The Bulgarian Prisoners Rights Association (BPRA) has made progress in its attempts to bring due process into Bulgaria's parole laws.
Founded in 2012, the BPRA has been represented on a Ministry of Justice working group on prison reform since May. Their representative is Valio Ivanov, who was released from Sofia Central Prison in February after serving 22 years — 20 in solitary confinement.
Ivanov succeeded in getting the working group to recommend changes in parole laws, BPRA chairperson Jock Palfreeman told Green Left Weekly.
“We won a change to redraft law on the way parole is applied,” Palfreeman said. “Right now the penitentiary laws are being reformed and the ministry work group had previously refused to change the parole law claiming that it was OK.
“The minister of justice didn't accept their findings and returned the denial for another review. This time, however, the BPRA representative was able to explain the problems and they came up with some significant solutions to the proposed reforms.
“The workgroup then need to complete a lot more reforms and then submit the proposed reforms to the Council of Ministers and then to parliament for review and voting.”
Palfreeman is an Australian who has been jailed in Sofia since 2008 when he intervened to try to stop a racist attack by a neo-Nazi gang. One of the attackers was killed in the fighting. The dead neo-Nazi had well-connected parents and Palfreeman was sentenced to 20 years after a procedurally dubious trial.
The changes to the parole law that the BPRA is arguing for might seem semantic. One is removing the word “may” from the clause about judges' right to grant parole to prisoners who show evidence of rehabilitation.
Removing this word is actually a significant change. “It will mean that judges no longer can arbitrarily refuse parole to prisoners for no reason,” Palfreeman explained.
“It means that judges will only be allowed to grant or refuse parole based on evidence towards rehabilitation of the prisoner. Previously this wasn't the case. Now it isn't.
“At the moment judges can say, 'Yes, you're rehabilitated, but I'm not going to grant parole because I don't want to.' And there is no possibility of parole.”
The other change that Ivanov had made to the draft was adding willingness to take part in prison work programs as evidence of rehabilitation, not just actual participation. This is important because only 10% of Bulgarian prisoners have access to work programs.
Palfreeman expressed cautious optimism about the changes to the ministry working group's draft actually becoming law.
“'Confident' I don't think is really the best word,” he said. “Bulgaria can change politics drastically and without warning. So it's extremely hard to predict.
“But I am confident that the BPRA is growing in experience and confidence. I'm also confident that our representative Valio is doing all he can and more to bring about real reforms into the draft law. After all, if the draft law is insufficient then the battle is lost before it started.”
He said prisoners were following the BPRA's intervention on the working group from the inside.
“Communication is hard and there are so many new developments that it's hard to keep everyone up to date,” he said.
“Sometimes it's funny: I'll tell as many prisoners as I can about some progress or set back and then a different prisoner tells me the news from the BPRA not knowing that I'm the chairperson.
“But it is also important not to get people's hopes up that major changes will be effected soon. It's still a long, slow and tedious process.”
[Visit www.freejock.com for information about the campaign to support Palfreeman.]