SOFIA -- A battle-tested Bulgarian rights lawyer laid out his preferred outcome last week in a crucial test of EU principle and resolve as the Kremlin aggressively pursues its perceived enemies at home and abroad.
Addressing concerns after a court in Varna ordered the extradition of a Russian fugitive who publicly protested Moscow's war on Ukraine from Bulgarian soil, Mikhail Ekimdzhiev rattled off a list of cases in which Europe's top human rights court found that Russia abandoned its international pledges, violated the rights of inconvenient detainees, and persecuted wealthy Kremlin rivals.
"The obvious fact that there's a risk that if [Aleksei] Alchin is extradited he will be subjected to such [abusive] treatment in Russian detention and prisons should lead to a categorical refusal of the Bulgarian court to extradite," Ekimdzhiev, who has successfully argued a case before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Alchin's case threatened to make Bulgaria the first European state to extradite a suspect to Russia since President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine six months ago.
Critics warned that repatriating Alchin would help Putin internationalize his unprecedented crackdown on dissent amid an unprovoked war that has killed tens of thousands of people and sparked Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II, not to mention the global economic fallout.
But on August 25, a Bulgarian appellate court overturned the extradition order, citing inadequate guarantees that Alchin's rights and dignity would be protected if he were handed over to Russian authorities. Nor could Sofia ensure that he wouldn't be persecuted for political reasons.
Alchin, 46, was quickly freed.
"Today the Varna Court of Appeal showed the world that Bulgaria adheres to the European principles of human rights, freedom, and the right to life," Alchin, accompanied by his wife, told journalists outside the courtroom in the Black Sea port city.
Alchin's wife and fellow Russian emigres had feared a handover could serve as a dangerous precedent essentially obliging Bulgaria and its EU partners to help intimidate Russians abroad.
"The only thing we relied on and continue to rely on is that we are in Europe," Alchin's wife, Olga Gyurova, said. "Bulgaria, as a European country, making decisions, must be based on the European system of values."
An entrepreneur before immigrating to Bulgaria at least five years ago, possibly as early as 2014, Alchin was already sought by Russia for alleged tax evasion.
But Moscow only requested his extradition after a video circulated of Alchin demonstratively burning his Russian passport in Varna two days after Russian troops rolled across Ukraine's borders on February 24.
Alchin filed a request for political asylum after Bulgarian authorities detained him in early August.
In a filing to Bulgarian prosecutors, Alchin alleged that "the Russian Federation is persecuting me for political reasons" based on the video and "numerous anti-war events" that he attended. He has claimed to have seen and called out Russian corruption in the past.
Russian officials declared Alchin a fugitive from justice in April 2018, following an investigation into alleged tax evasion. Roughly a year later, prosecutors indicted him in absentia. This May, a Russian court ordered his indefinite remand to pretrial custody once he was successfully apprehended.
Alchin has rejected the charges as unfounded and said he had no knowledge of any case against him when he left Russia, although he has said increasingly frequent audits led him to fear that he might become a target of "persecution."
"The world is already very well-aware of how the Russian criminal justice system works," Gyurova said with the threat of extradition still hanging over her husband's head. "If the Russian side has wanted to interact with him on this issue since 2018, why was he found just now, in this situation, after he allowed himself to speak out publicly against the war?"
New Russian laws since the invasion began have criminalized "discrediting the armed forces" and the distribution of allegedly "false information" about the military, diplomatic missions, or state bodies. Other measures punish references to the war as anything but a "special military operation."
Earlier Russian laws on alleged foreign agents and "undesirable" organizations and individuals have also been widely applied beyond their previous expansion over much of the past decade.
Russian courts boast an unusually high conviction rate of nearly 99 percent, a figure that outpaces the show-trial era under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Legal experts warn that the use of forced confessions, investigative and accusatorial bias, and a politicized judiciary are among the factors making acquittals so rare.
"Whatever he's tried for in Russia, [Alchin's] situation will be aggravated," Krassimir Kanev, a longtime human rights activist and educator and chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHK), told bTV.
Some Bulgarians had urged President Rumen Radev to intervene to grant Alchin Bulgarian asylum.
The district court of first instance in Varna said a senior Russian prosecutor, Pyotr Gorodov, had assured the Bulgarian side that Alchin would not be mistreated and would be allowed counsel after his handover.
But the appellate court put little stock in the pledge. It said that if Alchin were extradited, his "situation will be aggravated in view of his political beliefs, and his rights in [Russian] criminal proceedings...will be impaired."
It cited accusations by the European Parliament of "ongoing repression against civil society and human rights defenders in Russia" and an assessment of human rights in Russia by the BHK. "There is no doubt that Russia has intensified its repression against peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders, and civil-society activists and protesters against the war," the court concluded, according to its press service.
Tens of thousands of Russians have gone abroad since February to places like Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey, in addition to EU destinations, in some cases to flee the Kremlin clampdown or international sanctions punishing the invasion.
"This is an incredible threat to our activists who have fled the country -- they don't want anything to do with the regime there," Petar Tanev of the For A Free Russia movement, which unites Russians in Bulgaria who oppose Putin's policies, said of possible extraditions like Alchin's.
"Putin's regime is trying to use every tool to influence the Russian opposition abroad," he added.