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Bulgaria's Chief Prosecutor Was Targeted In A Bomb Attack. But Not Everyone Believes It's True.

Ivan Geshev's detractors have alleged that the attack was staged, a false-flag operation meant to lend credence to earlier Geshev claims that there was a plot against him.
Ivan Geshev's detractors have alleged that the attack was staged, a false-flag operation meant to lend credence to earlier Geshev claims that there was a plot against him.

SOFIA -- Shortly before noon on May 1 on the rugged outskirts of Sofia, an explosive device went off near the heavily armored car carrying Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev. No one was hurt and there was minimal damage. Geshev's motorcade continued the 30 or so kilometers to its destination in the capital, apparently without stopping.

After the incident, there was a firehose torrent of public claims, including accounts of a 5-meter-high "column of fire," a large crater from the explosion, allegations of the presence of a military drone, and a grave risk to Geshev's children.

The prosecutor-general's detractors, however, have alleged that the attack was staged, a false-flag operation meant to lend credence to earlier Geshev claims that there was a plot against him.

The Balkan country of nearly 7 million people has a reputation as one of the European Union's most corrupt places and a history of bungled investigations into alleged corruption, unexplained poisonings and explosions, and other wrongdoing.

Decades of prosecutorial missteps and repeated pleas from the European Union and other institutions, may not have dealt a bigger blow to Geshev's perceived untouchability than inconsistencies in official statements on last week's blast and a subordinate saying Geshev "misled" him about the bombing and interfered in efforts to solve the case.

The incident follows recent forays by Geshev -- who has described himself as "a tool in the hands of God" -- into sensitive political territory, with Bulgaria still stuck in the mud after five inconclusive elections in just over two years.

He called a press conference weeks ahead of the last elections in early April to deliver an untethered outburst alleging -- without evidence -- a grand mob-style conspiracy, involving business owners, journalists, and politicians, to oust him and his allies at the Interior Ministry.

In the days before the roadside explosion, word spread of his office's investigation into the government's enforcement of Russia sanctions, contentious in light of Bulgarians' historically hot-and-cold feelings toward Moscow.

Local and international media reported on May 1 that Geshev and his family had narrowly "escaped" a "targeted" and "violent explosion" that was part of an "assassination attempt" on Geshev, Bulgaria's top prosecutor since his controversial promotion in 2019.

After days of silence, Geshev himself appeared from abroad to distance himself from his initial suggestion that the blast threatened his children and blamed the situation on "various improvisations in the media."

The National Investigative Service (NSLS), which falls under the legal authority of one of Geshev's deputies, initially said it was investigating the explosion as a terrorist attempt to assassinate Geshev. In conducting the investigation, the NSLS is expected to question Geshev as the purported victim.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and GERB party leader and former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who is scrambling to form a government after the last round of inconclusive elections in early April, similarly condemned it as a "terrorist act," while the Interior Ministry has consistently described it as an "incident."

Views on the supposed attack have largely followed political lines. The co-chairman of the strongly pro-EU Democratic Bulgaria alliance said that "the case resembles a staging." Another Geshev critic, the anti-corruption We Continue the Change party's co-chairman, Asen Vassilev, dismissively likened accounts and images of the incident to "a pirate scaring rabbits."

Supporters of Geshev hit back, with prosecutors from around the country staging silent protests outside courthouses on May 2 in support of the prosecutor-general. His spokesman, who was participating in the Sofia protest, said that "it is inadmissible for anyone to think that the attack against Ivan Geshev was staged."

Prosecutors gather in protest in Sofia on May 2.
Prosecutors gather in protest in Sofia on May 2.

But disclosures since the incident have cast doubt on some of the earliest reporting and muddied crucial details.

For days, there was official misinformation about who was traveling with Geshev. In comments widely quoted by other media, the Epicenter website quoted Geshev as saying soon after the incident that "it's a good thing that I changed cars at the last moment" and, "I'm worried about the children; they were very scared."

For days, investigators, including the director of the NSLS, Borislav Sarafov, insisted publicly that Geshev was traveling with his wife and children at the time of the explosion.

