Neo-Nazis protest against Palfreeman's nomination. Banner says: "Death to BHC [Bulgarian Helsinki Committee]."
The nomination of Bulgarian Prisoners Rights Association (BPRA) founder Jock Palfreeman, an Australian anti-fascist imprisoned in Bulgaria, for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee's Human of the Year award has faced a backlash from the media, right-wing politicians and neo-Nazi gangs that has forced his nomination to be withdrawn. However, the BPRA is running in his place and three days before the November 30 closing date of the internet poll that will decide the award, was a front runner.
“I was nominated for my work with the Bulgarian Prisoners Association,” Palfreeman told Green Left Weekly. “After a large group of neo-Nazis and opposition parties protested, and carried out a media smear campaign, the jury from the awards were too afraid … So it was changed to the nomination of the BPRA, which is essentially the same thing as obviously we're a team.”
Palfreeman has been in Sofia Central Jail since 2008, when he was arrested after intervening when a gang of 15 neo-Nazis attacked two members of the persecuted Roma minority. In the brawl that followed, one of the neo-Nazis was killed in unknown circumstances. Palfreeman was sentenced to 20 years after a trial marked by openly stated bias and a lack of procedural fairness.
The neo-Nazis, including the one who was killed, came from politically well-connected families and during the trial the media and politicians made hysterical smears of Palfreeman as a psychotic foreigner who launched an unprovoked attack on 15 innocent football fans. These smears were revived following his nomination for the award.
“The Bulgarian media is owned mostly by members of opposition parties. Some right wing and neo-Nazi organisations held protests and made death threats to the organisers of the award,” Palfreeman explained. “The smear campaign has become so absurd that a tabloid paper wrote an article saying that me and the prisoners' union were a drug dealing network. The smear campaign was and still is very vicious.”
However, despite the media campaign, the nomination has received significant support in Bulgaria.
“Many prominent Bulgarians have come out in support of our nomination including an orthodox priest who was himself nominated for his solidarity work with refugees, even after the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declared that Bulgaria should stop refugees from entering the country. Two previous winners of the award also have come out publicly supporting our nomination,” Palfreeman said. “The party controlled media is still hostile and doesn't give voice to those who [support] the nomination. Prisoners are in absolute full support. It has really raised the spirits of many of the prisoners in Bulgaria and they are proud of the nomination.”
The BPRA is Bulgaria's first inmate-run prisoner's rights group and is currently growing through uniting with other prisoner activist networks.
“We have met some more activist prisoners who are organisations in their own right. They are very active. We have had meetings behind closed doors, away from the authorities … Activist prisoners who fought for their rights before … have approached the BPRA and we have discussed in length the reasons for official unification,” Palfreeman told GLW. “This is great for both the BPRA as an organisation … and also the 'lone wolves' as it means more work can be shared out between us and hopefully the BPRA can offer structure and resources to the 'lone wolf' prisoner activists and human rights defenders.”
Video: Jock Palfreeman about Bulgarian Prisons (Interview). Hristina Vardeva.