BALKAN BLOG: Bulgaria’s nomination for chief prosecutor shows why the anti-corruption fight is failing

BALKAN BLOG: Bulgaria’s nomination for chief prosecutor shows why the anti-corruption fight is failing
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia July 26, 2019

The unanimous nomination of deputy-chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev as the next head of Bulgaria’s prosecution by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) led to numerous objections and voicing of concerns by the opposition, lawyers and an NGO, as well as protests in front of the SJC building demanding the withdrawal of his candidacy and questioning whether he meets the criteria for the position.

The nomination was more than compromised for many Bulgarians as Geshev is notorious for his failure to deliver significant results in a trial concerning embezzlement at one of Bulgaria’s biggest banks, Corpbank, staging an action movie-style arrest of a Sofia district mayor and raiding the offices of an independent publisher. However, he was the sole candidate chosen by all members of the SJC and backed by the current chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov.

His selection comes at a time when people’s trust in the prosecution is fading away, and the country has been strongly criticised by the EU for the lack of progress in judicial reform and urged to adopt legislation allowing the chief prosecutor to be investigated. Currently, no chief prosecutor can be investigated by any institution unless he or she allows this. 

Geshev’s nomination therefore came as a slap in the face for those who were hoping that the next chief prosecutor might actually be a person willing to undertake reforms.

Despite this, Geshev’s candidacy was backed by all 11 members of the SJC and, although theoretically another candidate could emerge if Justice Minister Danail Kirilov proposes someone, Geshev seems the certain winner of the competition due to the unanimous support of the SJC.

“Unsystematic player” opposing constitution

Geshev’s first interview following the nomination, with public broadcaster BNT, raised serious concerns among analysts and members of the opposition and provoked 10 lawyers to send an open letter to the SJC. In the interview, Geshev said he was not a systematic player and he was not a supporter of the separation of authorities in the country.

“I do not share the vision of, let’s call them rights extremists, that legislative, executive and judicial authorities must be separated. The principle of separation of authorities is the one side of the coin, and the other side is the cooperation, within the constitutional powers, between the authorities. And this is how each normal country functions,” Geshev said.

According to Bulgaria’s constitution, state power is divided between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

Geshev’s statement led to the open letter from the lawyers, published by the De Facto news outlet specialised in judicial information, which was sent to the SJC on July 24, seeking an assessment of Geshev’s compliance with the professional and ethical criteria for selecting someone for chief prosecutor and demanding the withdrawal of his candidacy.

The lawyers also pointed out that the separation of powers is the “supreme achievement of the democratic societies”.

“Denying the separation of powers is unconstitutional and raises doubts about the personal impartiality and the professional integrity of the magistrate who is doing it,” the lawyers wrote.

“Bat hitting opposition”

In the same interview, Geshev named independent publisher Ivo Prokopiev and “the political circle and media and oligarchs … gravitating around the defendant Prokopiev” as those who will attack his candidacy.

He went even further, stating that people close to Prokopiev have an interest in appointing a chief prosecutor who will make sure “they will not be sentenced and will not return the stolen [assets]”.

Prokopiev has been under investigation several times, with the prosecution announcing most recently in autumn 2018 that it is probing him for money laundering. A year earlier, his assets and bank accounts were frozen, which threatened the operations of his media, among them financial weekly Capital and news outlet Dnevnik, both critical of those in power. Now the prosecution is probing the sale of one of his companies to a German group.

This led to a call by Reporters Without Borders on the Bulgarian authorities to stop harassing Prokopiev and arguing that any media that dares to oppose those in power is being attacked in the country.

Geshev also said that the company Kristian Boykov, a 20-year-old recently accused of hacking the data of Bulgaria’s tax authority and making public the personal information of millions of Bulgarians, works for was involved in cyber blackmailing and was also involved in the hack attack.

He suggested in the same interview that the centre-right opposition Democratic Bulgaria was behind the hack attack, claiming it was an attempt to destabilise the country.

These statements provoked outrage among the public and led to a second open letter to the SJC from the NGO Justice for Everyone, asking several questions to the council.

“Are you going to vote for a candidate for chief prosecutor who is inclined to pronounce public sentences without having a final judicial act and to call criminals detained or suspected individuals against whom there is no even cases or indictments filed to the court,” the NGO asked in the letter.

It asked the SJC whether it will back a candidate for prosecutor who has named “media owners, politicians and businessmen [claiming they are] people executing systematic crimes against the republic while against the same persons there are no sentences, and who is calling politicians from legitimate parties that participate in elections extremists”.

The NGO went on to question Geshev’s ability to be a good chief prosecutor as he has not handled any important trial that ended successfully and led to sentences, and claimed he is lying in his public statements and interviews, aiming to defame his critics or individuals he has accused.

“All these questions have arisen following just one interview by the already nominated for chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, broadcasted by BNT that lasted 35 minutes. After that at least five grounds to withdraw your support for this candidacy appeared. You can do it and exit with honour from this situation, in which you have put yourselves,” the NGO wrote in the letter.

Democratic Bulgaria, a coalition between three political parties stating as their priority the fight against corruption and the restoration of the rule of law, demanded Geshev’s resignation from his current position “due to his apparent unsuitability”.

One of the leaders of Democratic Bulgaria, former justice minister Hristo Ivanov, called Geshev a bat that will hit everyone opposing those in power.

The party called for protests against Geshev’s nomination. Ivanov wrote on Facebook that he will demand a disciplinary sanctioning of Geshev because of his statements in the interview.

Protests and fierce arguments

Hundreds gathered in front of the SJC’s building on July 25 to demand the withdrawal of Geshev’s nomination. A second demonstration, defending him, was also staged, but was significantly smaller.

The prosecution has issued a statement in defence of Geshev, claiming that Democratic Bulgaria’s protest was an attempt to influence the SJC’s independence. It also published the opinion of the investigators’ chamber defending Geshev’s nomination.

Meanwhile, Elisavet Panova, wife of the head of Bulgaria’s Supreme Cassation Court (SCC) wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, in which she says the police checked documents and recorded personal data of several participants in the protest against Geshev, including of her 20-year old son.

Panova is demanding a probe of the police’s actions and a public answer as to why those people were checked and their data recorded.

All “gypsies do that”

Local media also reported that Hristo Nikolov, a Roma minority activist, has filed a lawsuit against Geshev over his statement in an earlier interview, after a member of the Roma community withdrew his testimony against Dessislava Ivancheva, the former mayor of a Sofia district detained on Geshev’s request and controversially held handcuffed on the street for several hours. 

Speaking to BNT shortly after Ivancheva and her deputy were given severe sentences of 15 and 10 years respectively on what magistrates said were not entirely solid grounds, Geshev commented on the fact that a key witness had withdrawn his testimony against Ivancheva saying he had given it under pressure — telling viewers that all “gypsies do that”. 

“[All] defendants do that, gypsies do that, including in trials,” Geshev said in the interview with BNT broadcast in April.

Nikolov argues that Geshev’s statement was offensive to all Roma people in the country. He has filed a claim with the commission for protection against discrimination, which has ruled there was no wrongdoing by Geshev. Now Nikolov has filed a lawsuit over the same statement.