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Surveillance Video Puts Bulgarian Police Brutality During Anti-Government Protests In Focus

Bulgarian police drag protesters behind a column of the Council of Ministers building in Sofia on July 10, 2020.
Bulgarian police drag protesters behind a column of the Council of Ministers building in Sofia on July 10, 2020.

A long day of anti-government protests marked by clashes with police in central Sofia appeared to be winding down -- but recently released video footage that critics say was hidden by the authorities for more than a year tells a different, disturbing story.

The footage shows a cordon of police standing idly along a major thoroughfare in front of the Council of Ministers building, the focus of a large demonstration on July 10, 2020, demanding the resignation of the country's prime minister and chief prosecutor.

But the appearance that everything was under control is shattered by the new video, which clearly shows a group of 10 riot officers struggling to drag a shirtless protest participant away from the public eye.

At first, the officers show relative restraint, with one using his baton to force the detainee to comply with their efforts to take him away. But once behind one of the large columns propping up the Council of Ministers building, the blows rain down, with multiple officers kicking, slapping, punching, and striking their victim into submission.

Relief comes only when some of the officers break off to deliver multiple strikes to the head and body of a new arrival dragged behind the columns by another group of police. Within moments, another demonstrator is brought to the spot, and then another -- a young woman in a headlock who is violently slammed down next to the growing pile of detainees.

Resistance is futile, and even those whose hands are already cuffed behind their backs are not spared more punishment, as becomes clear when one protester who tried to roll away is tossed like a sack of potatoes on top of detainees lying facedown and defenseless on the pavement. Once that man is forcibly put into place, another cuffed protester is thrown on top of him.

The security forces apparently thought their actions were unseen -- and they were not seen by the public for more than a year -- but that all changed with the appearance of the previously unknown and crystal-clear CCTV footage that was obtained last week by a parliamentary investigative commission and shown to an extraordinary session of lawmakers on August 13.

Another still from the video
Another still from the video

The ensuing outrage among lawmakers and the Bulgarian public has led to demands for answers -- including whether claims of police brutality had sufficiently been investigated, and whether government institutions may have tried to cover up police crimes.

'Indignation, Pain, And Anxiety'

On August 17, parliament assembled for a follow-up extraordinary session, this time to question the country's acting interior minister, Boyko Rashkov, about what steps had been taken to punish police who had exceeded their powers and to identify measures taken to prevent such police violence from occurring again.

"I watched the published footage of the violence against young protesters in the summer of 2020 with indignation, pain, and anxiety," parliament speaker Iva Miteva said in an official statement announcing the session. "I share this not only as speaker of the National Assembly and a lawyer, but also as a citizen, woman, and mother. The Bulgarian parliament -- as an emanation of the will of the people and a guarantor of the rule of law -- cannot stay away from what is shown in these videos."

Acting Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov speaks in parliament on August 17.
Acting Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov speaks in parliament on August 17.

Rashkov, who was appointed in May as part of the interim government appointed by President Rumen Radev following inconclusive parliamentary elections in April, confirmed reports that only four of the officers in the video had been identified and punished, with one barred from promotion for two years, another for one year, and two receiving reprimands.

The acting interior minister, who is among the current government officials seeking the ouster of controversial Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev, lamented that instead of pursuing charges against police, cases were instead opened against injured civilians, which he said "borders on criminal."

"Violence has obviously been used and it is disproportionate," Rashkov told lawmakers. The video, he said, was recorded by a camera operated by the country's national security service and sent to the Interior Ministry just one week after the violence.

Rashkov said a new investigation had been opened to check the previous internal investigation, with the goal of identifying all the police officers involved.

The National Assembly itself unanimously approved a statement declaring police violence "a disgraceful act of inhuman and degrading treatment, prohibited by the constitution and international treaties to which Bulgaria is a part."

Protests Against Borisov, Geshev

The incident stemmed from demonstrations begun the day before, after prosecutors led by Geshev raided the offices of two members of President Radev's staff. Many protesters saw the raids as payback against Radev, a rival of center-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov who had the year prior attempted to block Borisov's appointment of Geshev as prosecutor-general.

The protesters called for the resignations of both Geshev and Borisov amid rising tensions between Radev and the government ahead of elections planned for the spring, and lasted right up until the April 4 vote that ultimately failed to result in the formation of a government.

Protesters shout slogans and wave Bulgarian national flags during an anti-government protest in Sofia on July 13, 2020.
Protesters shout slogans and wave Bulgarian national flags during an anti-government protest in Sofia on July 13, 2020.

New snap elections held in July also failed to result in a new government after There Is Such a People, the first-place finisher, decided not to propose a government following two failures, and the second-place party, former Prime Minister Borisov's GERB, also declined to try.

The situation has led to the possibility of a third snap parliamentary election this year in an effort to end the stalemate.

Fresh elections would be held under the shadow of an ongoing investigation by the interim government into the work of the previous GERB governments led by Borisov that were in charge for more than a decade, as well as the latest attempts to oust Geshev over allegations he illegally published wiretapped conversations of politicians, including President Radev.

Geshev declined to attend the August 17 legislative session, saying it would be unconstitutional and violate the principle of separation of powers. But his office is clearly in the spotlight, and has been on the defensive since the footage of police brutality was exposed.

Why Only Now?

During the August 13 parliament session, Nikolai Hadjigenov, who organized some of the anti-government protests and now heads the parliamentary commission set up last month to investigate police violence in July and September 2020, said the CCTV footage taken from behind the columns of the Council of Ministers building had been hidden for "13 months."

