By Svetla Dimitrova
Bulgarian Vice President Margarita Popova pledged in early March that she will pardon convicted criminals only after a meticulous scrutiny of each case, vowing also to ensure that any such decision will be done under full transparency.
She made the pledge in light of a controversy caused by the previous administration, which pardoned a total of 533 convicted criminals in its ten years in power, ending in January 2012.
The constitution gives the president the power of executive clemency, but also allows the head of state to delegate that and some other responsibilities to the vice president.
In line with that provision, President Rosen Plevneliev entrusted Popova with the authority to release people after the two took office on January 22nd. His predecessor, Georgi Parvanov, did the same in 2002, when he assigned that duty to his vice president, Angel Marin.
A parliamentary committee has been set up to determine the legitimacy of the pardoning decrees Marin issued during his second term in office.
“Pardoning is an act of kindness and bigheartedness on behalf of the head of state, and the balance between humanity and justice is very subtle,” Popova told the media.
A former justice minister, she also told reporters that the five-member body already studied about 80 of the 380 pardoning pleas submitted to the institution in recent months. All the reviewed requests have been rejected, the vice president said.
The pardoning of felons by the presidential institution had not drawn much media attention until last August, when Sofia-based daily Sega reported that Marin had pardoned a total of 431 criminals since 2002.
Nearly half of them had been convicted of grave crimes, such as murder and rape, the daily reported, based on information provided by the justice ministry’s Execution of Punishment division. The officials declined to disclose the names of those pardoned citing the law on protection of personal data.
The number of pardons was made public nine weeks ahead of the October 23rd election to pick Parvanov’s successor.
The controversy resurfaced earlier this year, when it became clear that the former president had failed to issue a new decree delegating some of his powers to his deputy at the start of their second term in office in January 2006.
Last month, a 13-member interim parliamentary inquiry committee was formed to determine the legitimacy of Marin’s pardoning decisions and approved requests for granting Bulgarian citizenship during that period.
Addressing reporters at a press conference on February 23rd, the former vice president said that he had pardoned a total of 533 criminals and rejected the requests of another 7,900 convicted offenders in the ten years to January 2012. Those he had released from punishment included 233 people found guilty of murder and 74 others imprisoned for involvement in drug-related crimes, Marin said.
It became clear recently that he had pardoned 49 felons, ignoring the pardons committee’s rejection of their requests, and that 77 of all 533 had been set free immediately following Marin’s decree. But, 13 of them committed new grave crimes and were sent back to jail shortly after, Mitko Dimitrov, the head of the justice ministry’s Execution of Punishment division, reportedly told the interim parliamentary committee in early March.
“I cannot comment if the number of pardoned criminals is big or small, as there are no grounds for comparison,” Borislav Tsekov, the head of the Sofia-based Institute of Modern Politics think tank, told SETimes. “The bigger issue here concerns the criteria on which those decisions were based, in view of doubts that not all (convicts) were pardoned on the basis of some social or health considerations.”
“We all remember the case of Tsvetelin Kunchev,” he added, referring to the leader of the Euroroma party and former lawmaker, who is also the only one publicly known to have been pardoned by Marin.
That was clearly a politically motivated decision, Tsekov said, echoing the widespread opinion in Bulgaria concerning the Roma leader’s release from jail in 2005, ahead of the presidential elections the following year. The lack of transparency surrounding the presidential pardons only fuels doubts, he noted.
Kunchev and his party openly backed Parvanov in his bid for re-election to a second term in 2006.
“It’s outrageous and a shame how easily criminals have been pardoned,” Lilly Stoilova, a 67-year-old pensioner from Sofia, who was robbed while travelling in a packed tram last month, told SETimes. “Why are they setting them free? So they can commit new crimes?”