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Bulgaria: 'Death Row' Inmates Awarded Settlements For Poor Prison Conditions

The European Court of Human Rights has granted modest cash awards to two Bulgarian prison inmates who complained of suffering inhumane treatment on that country's "death row." The men, both convicted of multiple murders, were sentenced to death just as postcommunist Bulgaria was imposing a moratorium on the practice -- and were left to languish for years.

Prague, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "G.B." and "Iorgov" both committed particularly heinous multiple murders. In 1989, a Bulgarian court sentenced G.B. to be executed. A year later, Iorgov was likewise sentenced to death.

But for Bulgaria, and other countries in Europe, it was a time of change. Capital punishment was strictly opposed by the European Union. So looking Westward, Sofia quietly ceased carrying out the death penalty, approving a moratorium in July 1990.

Belarus is the only European nation that still actively imposes the death penalty
Nearly a decade passed before Bulgaria formally abolished capital punishment. The death sentences for both G.B. and Iorgov were commuted to life in prison. But in the interim, prisoners like G.B. and Iorgov lived in a kind of penal purgatory -- sentenced to death but uncertain when or if the day of execution might come.

In 1998, Iorgov petitioned the Council of Europe's European Court of Human Rights, complaining that he had been kept in inhumane conditions and suffered stress from living with the constant possibility he might be put to death. G.B. filed a similar petition.

Iorgov later sought counsel from Zdravka Kalaydjieva, a Sofia-based lawyer active in human rights cases.

"Mr. Iorgov, who was convicted to death, invited me to represent him several years after he filed his complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. And I am a lawyer who believes that anyone is entitled to defense," Iorgov said.

Neither G.B. nor Iorgov could be called sympathetic clients. G.B. received his first court conviction in 1973 for murdering his wife. After serving 14 years of a 20-year sentence, he went on to murder a second wife -- and was sentenced to death.

Iorgov received his death sentence after being convicted of a litany of charges, including attempted rape and the murder of three children, aged eight, 10, and 12.

In their petitions to the court, the men complained of living under poor conditions designed only for prisoners facing imminent execution.

Iorgov said he spent up to 23 hours a day alone in his jail cell, and was forbidden any contact with other inmates. He was allowed just two visits a month.

In addition, both men complained of the constant terror of living under the threat of a death penalty with no certainty of what would happen. The petitions marked the first time the court heard cases dealing with the conditions of imprisonment under capital-punishment moratoria.

Kalaydjieva describes her client's case in saying, "These persons had no defined regime of imprisonment, nor any regulations as to their rights [respective to] the restrictions of these rights. For these reasons, they also had no remedy available to contest either the lawfulness and length of their imprisonment or the lack of regime to define the serving of this so-called sentence to moratorium, or to contest the inhuman conditions in which they were held in prison."

But Kalaydjieva says she also saw it as a question with broad applications for countries with penal systems making the transition from applying capital punishment to abolishing it.

"We all know that people around the world call for the abolition of the death penalty and for the immediate introduction of moratoria. The cases actually address the very process of abolishing the death penalty and they question whether moratoria can last forever," Kalaydjieva said.

The Council of Europe, formed in 1949 to promote the continent's observance of human rights, requires its members to take steps toward abolishing the death penalty. Currently, only one of its 45 member-countries, Russia, has not abolished capital punishment, although it has enacted a moratorium.

Belarus is the only European nation that still actively imposes the death penalty. Its guest status with the Council of Europe was suspended in January 1997. The Belarusian Constitutional Court this month ruled that the death penalty represents a violation of the former Soviet republic's constitution.

The death penalty is also practiced in Japan and the United States.

The cases of G.B. and Iorgov were a first for the European Court of Human Rights, which was set up by the Council of Europe 45 years ago to provide a forum for citizens of member countries to pursue complaints of human rights violations.

A key principal of the court is that human rights belong to all humans, regardless of individual character or circumstance. Spokeswoman Emma Hellyer says the court, in accepting the cases of the two convicted murderers, was simply abiding by that principal.

"Both applicants were condemned to capital punishment for murder. The first applicant had been convicted of murder of his wife, and was released and then convicted of the murder of his second wife. The other applicant had been convicted of murdering three children, attempted rape of one of them, and attempted rape of another woman. So they were serious crimes," Hellyer said.

Nonetheless, the court ultimately ruled in favor of the applicants, awarding G.B. 2,000 euros ($2,461) and Iorgov 1,500 euros plus 1,000 euros for legal expenses.

Hellyer says, "The issue in which our court found a violation of their rights was concerning the conditions in the prison, because they were kept in solitary confinement for what amounted to about 23 hours a day for no particularly convincing reason. And the court found that was a violation of their right to [protection from] inhuman and degrading punishment."

The decisions were seen as a signal to the governments of member countries that the rights of prison inmates must be guaranteed -- especially in transition situations that leave the rules unclear.