In this interview originally published in Bulgarian on dversia.net, the leader of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association speaks with Polina Manolova on the loss of justice, his activism, and left alternatives.
Polina Manolova: On 19th of September 2019 Jock Palfreeman was granted parole after serving almost 12 years in Bulgarian prison for fatally stabbing a neo-Nazi on the streets of Sofia in December 2007. His early release has instigated a chain reaction of state repression, far-right mobilisation and media sensationalism. Immediately after his release Jock was taken to an immigration detention centre in Sofia under the pretext that he did not possess a valid passport with which he could leave the country. A couple of weeks later Jock’s newly issued emergency passport was unlawfully confiscated by Bulgarian authorities and Sotir Tsatsarov, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor General, pleaded the suspension of the early parole court decision and demanded the re-opening of the case. The authorities’ blatant interference in the justice system and their tightening grip on outspoken opponents has led to public outcry and increased support for Jock’s plight. Currently, after his release from detention, Jock finds himself in a legal deadlock – without documents and restricted from leaving the country he remains under the custody of the Bulgarian state while awaiting the decision of the Supreme Court of Cassation.
These events have brought to the surface some worrying recent trends that signal the growing significance of the far-right in Bulgarian politics and society and the strengthening of a nationalist authoritarian regime that stifles constitutional democracy and demonstrates contempt for the rule of law and human rights. In the past few weeks, the judges who ruled on the early parole and all those who have subsequently raised their voice against procedural injustice have been subjected to extreme institutional and media pressure, including calls for mob justice from prominent political figures. Another issue of great concern is the demand for the suspension of human rights and other civil organizations in the country by the far-right partners in the ruling government coalition like the Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov and, even more worryingly, the newly elected Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev.
Over the years Jock Palfreeman’s political activity before and during his time in prison — his fight for prisoners’ rights and his struggle against the unlawfulness and corruption in the Bulgarian justice and penitentiary system — has been either completely sidelined or portrayed as delinquency. The aim of this interview is to shift the focus, offering a platform for Jocks’ experiences and views as co-founder of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Association (BPRA) and a leftist activist. The first part of the interview discusses in more detail the work of Jock in BPAR in the past seven years and the political attacks and repressions against the Association, as well as Jock’s time in prison and the events around his early release. In the second part of the interview, Jock shares his concerns about the rising fascist tendencies in Bulgarian politics and society and discusses the urgency of a bold left resistance.
Part I: “Everything was taken away from me. . . so I am free to speak the truth.”
Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association for Rehabilitation – Representation, Fighting, Repression
Jock Palfreeman: For twenty years or so there hasn’t been a single prison guard in Bulgaria who has been convicted for beating or torturing prisoners, as far as I am aware. This is absolutely incredible since prison guards receive sentences in every country in Europe and the world. The Bulgarian authorities want us to believe that Bulgaria is the only country in Europe where there is no torture and abuse in prisons, which is absurd! There is corruption in jails and all the investigative bodies that deal with them. Everything is flawed; the whole judicial system is flawed. You punish someone for stealing a chicken but not for torture just because he is a guard or a prison director. It means the whole system is unfair, hypocritical, not worthy of even being called a system. The Prosecutor’s Office decides an act is a crime, but if someone else commits it, it is no longer a crime — this is not justice! We require them to obey their laws — this is the idea of the Association!
The Association’s goals, work and achievements so far
The Bulgarian Prisoners’ Association is like a liquid: we go wherever we are needed. We’ve never had specific ideas about where we want to go; we move according to natural needs. People have needs, and we respond to them. It’s ironic that in our whole history, the fascists have tried to portray us as hooligans and outlaws. The truth is, we have never wanted anything more than for the state to enforce its laws — this is the reason we started the Association and why we continue to fight. We, who are convicted for wrongdoing, we, who are found guilty and punished, made to respect the laws of the Republic – we want this Republic to respect its own laws, too.
Part of our work is to defend the rights of people directly. For example, if guards have beaten and tortured a prisoner, the Association can provide them with a lawyer to defend them, we cover the fee of the lawyer. There are also other types of support which have a more widespread effect, for example, we appeal unlawful orders of the General Directorate for the Execution of Sentences, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), or the prison directors. If we succeed in having them repealed, it means we have helped everyone in prisons and in Bulgaria generally.
The Association has two structures – a juridical one, as required by the “Law on the Non-Profit Legal Entities”, according to which we have a chairman, a vice-chairman, and members. The informal structure, and this is the way we really work, is a type of network and a resource. We are there to help any prisoner who wants to realize an idea or project. We work on a solidarity basis; there are no bosses and no orders! Working as a network means that prisoners can contact the Association if they have a problem, and we will do our best to help them. There is no open membership in prison, and meetings and campaigns are not allowed, making formal membership in the Association very difficult. So we welcome any prisoner or relative of a prisoner who needs help. We have never turned away anyone who has come for help.
