Late one night in 2007, in the Bulgarian capital city Sofia, 21-year-old Australian man Jock Palfreeman was walking home after a night out with friends.
He saw a group of about 15 men attacking two others.
The two men were Roma, an ethnic minority who are often the targets of racist attacks by neo-Nazi gangs.
Outraged, Palfreeman intervened to prevent the attack, but instead the crowd turned their violence on him, hurling concrete blocks. Palfreeman pulled a knife to protect himself and during the subsequent fight, one man was stabbed and later died.
Despite claiming self-defence, Palfreeman was convicted of premeditated murder, and has spent the past five years in prison in Bulgaria. He is serving a 20-year term.
Bulgaria’s justice system has a reputation for corruption. During Palfreeman’s trial there were several serious irregularities. Statements from key witnesses, such as the Roma men or Palfreeman’s friends, were not taken by police. In fact, the police and gang members claimed no Roma men were assaulted and that Palfreeman had attacked the gang without provocation.
Original statements that back up Palfreeman’s version of events were not allowed to be used in court and his legal team was not allowed to question the gang on why their stories had changed.
Important CCTV footage from a nearby building that may have recorded the attack disappeared.
In an open letter published by Green Left Weekly last year, Palfreeman said: “I have not changed my explanation of events from the beginning, and they remain the same after four years of being kidnapped by the Bulgarian state. I witnessed the 15 neo-Nazis all attack two Roma due to the colour of their skin. I intervened to defend the two Roma. The 15 neo-Nazis then attacked me and I defended myself.
“For these reasons and many more we are trying to revitalise the solidarity movement with my case and all the connotations that my case involves — that is, racism, violent neo-Nazi gangs and their mates who defend them, the corrupt police, corrupt courts and the corrupt prison system.
“The neo-Nazis wouldn't be able to attack people on the streets if it wasn't for the protection afforded them by the police and courts. It's telling when hundreds of the state's agents are needed to stop me, a lone individual. However against their hundreds I have morality, I am right and they are in the wrong and this is why it takes so many of them.”
Friends and family of Palfreeman have said he has had a strong social conscience from a young age. In high school, he organised students in his school to protest against Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, and was involved in anti-racist campaigning.
While in prison he has set up the Bulgarian Prisoners Rehabilitation Association to help other prisoners organise for their rights — the first of its kind in Bulgaria.
In response, prison authorities restricted his access to a computer, which prevents him from completing the degree he is studying online at Macquarie University.
Palfreeman’s reaction was to begin a hunger strike in January this year, which he continued until he received an answer from prison administration that confirmed he is only allowed to study in a Bulgarian university — something he cannot do from prison.
Thanks to a new book by ABC journalist Belinda Hawkins, Every Parent’s Nightmare , Palfreeman’s case is getting more attention in Australia. The book investigates the case and uncovers new evidence that was not shown at the trial. It also explores the attempts by Palfreeman’s father, Dr Simon Palfreeman, to prove his son’s innocence.
An extract from the book, printed in the February 21 Sydney Morning Herald described the prison conditions in which Palfreeman is living: “Palfreeman shares the four-by-six metre cell with eight others … The cell has a bathroom with a cracked toilet, a tap and a bucket in which the prisoners wash their clothes. Electrical fittings dangle from the wall. Broken heating pipes are taped together.”
These conditions, and the difficulties his family face by living so far from him, are among the reasons why his family has been fighting for him to be able to serve his sentence in Australia.
Supporters of Palfreeman have started a petition calling for the Australian government to arrange a transfer, but Bulgarian authorities insist Palfreeman has to to pay up to $600,000 in damages before they will begin transfer proceedings.
Relying on a corrupt or slow-moving legal system will not bring justice for Palfreeman. Like the case of David Hicks, a public campaign that supports Palfreeman and pressures the Australian government to act will be much more effective.
[To sign the petition visit change.org/petitions. For more information, click here.]