By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Bulgaria’s Cabinet has adopted the controversial new draft Penal Code, which has been under fire from lawyers, human rights groups and business associations, in a suprise move on January 15.
Considering the controversy around the code, there had been demands by NGOs that adoption by the cabinet would happen only after six months to allow thorough debate, but this has not happened, instead with the government promising further consultation before the draft is tabled in Parliament.
At least one of the most severely-criticised provisions, providing for jail terms for photographing someone without their consent, is said to have been dropped. However, the extent of any amendments could not be confirmed after the cabinet meeting because any “new” version has not been posted online.
Zinaida Zlatanova, justice minister in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, also has been trying to deflect criticism of the bill by saying that two previous governments were involved in its drafting.
She has said that some of the controversial provisions were put there by the former GERB government, a claim in sharp contrast to a rival claim by human rights group the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee that these provisions were dropped under that government after lawyers expressed concern about them. This is said to include the criminalisation and jail terms for photography without consent.
The current Penal Code had come into effect in 1968 and had been amended 100 times since then, Zlatanova said on January 15.
As reported previously, there also has been severe criticism of provisions for jail for disclosing information under a wider definition of what kinds of information would be covered by these clauses. Like other clauses, critics have expressed concern that these provisions would make disclosures of corruption and investigative journalism effectively impossible.
Similarly, there has been concern about a provision for jail for Bulgarians in the employ of foreign organisations “to the detriment of the Republic”. Zlatanova offered the explanation that this was intended for use only in wartime and promised a more detailed text clarifying this. Critics had said that the provisions opened the way for Putin-style repressive actions.
The Bulgarian Industrial Association protested against the introduction of significant jail terms for non-payment of social insurance contributions, highlighting the fact that in the year 2000, the Constitutional Court had overturned a similar provision.
It appeared from Zlatanova’s word that this provision would remain. She said that in 2012, employers and trade unions had agreed on this measure. While in the EU there was no such criminal liability for non-payment of social security contributions, “there EU has no such gray economy as in Bulgaria”. Bulgarian media reports said, however, that employers considered this 2012 agreement invalid.
The draft code was posted on the justice ministry website on December 21, as Bulgaria began its festive season holidays, leaving just 24 days for public debate on the lengthy text.
Ahead of the January 15 Cabinet meeting, the agenda posted on the government website did not include the Penal Code amendments, which is why it was a surprise when it emerged that it had been approved.
Bulgarian media noted that the quick adoption of the draft code appeared to be an attempt to please Brussels, given the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report by the European Commission due out on January 22. The mechanism was put in place for Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 when the two countries joined the EU, in an attempt to bring them up to the bloc’s judiciary and home affairs standards. The January 22 report is expected to be highly critical of Bulgaria’s performance.
Zlatanova said that if the adoption of the code had been delayed for six months, there would be criticism that the ministry had failed and had not implemented Brussels’s recommendations.
Daily Sega said that the fact that a government statement said that the revised text would be presented on January 21, after revisions, meant that the Cabinet had approved the draft without having seen the changes.