Friday, January 30, 2009

Deaths in custody

On Jan. 14, after an anti-government protest in my city of Sofia was banned postfactum (see my Jan. 15 post), Police Department No. 4 was crowded with arrested people. Among them was Metodi Marinov (60) from the village of Banitsa.
It is still unclear why Marinov was arrested. The official version of the police (presented by Trud here and here) is that he had previous convictions and was detained as a suspected participant in a car theft ring. Some protesters detained at the same time claim that Marinov had on his jacket a sticker "Sergo go home" (referring to the Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev), which indicated that he had also been arrested as a protester. I wouldn't try a judgement here, because our police are habitual liers but my experience shows that witnesses in such cases also can say things very far from the truth. I find it more likely, however, that the official version here is accurate - I suppose that they at least don't (yet) fabricate criminal records.
Anyway, even according to the official version, the old man was kept for many hours in uncomfortable conditions - on a chair and then on a bench in the corridor, because the cells were packed with detained protesters. He declared that he had heart problems but declined (?!) medical examination and help. According to the official version, Marinov never complained, but some of the protesters later testified (here and here) that he several times said he didn't feel well and asked for medical help, but was neglected and even mocked.
Shortly after 1 AM at Jan. 15, the heavy breathing of Marinov finally alerted the policemen and they called the paramedics - to no avail. His death was said to be caused by myocardial infarction (details here and here). To me, it is noteworthy that nobody cites Marinov's attorney, which clearly shows that he had none.
A week later, on Jan. 22, another man died at the hands of police in Sofia. Plamen Kutsarov (29) was arrested as a suspected member of a kidnapping gang. Police claimed that he failed the lie detector test. Then, only hours after his arrest, he died of suffocation while being transported in a car, handcuffed and with a hood on his head. Kutsarov's relations and lawyer deny that he had any connections with the criminal world.
The official reaction was slightly different this time. In Marinov's case, the authorities fiercely denied any wrongdoing because he was (correctly or not) linked to the Jan. 14 rally, so government was eager to defend its right to use any degree of force against protesting citizens. However, Kutsarov's death resulted from ordinary police work, so the General Secretary of the police had to admit that his institution was partially (?) at fault. One or two police officers were removed from their positions but there are no reports that any have been charged. On Jan. 23, the Interior Minister Mikov said in the Parliament that "it is (just a) suggestion (vnushenie) that many people have died at the hands of police in recent time".
Meanwhile, 168 chasa weekly reported that a third pre-trial detainee, a suspected thief, hanged himself in his cell because of physical and sexual abuse but police managed to hide his case from the public. I cannot find in the Web any source confirming this information.

In the 1990s, arrested people were regularly beaten by police and some of them died. Fortunately, as Bulgaria was (at least de jure) moving to the civilized world, this trend slowly but steadily declining. Now, we seem to observe a chilling turn of the tide.
What particularly worries me is the unadequate reaction of the society. First, too much attention is directed to the personalities of the victims. Indeed, if Mr. Marinov has really been a protester, his death would mark a very sad precedent, because in the nearly 20 years of emerging democracy no one protester had been killed by Bulgarian police (or vice versa). However, ordinary Bulgarians seem to overlook the postulate that every person, not only the good and law-abiding but everyone, has a right to due treatment by police and fair trial; and that if these rights are today denied to suspected thieves and murderers, tomorrow every citizen can find himself in the same situation.
Second, the increasing brutality of police, when perceived by ignorant and murky heads, serves to obscure even further their understanding of the function and obligations of state and, hence, the ability of citizens to shape the state as it should be. I mean, when somebody blames the state for the current crime wave because of the impunity of criminals and the absence of police from hot zones, many people reply, "Don't talk nonsense, X wasn't killed by government (forces) so don't blame his murder on government." In other words, seeing the state kill people, ordinary Bulgarians forget its basic function to provide law and order and want it just to leave them alone. With this mindset, it is difficult for me to hope that things may improve in the near future.

1 comment:

Bas - Serial Expat said...

Interesting story.

It's no wonder people have no faith in police or the justice system here.