Controversial penal law spells trouble in Bulgaria | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.01.2014
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Controversial penal law spells trouble in Bulgaria

Bulgaria's plans to revise its penal law have been criticized by human rights activists and NGOs. They compare it to a law introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin making it mandatory for foreign NGOs to register.

A draft for a revised penal law is causing a major stir in Bulgaria. Media representatives are outraged over regulations that would restrict them from taking pictures of public figures. And human rights activists are up in arms over a paragraph stating that a Bulgarian citizen working for “a foreign state or a foreign organization or an organization operating under foreign control, who has caused harm to the republic, will be imprisoned for two to eight years."

Bulgaria's cabinet will discuss the draft on Wednesday (15.01.2014) before passing it on to parliament. President Rosen Plevneliev, a member of the main opposition party GERB, has not said whether he will veto the revised law.

Arbitrary interpretation

The draft includes "severe punishment based on an arbitrary understanding of law," said Krassimir Kanev, who heads the Bulgarian branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, an international NGO operating in numerous European countries.

"The draft doesn't explain what the terms mean. What does 'foreign organization' mean, or 'under foreign control'? How should one understand 'working for' or 'causing harm to the republic'?"

Krassimir Kanev (photo: BGNES)

Human rights activist Kanev says his employees might be affected by this new law

Human rights activist Kanev worries that the paragraph could be applied to his and other Bulgarian NGOs that work, for instance, with Amnesty International or Reporters Without Borders.

Daniel Kaddik, who heads the Southeast Europe project of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), is also irritated by the paragraph. "The text sounds absurd to me,” he said. “How do you define the parameters that serve as a basis to prove a criminal offense?"

The FNF in Bulgaria works with NGOs that are critical of the government and "could be punished because of that,” added Kaddik. “Even employees in my office in Sofia would be threatened if this paragraph were to remain in the draft bill."

Wrong conclusions?

So far, nothing has been decided. "Lawyers and experts unanimously confirm that paragraph 305 only applies in times of war," Bulgarian Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Zlatanova told DW.

Taken out of context, the paragraph could lead to wrong conclusions, Zlatanova warned. "I don't like commenting on it,” she said.”But I find the claims that the paragraph would target a certain NGO as absurd."

Zinaida Zlatanova (photo: BGNES)

Bulgaria's Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Zlatanavoa announced some changes to the draft law

Still, Zlatanova ordered the controversial paragraph to be changed in the final version of the law.

The fact that the controversial draft has already been approved by Bulgaria's legal parliamentary committee is problematic, according to human rights activist Kanev. There are no similar laws anywhere, he said, with the exception of the Russian law introduced by Putin under which NGOs receiving foreign funds had to register as "foreign agents."

But the Bulgarian draft, Kanev warned, “is much worse because it includes prison sentences."

Justice Minister Zlatanova views the controversial public debate as positive and says that as a minister, she also intended to provoke. The debate, she said, was unparalleled in Bulgaria in that " so many different opinions were voiced about a draft law.” It proved, she added, “that we - the government - want to hear the voice of the people."

Zlatonova also told Bulgarian media that the paragraph about taking pictures of public figures will be changed.

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