But questioned by lawmakers, acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev said on May 5 that "There were no family members of Mr. Ivan Geshev in the car that was the object of this explosion. He was traveling alone, with his assigned security guard from the National Security Service."

Sarafov emerged hours later to concur and to say he'd been "misled by Mr. Geshev's words that he was worried about his children" and their safety.

Geshev then said from New York on May 7 via public broadcaster BNT that Sarafov had misspoken, and his family wasn't with him at the time of the blast. The media, he alleged, was guilty of "various improvisations."

Then, on May 8, in an unprecedented shot at a hierarchical structure in which the prosecutor-general wields nearly unchecked influence, Sarafov said that the Prosecutor-General's Office should get out of the political landscape "onto which it has stepped...and return to its proper environment -- in defense of justice only and only within the framework of its institutional powers."

Borislav Sarafov
Borislav Sarafov

Inconsistencies in the accounts further fueled public skepticism about the explosion, much of which centered on images from the cordoned-off crime scene that were shared by local media.

Underwhelming images appeared to belie Sarafov's assertion that the blast caused a 4-to-5-meter-high "column of fire" that tore out a "crater" that was 30-40 centimeters deep and nearly 3 meters wide. A close-up of a headlight said to be from Geshev's armored vehicle purported to show minor damage from a bullet or shrapnel. And Sarafov said the detonation involved "no less" than the equivalent of 3 kilograms of TNT, although a week later there was still no official identification of the explosive or quantity.

And while Sarafov suggested the perpetrator had clearly been surveilling "the routes" that Geshev traveled and the blast occurred on a "backup one," Demerdzhiev dismissed that report, saying it was "a usual route" for Geshev's motorcade. The minister also downplayed the damage to Geshev's headlight, adding, "The car of the prosecutor-general is better protected than the one in which the president travels."

Not long after the explosion, investigators also revealed that an unnamed Israeli "counterterrorism expert," who happened to arrive in Bulgaria in the hours before the incident, had been allowed to inspect the crime scene immediately after the blast.

Safarov's deputy, Yasen Todorov, who was nominated for his post by Geshev, initially said the Israeli "did not participate in the inspection." Days later, Sarafov said Todorov had brought in the Israeli "on Geshev's order."

Officials have maintained silence on the Israeli's identity, including in response to questions from RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service to the NSLS and the Interior Ministry. The Israeli Embassy told RFE/RL that it was "in no way connected and has nothing to do with this issue."

RFE/RL has confirmed the individual's name via multiple sources. Unofficial information suggests he has ties to the Jerusalem Police Department, and he met Geshev on a previous visit, but there is no publicly available information on his professional expertise.

The site of the "incident"
The site of the "incident"

Outsiders, including the European Union and the U.S. State Department have long warned of a lack of public confidence in Bulgaria's judiciary.

Some of the EU's most dire assessments concern Geshev's influence.

"The lack of a possibility for an effective criminal investigation of the prosecutor-general and his/her deputies has been a long-standing issue, which was raised not only by the European Commission but also by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe," the European Commission said in its annual Rule Of Law report in 2022.

"As pointed out in previous reports, the combination of the powers held by the prosecutor-general and his/her position in the Supreme Judicial Council result in a considerable influence within the Prosecutor's Office as well as potentially within the Supreme Judicial Council (both in its Prosecutorial Chamber and its Plenary) and within the magistracy."

With little still known about the attack, the investigation by Geshev's subordinates in the National Investigative Service has raised eyebrows, underscoring the Western and domestic criticism that Bulgaria's top prosecutor is above the law.

"With the [existing] structure of the Prosecutor-General's Office, I don't believe that an objective investigation can be conducted," Boyko Rashkov, a former interior minister, told the local Sega news website. "Shouldn't the victim not investigate himself?"

Rashkov, the former interior minister, has argued that Geshev's unhindered primacy and other circumstances leave no one in a position to conduct an unbiased investigation.

Instead, he said, the course of the probe so far suggests a process destined less to solve a crime than to "demonstrate to the chief how loyal we are to him."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Genka Shikerova and Ivan Bedrov

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