The video, he later told BNR Radio, only surfaced when it was discovered in the records of the Sofia branch of the Interior Ministry (SDVR) and a copy was sent to him by acting Interior Minister Rashkov. The original, which had been sent to the Interior Ministry as part of the investigation into police violence, remains with the SDVR, Hadjigenov told BNR.

The incident stemmed from demonstrations after prosecutors led by Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev (right) raided the offices of two members of President Rumen Radev's (left) staff. (combo image)
The incident stemmed from demonstrations after prosecutors led by Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev (right) raided the offices of two members of President Rumen Radev's (left) staff. (combo image)

That investigation found that violence had been used against seven protesters and resulted in the punishment of the four unidentified police officers, including one with a ranking position within the SDVR, for "violation of fundamental rights of citizens in the use of physical force exceeding the required limits."

On August 15, the Prosecutor-General's Office issued a press release acknowledging that it had been aware of the video from the beginning, and officially confirmed that four officers had been punished for their actions.

However, questions remain as to why the video took so long to get to light and whether the punishments handed out to security personnel were sufficient, particularly considering the fact that more than four officers are seen beating the detainees.

Speaking to parliament on August 17, acting Interior Minister Rashkov said that "the video was with the MVR [Interior Ministry], in one of its departments, and the one who was minister back then should explain whether the video was covered up or not," Rashkov said.

Mladen Marinov, the interior minister in question, was replaced in a government reshuffle just two weeks after the police violence that occurred on July 10, 2020.

Were The Police Punished?

Reports by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service and other media have revealed that the highest-ranking officer to be punished -- Andon Andonov, a police official who held a leading position in the SDVR's riot-control unit -- had taken a job during the investigation working for the Prosecutor-General Office's department for witness protection, which also provides personal security for the prime minister.

According to the department's official report for 2020, no witnesses required protection that year, opening up suggestions that Andonov was essentially hired by Geshev to work for Prime Minister Borisov.

The Prosecutor-General's Office told RFE/RL that Andonov was fired after he was charged with inflicting harm on protesters. RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service has reported that Andonov was the officer who was given the harshest punishment, a ban on promotion for two years.

Andon Andonov (file photo)
Andon Andonov (file photo)

The news outlet Sega, meanwhile, has published reports that provide details of the investigation into the beatings of July 10, 2020. Sega reported that Andonov's case concluded just weeks ago, when his appeal was denied. The judge in the case ruled that Andonov had failed to exercise control over his subordinate officers and that his punishment was warranted.

Sega also reported that the violence in question began at around 11:30 p.m. on July 10, 2020, when protesters in front of the Council of Ministers building began throwing glass and plastic bottles at the police cordon, which was composed mostly of officers not wearing protective equipment and can be seen in the video wearing yellow vests.

The police involved in the violence are members of the SDVR's Specialized Police Force for Protection and Restoration of Public Order, according to the news outlet, and can be seen in the video dressed in black uniforms marked with the word "Police." One of the officers, a junior inspector who is clearly identifiable as a woman, can be seen repeatedly kicking a detainee. It is not clear if she is among the two junior inspectors who were identified during the initial investigation and given reprimands.

Very Few Convictions

Allegations of police violence are not new. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has said that the Prosecutor-General's Office has hundreds of cases relating to police abuse, yet the number of indictments and charges stemming from those cases is surprisingly low.

In 2018, according to the nongovernmental organization, only four officers were charged out of some 200 cases that had been opened by state prosecutors, and those charges only led to two indictments, according to the NGO. In 2019, nine officers were charged and three indicted out of more than 250 charges. Overall, there have been only 30 convictions relating to police violence since 2002.

As Bulgarian Helsinki Committee head Krassimir Kanev told RFE/RL shortly after the July 2020 violence, police brutality during protests is not the exception, but the practice, "although we have not seen people beaten to such an extent and brought to such a state in recent years."

Other video recordings taken of the incident had emerged, but not from the vantage point of behind the columns of the Council of Ministers building.

The newly exposed footage appears to support claims made last year by the woman shown being violently detained in the video, who alleged last year that the police had mocked her during her ordeal by stroking her hair and photographing her exposed breasts.

It also supports complaints of police violence made by Evgeni Marchev and Dimitar Pedev, two men in their 20s who were hospitalized for injuries sustained during the protest and are seen being beaten in the video.

Earlier claims that Marchev had been pulled out of the crowd and beaten were supported only by an amateur video showing police dragging him behind the columns of the Council of Ministers building. Pedev claimed he was later handcuffed to his hospital bed after being charged with hooliganism.

As to why the revealing CCTV video was in its possession, the SDVR said simply on August 16 that "whenever there are videos or other recordings relevant to revealing the objective truth in a criminal case, they are included and expertly examined."

Why it took so long for the footage to come to light the SDVR did not say.

President Radev was blunt in his assessment of the situation, however, saying that the prosecution's actions were inexplicable.

"The whole chain of responsibility must be established -- from the perpetrators, the perpetrators, the administrators and the politicians who ordered or allowed the violence, or those who covered up the violence," he said after the video finally was exposed. "Because we must react to this as a democratic society, which should not allow such an ugly trampling of the constitutional rights of Bulgarian citizens."

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service investigative reporter Boris Mitov, correspondent Elitsa Simeonova, and others
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