prevents any chance of early release and severely impacts a prisoner’s chances at gaining other privileges such as day releases or work.
The Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association demands that the state investigates the corrupt practices of the Belen prison administration and the Levski Regional court, which is actually a single judge hearing the cases for Neshkov. If the Bulgarian state has no fear that the case is valid, then the state should not fear the case being heard in Sofia Regional Court.
We demand that the Ministry of Justice investigate the bribes paid to the prisoner in the way of privileges for making the false statements against Neshkov.
The Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association demands that the trumped up charges against Svetlomir Neshkov are dropped.
We request help from the public, we believe that someone who has done so much for the human rights of prisoners in Bulgaria should not be left alone in his time of need, especially as the repression against him is a direct act of revenge for his activism against the corrupt and backward prison administrations.
Please write to the Minister of Justice:
Ekaterina Zaharieva, Minister of justice of Republic of Bulgaria
Slavyanska 1 Street
Jock Palfreeman, Chairman of BPRA