Support needed for prison reform activist Jock Palfreeman on hunger strike

Jock Palfreeman. Photo: Gabriel Hershman

Jock Palfreeman, an Australian serving a 20-year jail sentence in Bulgaria on trumped-up murder charges, has been on a hunger strike since April 21.

There has been little news about Palfreeman because the Bulgarian prison authorities have gone to great lengths to cut off any communication he had with the outside world.

While Palfreeman is no newcomer to protest, including in prison, the lack of information about his condition is worrying. His family have been able to get updates through his lawyer Kalin Angelov, who has received sporadic phone calls from Palfreeman. Angelov says the hunger strike is serious and a sign of desperation.

“Palfreeman’s hunger strike is a desperate outcry; a call for help in a moment of woe and adversity,” he wrote on May 7.

Palfreeman was transferred from the more open Kazichene prison to the restrictive Sofia Central Prison on May 2, where he has been placed under medical supervision.

Dessi Tzoneva, a friend of Palfreeman, told Green Left Weekly that prison authorities have targeted him for his work to improve conditions for all prisoners. Ironically, he has also been a target because he has been a model prisoner.

More dangerously, Tzoneva said, Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Justice Nikolai Prodanov is directly involved in Palfreeman’s harassment, ordering authorities to punish him for “trifles or even fabricated offences”.

Prodanov, a law professor, was appointed from one of the nationalist parties that make up the right-wing Bulgarian coalition government, also known as GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria).

“The punishments, which Jock is appealing in court, mean that he has been denied rewards, such as day releases and extended visits by family and loved ones for two consecutive years,” Tzoneva said.

Palfreeman was imprisoned in 2009 after challenging up to 16 neo-Nazis who were attacking two young Roma boys in Sofia. Since then, he has dedicated his time to successfully reforming conditions for all prisoners — with success.

Palfreeman was instrumental in the formation of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Rights Association (BPRA) which, over 7 years, has improved conditions for prisoners, including reducing beatings, torture, horrendous cell conditions and the use of isolation as punishment.

This helps explain why he is a target of prison authorities.

Tzoneva explained that Palfreeman is currently fighting charges of, and being punished for, producing and distributing BPRA stickers around the prison grounds with a modified logo of the association and the text: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.

“The authorities consider the stickers to be offensive and inciting anti-state and subversive activities inside prison,” she said.

“He has also been accused of putting pornography on a prison computer, a charge he denies, and of swallowing an SD card, even though the authorities failed to find it despite their medical examination.”

According to Angelov, Palfreeman decided on a hunger strike to protest this perpetual harassment and the authorities’ efforts to roll back the BPRA’s gains.

Prison reforms

Tzoneva explained how much the BPRA has achieved.

“First, it has relentlessly alerted the relevant European institutions, like the Council of the European Union and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, about the abuse of human rights in Bulgarian prisons and the dire conditions in which most of the prisoners are forced to exist”, Tzoneva said.

“These institutions have, in turn, pressured Bulgaria to implement reforms.

“Secondly, the BPRA encouraged prisoners to stand up for their rights and defend themselves by filing complaints to the administration or lawsuits to Bulgarian courts, as well as directly to the ECHR (European Court for Human Rights) in Strasbourg.

“The success of one of these lawsuits, Neshkov and others v. Bulgaria, resulted in a pilot decision of the European Court of Human Rights that forced the Bulgarian state to undertake steps to improve prison conditions so they reach the minimum standards as regulated by EU laws.

“Third, the BPRA has provided legal advice, as well as moral and financial support to prisoners for their legal battles against the prison administration.

“Fourth, BPRA representatives have taken part in amending the prison law, which gave more rights to prisoners in pursuing their interests, and having direct access to court in what concerns parole bids.”

Importantly, the BPRA is active across all prisons in Bulgaria, Tzoneva said.

While this helps explain why the authorities are after Palfreeman, Angelov said they are “wrongfully identifying him as the sole driving force behind the association”.

“BPRA’s activism was met with mixed reception depending on who was in government at any given time,” wrote Angelov. “When the authorities sought legitimacy for initiated reforms from their international partners, they looked for support in the association.

