Tech & Rights

ECtHR Knocks Bulgaria on Hate Crime

Bulgarian authorities refused to consider an attack by skinheads on a Sudanese national a hate crime. The European Court of Human Rights found Bulgaria to have violated multiple articles of the Convention on Human Rights.

by Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Mr. Abdu is a Sudanese national living in Sofia. Back in 2003, while visiting a shopping mall, he was attacked by a pack of Bulgarian youths. One of the assailants tripped him to the ground and, while kicking him, called him a "dirty nigger." Another pulled out a knife, but luckily Mr. Abdu had managed to run away before it could be used. Soon after, the incident was reported to a police patrol that apprehended the teen assailants, who were known to the police and were identified as skinheads.

As a result, an investigation was initiated. One of the assailants was questioned, as was a witness. Moreover, a medical examination was performed, which indicated battery as the source of Mr. Abdu's wounds. Despite all of this, the prosecutor's office refused to initiate legal proceeding on "violence with racist background," a crime from the Bulgarian Penal Code. In 2007 Mr. Abdu appealed the prosecutor's decision, emphasizing that the witnesses did hear assailants' derogatory shouts. Their clothes also left no doubt towards their intentions. (One of them was wearing a t-shirt with a swastika printed on it.) The prosecutor did not accede.

In his complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, Mr. Abdu invoked the violation of Article 3 (forbidding inhumane and degrading treatment) and Article 14 of the Convention on Human Rights (forbidding discrimination), as the racist nature of the attack on him had not been acknowledged during the preliminary procedure. Mr. Abu attributes such course of action to prejudice within the law enforcement establishment.

The Court emphasized that racial discrimination may comprise inhumane and degrading treatment. Regardless of the threshold necessary for stating a violation of Article 3 of the Convention, a racist nature of a crime is always an aggravating circumstance and must be addressed and pursued during an investigation. In the discussed case, the racist part of the assault is beyond any doubt. The assailants were identified by the police as skinheads and were notorious for their xenophobic beliefs. Article 3 of the Convention obliges the states to impose regulations protecting people from inhuman and degraing treatment, as well as to efficiently follow an investigation procedure in order to punish the assailants. In all procedures involving racist motives, they must be thoroughly investigated by law enforcement. Following an undifferentiated approach towards racist and regular assaults comprises a violation of Article 14. Even though Bulgarian law provides articles on hate crimes and provides harsher punishments for such, the investigative bodies failed to look into this case with sufficient care. Their only concern appeared to be finding out who started the brawl. The Court has ruled that such attitude violated Articles 3 and 14 of the Convention.

Much like Bulgarian law, Polish law includes penal regulations that allow for punishing hate crimes (including Penal Codes art. 119 or art. 257). It's worth mentioning that in this case from Bulgaria, it is not a lack of legal measures that was the problem, but law enforcement's unwillingness to apply them.

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