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Bulgaria: Rights Group Criticizes Police For Treatment of Homeless Children

Washington, 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S.-based human rights organization is accusing the police in Bulgaria of mistreating homeless Roma (Gypsy) children in several big cities, including Sofia.

A report issued today by the private organization Human Rights Watch charges police with "harassment, physical abuse, and arbitrary arrest and detention of Roma (Gypsy) street children."

In addition, the organization contends that the government confines Roma children to prisons called Labor Education Schools without providing the children the due process of law.

"Children may spend up to three years in a Labor Education School, where conditions are normally harsh and do little to advance the development of the child's overall well-being, and do much to impede it," the report says.

The report, "Children of Bulgaria: Police Violence and Arbitrary Confinement," is the result of an investigation conducted by U.S. and Bulgarian rights advocates. Human Rights Watch says it interviewed children in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Pleven and Sliven. Monitors also met with lawyers, teachers, Roma leaders and police officials.

The report focused on so-called "street children." The rights group defines these children as youths "for whom the street more than their family has become their real home, a situation in which there is no protection, supervision or direction from responsible adults."

Between 12,000 and 14,000 street children are believed to live in cities throughout Bulgaria. The children live in abandoned buildings and makeshift shelters. They congregate at train and bus stations and support themselves by begging, doing odd jobs, and through prostitution and theft. Human Rights Watch says many Roma children are also addicted to the intoxicating chemicals contained in glue and other solvents.

"As a result, street children are viewed by police and private citizens as criminals," the rights report says. "Roma are often perceived by the Bulgarian public to be a criminal element of society."

Because of this view, the report says street children are often subject to extreme violence from both the police and from the hoodlum gangs called skinheads.

"Police often harass and abuse the children because they perceive them to be criminals," the report says, "and skinhead gangs regularly attack and beat the children because of their Roma identity."

Human Rights Watch says the children it interviewed complained that police beat them and abused them sexually, both on the street and in police lock-ups.

"Human Rights Watch found that police conduct routine roundups of street children upon suspicion of theft, or for the alleged purpose of identifying children and finding runaways," the report said. The report charged that many children were held in jail overnight or even longer "with no review of the legality of the detention by juvenile authorities."

The Bulgarian Embassy in Washington was asked by RFE/RL to comment on the charges in the rights report. An official said she could not respond at this time.

Human Rights Watch called on the Bulgarian government, specifically the Police Directorate and the judiciary, "to take concrete measures to hold police who violate the rights of street children accountable, and to train police in human rights and law enforcement."

It also called on the parliament to pass laws to create a separate juvenile court system, "in compliance with international standards on the administration of juvenile justice," and to abolish the Labor Education Schools and Local Commissions.