Bulgaria: Racism, injustice lead to murder conviction

Jock Palfreeman in a Bulgarian court.

In December 2009, a Bulgarian court convicted 23-year-old Australian Jock Palfreeman of the murder of 20-year-old Bulgarian man Andrey Monov, who died of a knife wound. Palfreeman was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

This resulted from an incident in December 2007 in which Palfreeman, according to his own account, came to the aid of two men of the minority Roma community who were being attacked by a gang of 16 men.

Palfreeman was denied bail and spent nearly two years in jail before finally being sentenced.

The court rejected his claim of self-defence after many irregularities, such as blocking witness statements that supported his account and the suspicious disappearance of critical CCTV footage.

Palfreeman had been living in Bulgaria for eight months when the incident occurred.

In Bulgaria, the Roma (often known as “gypsies”) are the most maligned ethnic minority. They suffer far higher levels of unemployment, poverty, crime and imprisonment.

Human rights groups have reported them as targets of police repression, as well as victims of attacks by nationalist and neo-Nazi gangs.

In Australia, Palfreeman had joined socialist youth group Resistance while at high school and had been an active campaigner against the Iraq war and racism.

On the night of December 27, 2007, Palfreeman, according to his statement, was out with friends in the capital Sofia when they saw a group of drunken football fans attacking two Roma men outside the entrance of an underground railway station.

He ran across the road to help the two men and stood between them and the gang yelling “Don’t attack” in Bulgarian.

One of the Roma men escaped and the gang initially backed away. But the regrouped a couple of minutes later to attack him.

Palfreeman pulled out a knife from his pocket to warn the gang away, but the men surrounded him and threw concrete blocks at him.

CCTV footage shown in court showed the men surrounding him. After almost two minutes, it shows gang member Monov joining the assault and then falling back on the road.

Statements from independent witnesses, the police who were initially on the scene and even gang members supported key parts of Palfreeman’s account.

A witness who worked in a nearby kiosk said: “At some time around 1:00 I saw a group of people, running past me, going toward the underground.

“During the first movement of the group toward the underground, I heard ‘Hey, Mango’.” (Mango is a derogatory term for Roma.)

A police officer who was on the scene told the court: “I found out that these 10-15 people, as they were moving, there was an altercation with a group from the minority and the defendant tried to stop them, after that they attacked him, he tried to defend himself and the incident occurred.

“That’s what the boys there told me. I don’t know their names. There were other people, passers-by and security guards … They told me the same story.”

Immediately after the incident, gang member Antoan Zahariev made a statement that said: “There was already a fight between my friends and some other people that I don’t know and I’ve never seen before. Some of these unknown people, strangers, I think they were gypsies.”

Zahariev also claimed to have sustained a knife wound from Palfreeman, though his DNA was not found on the knife.

Witnesses’ accounts also matched Palfreeman’s account of how the gang subsequently turned on him and attacked him.

However, by the time the matter went to trial the accounts of gang members and some of the police had changed. The story put to the court by the prosecution and of the gang members was that the assault on the Roma men had never occurred.

They claimed Palfreeman attacked them with a knife for no reason and they were unable to escape from him. This account was accepted by the court and resulted in Palfreeman receiving a 20-year sentence.

Although the original statements from gang members and police contradicted the prosecution’s account, the prosecution was able to block these from being read in court.

CCTV footage from a camera at a Ministry of Health building, which could have showed the attack on the Roma men, disappeared. First, it was deleted by virtue of the tardiness of the prosecution in obtaining the footage.

After a computer expert recovered the deleted file, a supposed electrical fault lost it again. When the defence tried to get access to the hard drive, it disappeared altogether.

A doctor at the health ministry said someone had come to see the footage the morning after the incident. It has not emerged who that was or what they saw on the footage.

Other problems with the trial included police not trying to collect statements from key witnesses, such as Palfreeman’s friends who were there on the night or the Roma men; and repeatedly aborted hearings in which witnesses or even the judge failed to show up.

Bulgaria’s justice system has a reputation for corruption and Monov, the son of a famous psychologist, comes from a well-connected family. Many police officers, judges and politicians attended his funeral.

An appeal in Palfreeman’s case is due to begin on October 21. However, it is restricted in scope to assessing the previous judge’s review and comments.

Defence requests to have expert reviews of CCTV footage and forensic evidence, and to receive expert evidence on the significance of Monov’s 0.3% blood alcohol level, have been rejected.

International solidarity actions are being held in the lead-up to the appeal. In Sydney, there will be a gathering to support Jock Palfreeman at noon, Circular Quay on October 16.

[For more information, visit FreeJock.net.]

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