Jock Palfreeman imprisoned for fighting racism

Jock Palfreeman formed Bulgaria's first prisoners' union.

More than six years ago, 21-year-old Australian backpacker Jock Palfreeman was walking home with friends after a night out in Sofia, Bulgaria, when he saw a group of 15 men attacking two others. The next morning he was in a police cell — accused of “unprovoked murder” and “hooliganism”. Held without bail, he was convicted two years later and sentenced to 20 years jail.

When Palfreeman saw the attack happening, he had stepped in to try to protect the two men from their assailants. The attackers turned their attention to Palfreeman. Some used their fists; others threw blocks of concrete at him. After the melee, one of Palfreeman’s attackers died from his injuries.

The two men who had been the gang’s first targets were Roma — an ethnic minority often subject to racist violence in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe. The man who died was Andrei Monov, the son of a prominent Bulgarian politician.

Palfreeman claimed self-defence: he had tried to stop a racist mob from attacking the Roma men and was then himself attacked. But the court accepted the testimony of the gang members, who said Palfreeman had attacked them without reason. His supporters say the court case was deeply flawed, violating Palfreeman’s right to a fair trial.

Palfreeman’s plight has become well known in Australia, especially after the ABC TV program Australian Story featured his case in two episodes. Belinda Hawkins’ book about Palfreeman, Every Parent’s Nightmare, helped keep the case in the public spotlight.

Protests and events in support of Palfreeman have been held in several Australian cities.

During their gigs, Sydney-based Roma Band Lolo Lovina have thanked Jock “for standing up for us”, calling on the Australian government to bring Palfreeman back home under a prison transfer.

But Palfreeman’s imprisonment has also become an international issue. Over the past six years, “Free Jock” protests have taken place in several countries across three continents. The most recent of these took place on August 29 in The Hague, where 20 Dutch protesters delivered a letter to the Bulgarian ambassador that condemned anti-Roma racism and called for Palfreeman’s release.

From inside his prison, Palfreeman told teleSUR English that he is heartened by such protests: “It’s incredibly empowering to see solidarity from so many different places. It reminds me that I’m not alone — although I’m surrounded by so much nationalist hostility [in Bulgaria] there are still those who agree with me to oppose racism.”

Despite his age, Palfreeman had a lot of experience in activist campaigns against racism and injustice when he entered Sofia Central Prison. At 15, he was interviewed by a local newspaper, speaking out against Australia’s policy of imprisoning refugees, including children. For this stance, he was expelled from Sydney’s King’s School.

Unfazed, he promptly organised a social justice club at his new school, St Ignatius Riverview. “We had weekly meetings,” said Palfreeman. “On our first school meeting in 2003 we had over 100 boys attending.” He joined the socialist youth group Resistance and helped set up the Books Not Bombs student coalition, which organised the biggest student protests in Australia’s history.

Reacting to the mistreatment and abuse prisoners face in Bulgaria’s prison system, in 2012 he founded the country’s first prisoners union — the Bulgarian Prisoners Rehabilitation Association. Palfreeman said there has been “a massive positive response from all prisoners” to the union. “The only negative things prisoners say are things like ‘we should be doing more’.”

The prisoners association recently won a two-year legal fight for the right to open a bank account. Now able to collect donations, the union will use the money to pay lawyers to represent prisoners. “The next step is a legal umbrella to protect the members and [supporters] of the union,” said Palfreeman. “Apart from defending the rights of prisoners, the goal [of the union] is to strengthen brotherhood and solidarity amongst prisoners.”

His unionising efforts did not endear him to the prison director, who decided to revoke Palfreeman’s enrolment in university via correspondence as punishment. In response, Palfreeman launched a 30-day hunger strike, winning back his right to study in the end.

Throughout his imprisonment, Palfreeman has spoken out about Bulgaria’s prison system and the violence and racism of the prison guards. “The guards are on edge,” he said. “I don't mean that they’re nervous, but that they're just waiting for any little excuse to assault, attack, beat as many as possible in the foreigners' block.”

In Palfreeman’s wing of the prison, eight to 14 prisoners are crowded into each cell. The stress of living in such cramped, uncomfortable conditions means fights sometimes break out between prisoners. Palfreeman said this is what the prison guards count on: “When a prisoner fights with another prisoner the guards will beat both. Even for a verbal argument, the guards could beat those involved.”

Palfreeman also said the guards taunt the prisoners with racist insults: “Racist comments are standard. Guards refer to all prisoners from Islamic societies as ‘Talibans’. Blacks are constantly referred to as being ‘dirty monkeys’. And Roma are called the Bulgarian version of ‘nigger’.”

Having exhausted his legal options for an acquittal, Palfreeman will likely serve his entire sentence in Sofia — unless, that is, the Australian government could convince Bulgaria’s authorities to allow a prison transfer to Sydney.

Palfreeman says the Australian government has done nothing to pursue this option. He said: “The Australian government has left me to the mercy of the Bulgarian government ... It was the outgoing [Kevin] Rudd government that ordered the [Australian] ambassador [to Bulgaria] to come and visit me ... last year, almost six years after my arrest. Prior to that the Australian government was too scared to show diplomatic support at all ... Prior to that nothing had been done by Australia.”

Palfreeman said this — much belated — shift in embassy policy has continued under the current Tony Abbott Coalition government: “There is a new [Australian] ambassador to Bulgaria. And on his first trip as ambassador in Bulgaria he came to see me. We spoke for over three hours.”

Palfreeman wants the Australian government to do much more, but he also relies on his supporters to keep up the political pressure. He said: “Despite the overwhelming evidence that I've been fit up, [the politicians] are still scared about this absurd conviction of murder. The word ‘murder’ is more important than the case’s facts. What really needs to be done is for people to create an environment in Australia where the pollies can feel comfortable to publicly support me.”

[This article was first published at teleSUR English.]

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