We are in contact with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (European Commission for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), a body of the Council of Europe. We have reported many cases of torture to them, and they have cited them in their reports. We have also informed the Ombudsman of Bulgaria every time there is a violation of human rights. We also send complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office. For example, when the prison guards beat many prisoners in 2014, we sent complaints to five or six institutions. This is how we work. We are not a government body; we have no right to arrest criminals operating in the prison administration. We cannot bring charges against guards who torture prisoners or superiors who take bribes or against those who rack up prisoners.
For us, one of our greatest success is that inmates already have their representation; society can hear their side of the story now. Before BPAR’s establishment, if there was a strike, a fight or a complaint in prison, the journalists would turn to the directors and the MoJ. But often, the problem is in the MoJ. If there is corruption and prisoners protest against it, and journalists only turn to the Ministry, then the truth cannot be uncovered. It is our great success that many journalists now turn to us and ask for our opinion. The media already see BPAR as a representative of Bulgarian prisoners, which is very important. It is a great success that prisoners who are not formal members of the Association see it as their own cause, something done by them, for them. The prisoners are proud to identify with the Association.
Repressions and VMRO
There were many attempts to restrict the members of the Association. Ever since 2013, the prison governor would call people to his office and threaten them: If they want a quiet life in prison, they should not talk to people from the Association. However, there has never been such an attempt at mass repression as since the far-right VMRO party came to power. This summer, VMRO set up a campaign and tried to find out who the members of the Association were. There were repressions against everyone suspected of being a member. The irony is that they repressed only people who were not members and these people then immediately approached us, wanting to join the Association. The VMRO repressions only increased support for the Association because prisoners have no one else to turn to for help.
VMRO’s plan was to stop the Association and create fear and terror among the prisoners. However, their repressions had the opposite effect. The order [for repression] came from the Deputy Minister of Justice to the prison director, who called me in and asked me for a list of members of the Association, which is absurd! They obviously thought I was an idiot if they expected me to write a long list with the full names of the members and their personal identification numbers. When I refused to do so, they repressed all suspects but failed to capture any Association members but me.
One way of repression is to move the prisoner to another prison, away from relatives and family. This is an entirely illegal practice and all prisoners who appealed this punishment won their cases, with help from the Association or their lawyers. Of course, when a prisoner wins a lawsuit against an unlawful decision, the Ministry pays from its budget — meaning, in the end, it’s the taxpayer who is paying.
For example, I received a fabricated penalty for watching porn, which was allegedly found on a computer I use. But this computer did not have a password and was used by many people. There was an order from the VMRO to punish me. They called in a witness, who was, a Nazi from “the Southern Division” [a faction of supporters of PFC Levski Sofia], and he gave false testimony. The prison director made him testify that I was the only one who had the password. The problem, however, was that the prison report itself stated that the computer had no password, so we went to court, and the court overturned the sentence in the first instance. My other penalty was for distributing stickers for the Association, again through false witnesses. They could not find another article in the Law on Execution of Sentences and Detention, so they used a section of the Criminal Code on offences on a racial or religious basis. They penalized me for the sticker of the Association, which, they claimed, was racist. According to them, the fact that we are fighting corruption is an insult to Christianity. That’s how they tried to twist things.
I have always said, half-jokingly, that even though I was a prisoner, I was freer than those working in prisons. Everything was taken away from me – family, work, money, career, education. I have nothing else they can take, so I am free to speak the truth.
What is next?
Arranging a physical space to congregate is part of the natural growth process for the Association. Without an office, we can’t properly organize and communicate as a group and public places are not suitable for that. Also, when we set up an office we will be able to privately meet with the families of prisoners and inform them about their rights. Life is very hard for these families. Their expenses go up dramatically, because usually the one who gets sent to prison is also a worker, so the family loses a breadwinner. Hence it will be very good to have a place where families of prisoners and loved ones can get together and not feel alone.
At the moment things are really bad: a female prisoner is freed and is not aided by any social care. She has no money, she doesn’t even have a ticket to travel back home. I have been helped by a lot of people, mainly because of my political status, but there are so many prisoners who leave prison and find themselves in a desert. A person leaves prison with a rucksack – they don’t have an ID card, a drivers’ license, a car, or a place to live, they have to buy a phone, a TV, food, furniture – everything from scratch. In Bulgaria a person comes out of prison like a new-born baby – without a thing in the world. So the goal of the Association is to build a network of people – former prisoners and people who are ready to help them in their re-integration into society. This is supposed to be the purpose of prison even now, but in reality prison does just the opposite – it alienates people from society.
