By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
As human rights lawyers and political critics sift further through the draft proposed new Penal Code, new controversies continue to emerge, this time over a vaguely-worded provision penalising Bulgarians in the service of another country or foreign organisation “to the detriment of the Republic”.
This is the latest provision to have set alarm bells ringing, after others including restrictions on photography and filming and on disclosure of secrets, both seen by critics as – at very least – set to make the battle against political corruption in Bulgaria more difficult.
The package of proposals was rushed out at the end of 2013 under the aegis of Zinaida Zlatanova, justice minister in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, and since then has come under fire for, among other things, providing for severe penalties on a random basis for offences that are widely and poorly-defined.
It also has emerged that some of the controversial provisions were floated previously when the centre-right GERB government was in power, but were not proceeded with after lawyers expressed concerns about them.
Protests against the draft Penal Code were scheduled to be held in Bulgarian capital city Sofia on January 10, outside public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television and also at the building of the Ministry of Justice where Zlatanova, a former European Commission employee who got a job with the socialist government after her term ended, was due to hold a news conference.
The proposed text of the new Penal Code says, in article 305, that a Bulgarian will face two to eight years in jail if “in the service of another country or a foreign organisation or an organisation under foreign control, in order to serve to the detriment of the Republic”.
The provision is an addition to existing chapter 21 “crimes against the Republic”.
The head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (a human rights organisation that has been sharply critical of the BSP government and recently found itself subjected to a special tax audit), Krassimir Kanev, said that the new proposed clauses were dangerous and disturbing for their lack of clarity on the meaning of what constitutes a foreign organisation or one under foreign control and nor what defines “to the detriment” of the Republic of Bulgaria.
He said that human rights defenders were potentially subject to this provision.
“We give information to ‘foreign organisations’ – (international human rights group) Amnesty International, for example, or the United Nations, on issues that affect the state of human rights in Bulgaria. These organisations then produce highly critical reports that a judge safely could interpret as ‘to the detriment of the Republic’,” Kanev told Deutsche Welle.
He said that the proposed provision had no parallel in modern criminal law in the developed world or even the laws of Todor Zhivkov’s communist-era Bulgaria nor Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
Kanev said that the provision proposed by the government was not even equivalent to that on foreign organisations in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the ultimate sanction was closure of the organisation, not prison sentences.
It seemed that the proposed measure was the Zlatanova justice ministry’s bungled version of a French law, with the draft text borrowing only the reference to “foreign organisation or organisation under foreign control” but omitting the French texts defining the fundamental interests of the nation.
Meanwhile, Zlatanova appeared to attempt to backtrack on the proposals restricting photography. These proposals were among the first to cause a furore because they provide for a year in jail, probation or a fine for photographing or filming people without their consent.
Concerns about this clause included not only that it would render impossible getting photos and film of politicians, for instance, accepting bribes, but also could be used against those photographing anti-government protests because they would not have the consent of everyone in the crowd that they photographed.
“With such a broad consensus on the part of the media profession against this text, I would be willing to drop it,” Zlatanova told local television station Nova Televizia.
She said that the text against working for a foreign organisation to the detriment of the Republic already existed, but as article 105.
That article provides for five to 15 years in jail for a Bulgarian “who is in the service of a foreign country or a foreign organisation to serve as a spy”.