“Reversely, in times of government crises, the administration has looked for ways to obstruct BPRA’s activities and persecute and punish its activists.”

From 2014, under Sofia Prison director Yolant Yordanov, management received praise from human rights inspectors for improvements, which included less beatings and better cell conditions.

Several former directors, including the notoriously cruel Peter Krestev, were called to the European Court of Human Rights on charges of embezzlement and corruption.

But in 2017, according to Palfreeman, along with the reforms, “a dissatisfied mafia” arose within the prison bureaucracy, because funding for prison maintenance, renovation and upkeep was, for the first time, used and not embezzled.

“With the laws being followed and prison staff being allowed to do their jobs, a massive flow of income from bribes and embezzlement was threatened. No longer did prisoners need to bribe prison officials to get what was theirs by right,” Palfreeman wrote last year.

Yordanov was removed from office in 2017, however, and replaced with Krestev, who had previously been dismissed for violations of human rights. Krestev was sacked about a year ago, following the escapes of two armed prisoners from Sofia Prison. Under the new director, however, there has not been a noticeable improvement.

Reforms attacked

Palfreeman told Gabriel Hershman from Eye on Bulgaria in January last year that Krestev should not have been given his old job back.

“The previous Prison Director [Yolant Yordanov] was sacked because he was a reformist,” Palfreeman said.

“He did 20 years' reform in under two years. He returned power to the social workers, so that when social workers testified to someone’s good character, their word was taken at face value.

“Prisoners should know that if they conform to rules, they will progress.

“But now, with the return of the corrupt system, everything has become centralised again. The Director says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The principles behind the entire system have been destroyed. Prisoners used to know that, if they followed rules, social workers could follow through on promises.

“Now, that’s not possible, simply because the Director says ‘no’.

“A social worker recently admitted to me being instructed to write a damning assessment of me. This person told me: ‘You shouldn’t be here, but I either write a negative report about you or I’ll have to hand in my resignation.’

“I suppose I should be grateful that I was finally told the truth,” Palfreeman said.

Palfreeman said he was not surprised at Krestev’s reappointment, given the right-wing Oresharski Bulgarian Socialist Party government.

The GERB government had promised to overturn appointments made by the previous government, but it upheld Krestev’s appointment until he was sacked.

Until then, Krestev worked on eradicating all the reforms. Palfreeman said he aimed to “Lock every door and make prisoners spend all their time in one room,” adding that Sofia Central Prison was “reverting to a fascist dystopian dungeon, whereby regular beatings [were] commonplace”.

The lack of improvement under the new prison director is “symbolic of the hypocrisy of prison authorities that they continue to embezzle funds and ignore major human rights’ violations,” Palfreeman said.

Palfreeman told Hershman that he expects to be in prison for another 6–7 years.

“It’s clear that no one seriously believes he’s dangerous”, Hershman said, adding that a good judge would release Palfreeman. “As it is, he feels it’s now his duty, indeed his lifelong vocation, to use the knowledge he has acquired to help others in the penal system.”

Angelov said that Palfreeman has “come to realise that regardless the potential for positive outcomes from his lawsuits, an excuse can always be found for him to be punished again and again.

“He learned the harsh truth that, whatever his behaviour in prison is, he would be kept in a situation of the permanently ‘guilty of something’ prisoner during the remaining years of his sentence.”

Tzoneva told Green Left Weekly, “While Palfreeman’s hunger strike is aimed at making more people aware of prison authorities’ abuse of power, we should also be concerned about his welfare”.

[Palfreeman is asking for support. Send letters asking about his welfare to the Bulgarian Justice Ministry (Министерство На Правосъдието) via email to priemna@justice.government.bg or via post to Slavyanska Street #1, Sofia 1040, Bulgaria. Send a similar letter to Foreign Minister Marise Payne at foreign.minister@dfat.gov.au.]

Reading Green Left online is free but producing it isn't

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. We rely on regular support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get Green Left in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the paper delivered to your door.