By Svetla Dimitrova
In a relatively quiet residential area in Sofia sits a two-story beige and white building that served as the headquarters of Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security until last year. It now houses the Balkan nation’s new specialised court against organised crime, which opened this month after a six-month delay.
During a tour of the renovated building, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said on Tuesday (January 10th) that it had “a dark past and a bright future”.
Bulgaria, which has been repeatedly criticised by Brussels over its failure to deal with the problem effectively, decided to set up a special court to speed up the pace of prosecutions. Trials against underworld bosses in Bulgaria have been dragging on for years, with few convictions.
The new two-tier system — including a first-instance court to handle trials, and a second-instance one to deal with appeals, each with a special prosecution office attached to it — was initially due to begin operations in July.
But financing and recruitment problems led to a delay. Eventually, the government provided several million euros for staff salaries, equipment, trial chambers, detention cells and other facilities.
“What is important is not only the equipment, but also the courage and the personal stand of magistrates who will work here,” Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva said.
Former Sofia District Court Vice-President Georgi Ushev, picked to head the anti-mafia tribunal in October, said that he expects up to 80 cases will be transferred to the new institution within days. A further 350 cases are likely to be forwarded to his court by the end of the year, following the completion of investigations.
According to media reports, the first trial case will be against one of the country’s alleged top underworld bosses, Krasimir Marinov. A former wrestler and founder in the early 1990s of one of the first major mafia structures in Bulgaria, Marinov was charged in early January with organising an armed drug distribution network that operated in the Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach between August 2009 and May 2010.
In 2005, Marinov and his younger brother, Nikolay, were arrested on charges of plotting the murders of retired General Lyuben Gotsev, a former communist-era state security chief; Ivan Todorov, a mafia boss involved in cigarette smuggling and other crimes, and Nikola Damyanov, the financial director of controversial Varna-based industrial group TIM. Both were acquitted in 2010 due to a lack of evidence, although four lower-level figures were sentenced to prison terms of between 34 months and five years.
Given Bulgaria’s poor track record of dealing with cases of organised crime over the past two decades, analysts do not expect the new system to lead to a turnaround quickly.
Despite all the reservations he had for the specialised court as a measure of last resort in a sense, Tihomir Bezlov, senior analyst at the Sofia-based Centre for the Study of Democracy, still considered it “a positive step in a way”.
The intricate relations between magistrates and criminal networks in some parts of the country make the issuance of even modest verdicts impossible, he told SETimes.
“So, this court is an attempt to break those bonds and to deal with the legacy of the past 20 years, but with all the constraints stemming from the lack of experience and different legal difficulties that will accompany the process,” Bezlov said.
With many circles opposed to the special court, including judges and lawyers who have raised some reasonable arguments against the institution, the Bulgarian analyst was not “over-optimistic” in his expectations.
“In countries like Bulgaria, changes take time; they are often unsustainable and there are many setbacks before something is achieved. The tribunal could be a positive step within the frames of what we have here,” Bezlov concluded.
The ruling centre-right GERB party first announced its plans to set up a special tribunal in 2010. Its idea that the court should also deal with cases of high-level corruption was, however, met with fierce resistance by other parties in parliament, rights groups and lawyers, and was eventually scrapped.
“In a country governed by the rule of law, the court must be independent. It cannot serve as a government tool in the pursuit of a concrete goal or the implementation of a specific policy,” said Ivanka Ivanova, programme director of the Sofia-based Open Society Institute, in an interview with SETimes. “If a court pursues a concrete goal, it becomes an extraordinary court and extraordinary courts are prohibited by the Bulgarian Constitution.”
The idea of high-level officials being tried for corruption by the tribunal was criticised by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, and was eventually dropped.
Other Balkan countries with special anti-mafia courts in place include Serbia and Croatia, which established its court following an October 2008 car bomb explosion that killed Ivo Pukanic, the owner of the country’s Nacional weekly, and his marketing chief, Niko Franjic.
The Serbian tribunal was set up before the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The trial against those involved in the plot against the country’s first democratically elected prime minister eventually became “the best known case” in the institution’s history, Milan Antonijevic, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights told SETimes.
“The special court had a good influence on the judiciary, and if we compare its practice with that of other courts, we will see a big difference in the number of confirmed judgments, in the number of those quality items,” he said.
“Around 100 judgments were passed in 2011 alone,” Antonijevic noted, adding that the court was speeding up its work and that the number of proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor’s Office was also rising.
Although there have been instances of a trial getting stuck, or of issues not adequately handled by magistrates and lawyers, “Serbia needs this court,” he said.
SETimes correspondent Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.