There is a lot to do in Bulgaria – we need to support prisoners by going to solidarity protests in front of the Ministry of Justice. When prisoners are beat or tortured, people on the outside have to organize and protest against it. As much as we are against the crimes committed by prisoners, we need to show we are also against the crimes committed by the authorities. This is a social issue that for which we are all responsible.
Jock’s case: “Every time you think you’ve reached the bottom of irony, VMRO adds another layer.”
As far as my case is concerned, I think the judges who granted me parole are aware of VMRO’s interference into my life in prison and that is why they dismissed the fake reports of the Sofia prison director, which said that I had not been reformed. Their interference into my life in prison was so brazen and blatant that any honest judge would have had difficulty turning down my parole. There was a time when everything was going according to plan, step by step – I did what was expected from me and the prison administration also treated me in an appropriate way. That is how the system should work. But the moment VMRO was installed in the Ministry of Justice, absolute chaos ensued in the prison system. The Sofia prison administration stopped functioning properly and this situation has not changed to this day.
The most blatant repression started after I was given parole. VMRO was so angry that I was set free that they started rummaging through my file in an attempt to find some incriminatory evidence, but it was all in vain. For 12 years in prison and with all the collected documents, there was not a single thing that could be used against me in court – all the reports by the prison employees on me were positive. Only the prison director submitted a negative report before I went to the parole hearing, and everything in that report was a complete fabrication.
The prison director also submitted newspaper articles about me to the court as evidence that I had not reformed. Everyone laughs when they hear this and are in disbelief that a prison director, who also happens to be a legal expert, uses media articles as evidence in court. The pieces had titles like “Jock Palfreeman fights corruption in the Bulgarian prisons,” which adds another layer of irony.
This time the repression was not directed at prisoners, but at the prison staff in Sofia who had written positive reports about me. All the staff who have actually done their job properly and in accordance with the law, are still under immense pressure and constant threat by those who work for VMRO. At the moment there are two worlds – one that is presented to the cameras in mainstream TV news by the Vice Minister of Justice and his people, who say whatever they like, and another one – that of the prison staff who are shocked by what is being said on behalf of their institution. Thanks to VMRO the part of the prison staff who perform their work dutifully are now under political pressure and have to choose between losing their jobs and following orders.
GERB, the biggest party in the ruling coalition, is now in control of the Ministry of Justice, but only the Minister is from GERB. The Vice Minister is a VMRO person and this creates a conflict over power. In reality, the Minister has no power over the Vice Minister, which means that the law is enforced by VMRO. GERB has lost control over the prison system. This is a problem for many institutions in Bulgaria and stems from the coalition agreement between GERB and the fascists. If we go back to my case, what happened after I was given parole did not do GERB any favors. GERB pretends to uphold the rule of law and equality before the law, right? What Tsatsarov and VMRO did demonstrates exactly the opposite – that there is one law for Jock Palfreeman and another for everyone else.
There were some groups organized by VMRO and Ataka that protested my release, but there wasn’t a civil protest or mass discontent. That was another lie that was repeated again and again. Journalists kept asking me about my comments on the “massive public outcry,” but the truth is that the outcry came from these two parties that are a minority within a minority (within the ruling coalition). The other protest was organized by Dr. Monov who wanted to also remind people that he was a Bulgarian Socialist Party’s (BSP) candidate for city councillor. In that context, with massive support from the big media companies – which act out of profit and are controlled by various oligarchs – Tsatsarov submitted a plea to reopen my parole case with the sole purpose of sending me back to prison.
The first wave of dissent against that move came from professional legal circles – lawyers, judges and journalists. The release of the video footage of my criminal trial prompted the second wave of public support for me – that was the moment when a considerable part of Bulgarian society, which is not privy to the legal side of things, finally came to learn the truth about what happened 12 years ago. People’s anger was directed at the whole judicial system because they realized the actual events that have led to my sentence. Perhaps before the release of the video footage, most people would have been willing to accept the illegal actions of the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Interior with the sole intent of sending me back to prison. With the video clip out though, it became flagrantly clear that my case has been a plot by the prosecution, showcasing the corruption and abuse of power that has been going on for the last 12 years.
Next week, we will publish Part II of this interview, in which Jock Palfreeman analyzes the current state of “Bulgarian anarchism, the problems on the Left and the search for Left alternatives.”
Translated from the Bulgarian by Dessislava Tzoneva, Stefan Krastev and Elena Bojinova.