MINELRES: ERRC: First Five Roma Rights Victories under New Bulgarian Equality

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Fri Oct 1 14:49:29 2004

Original sender: European Roma Rights Center <errc@errc.org> 

Press Release
30 September 2004

Bulgarian Courts Act to Suppress Discrimination Against Roma

Strategic litigation actions undertaken by the ERRC and its local
partners prompt Bulgarian courts to sanction discriminators under
recently adopted Bulgarian anti-discrimination act. Courts provide
redress to Romani victims, restoring dignity.

Since the new anti-discrimination legislation came into force in
Bulgaria on 1 January 2004, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC),
acting alone or together with Romani Baht Foundation (RBF) and/or the
Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), has filed a number of civil actions
alleging discrimination against Roma. To date, not yet a year since the
entry into force of the law, the ERRC and local partners have obtained
five landmark judgements from Bulgarian courts. 

In the first judgement, on 9 July 2004, the Sofia District Court ruled
against a company called VALI Ltd. and awarded compensation to the
plaintiff Ms. Sevda Nanova. Ms. Nanova is a Romani women and was found
by the Court to have suffered discrimination in access to services,
solely on the basis of her race. VALI Ltd. operates a clothing shop in a
Sofia marketplace. Acting through its employees, the shop refused to
provide services to Ms. Nanova and banned her from its premises. In
addition, the company's staff threatened Ms. Nanova with violence and
repeatedly resorted to verbal abuse with respect to her Romani origin.
The Court found that such conduct amounts to discrimination based on
ethnic origin and is therefore in violation of Bulgarian law. 

In another case, on 12 July 2004, the Sofia District Court adopted a
decision in the matter of Mr. Rumen Grigorov v. the Sofia state-owned
electric company. The case concerned a Romani plaintiff who had not been
allowed to connect his house to the electricity network as he refused to
sign an additional agreement which would permit the company to put his
electrical metre on a pole 9 metres high. The company's reasoning for
the application of such measures was that this was the only way to make
sure that "Roma do not illegally connect to the power supply". The fact
that the plaintiff was a regular payer, had no history of trying to
illegally connect to the power grid, and was unable to check his
electricity consumption as result of the unorthodox placement of the
electricity metre, was simply not taken into account by the service
provider. Having considered the facts of the case, and in particular the
fact that a practice of this sort was arbitrary and employed by the
respondent in Romani neighbourhoods only, the Sofia District Court ruled
that the plaintiff had suffered discrimination, and ordered the
respondent company to provide the plaintiff adequate access to and
control of the electricity metre as well as to cease with such practices
in the future. 

On 6 August 2004, in a separate case concerning an almost identical
situation, the Sofia District Court ruled in favor of Mr. Kocho Kochev
and five other Romani plaintiffs, all residents of "Filipovtsi", a
segregated Romani settlement in Sofia, and in so doing found that the
respondent state-owned electric company had committed an act of
discrimination. Importantly, despite the fact that the new
anti-discrimination law was enacted after this case had been filed, the
court applied the new provision on the shifting of the burden of proof
to the respondent and explained that being of a procedural character it
was applicable to already pending cases as well as to those which have
been filed following the entry into force of the new law. The court
considered the plaintiffs' claim of discrimination as sufficiently
substantiated to shift the burden of proof onto the respondent. The
respondent ultimately failed to establish that other -- non-Romani --
consumers had been treated similarly or indeed that its actions had
served any legitimate purpose. Accordingly, the Court found that the six
Romani individuals had suffered discrimination, and ordered the company
to remove the electrical metres and to re-locate them at a height where
they would be accessible, as well as to pay the plaintiffs compensation. 

A fourth case won by Romani plaintiffs under the new law relates to
employment discrimination. On 13 August 2004, the Sofia District Court
adopted a decision in the case of Mr. Anguel Assenov v. Kenar Ltd. The
lawsuit was filed in order to challenge the refusal of the company to
allow Mr. Assenov to attend a job interview, solely due to his ethnic
origin. Acting to test reports that the company in question pursued
discriminatory hiring policies, Mr. Assenov, a young Romani man, placed
a phone call to the office of the respondent company, a food producer
and distributor, to inquire about a job announcement publicised by the
respondent. One of the persons employed in the company answered the
plaintiff's call and informed him about the requirements for the job.
The employee of the company also asked Mr. Assenov to come for an
interview. The plaintiff then inquired whether his Romani identity would
be a problem for his application. In response, the employee stated that
this was indeed a problem. Moreover, the plaintiff was told that there
was consequently no need for an interview, since the company has a
strict policy of not hiring Roma. The phone conversation took place
through a loudspeaker, and was therefore heard by two other witnesses
who later testified in court. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff requested a
finding of discrimination, the award of compensation, as well as an
order from the court obliging the respondent to refrain from similar
hiring practices in the future. Ultimately, the Sofia District Court
decided in favour of the plaintiff and in doing so granted all of the
above-requested remedies.   

Finally, on 19 August 2004, the Sofia District Court rendered a decision
in a case against the Sofia state-owned electric company concerning a
discriminatory denial of electricity to bill-paying Romani consumers.
The ERRC joined the proceedings as an "interested party", i.e. an
intervener in the public interest. On 9 January 2004, a breakdown in the
power grid in the segregated Romani neighbourhood of "Fakulteta", Sofia,
discontinued the power supply to more than 100 Romani families. The
provider refused to repair the network for more than two months,
contending that many of the affected consumers had unpaid debts to the
company. Along with the debtors, however, more than 30 Romani households
with no outstanding debts had also been denied restoration of their
power supply. In court, the plaintiffs argued that such actions amount
to a collective sanction imposed on debtors as well as non-debtors, that
they were discriminatory because they were imposed on residents of a
Romani neighbourhood, and that the power supply in non-Romani
neighbourhoods is never denied to bill-paying consumers on account of
their neighbours' unpaid debts. Having considered the case, the Sofia
District Court agreed and held that the Romani plaintiffs had indeed
suffered discrimination. 

Racial discrimination, as described in these five cases is in breach of
numerous international standards such as those contained in the United
Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights. It is also in violation of the Bulgarian anti-discrimination act
which, though it does not relate to instances of racially-motivated
violence, prohibits discrimination by public as well as private parties
in all fields of public life, including the provision of services and
employment. It provides for a special legal remedy against
discrimination and also grants human rights groups standing to file
lawsuits on their own behalf, in the absence of individual plaintiffs,
in situations where "the rights of many parties are breached". This
provision was utilized by the ERRC and its partners in the last case
described above. Perhaps most importantly, the new Bulgarian law
provides for the shift in the burden of proof onto the alleged
discriminator, once a complainant has established a plausible case of
discrimination, relieving victims of a major evidentiary obstacle in
obtaining justice. In most of its recent discrimination cases in
Bulgaria, including the ones described above, the ERRC has filed amicus
briefs for the court's convenience explaining in detail the concept of
"the shifting of the burden of proof". The Bulgarian anti-discrimination
act was enacted pursuant to the requirements of the European Union Race
Equality Directive. 

With respect to the first five judgements adopted on the basis of this
act, ERRC Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova said: "We welcome the
rulings. Laws are only as good as their implementation. Bulgarian
courts, to their credit, have now shown this clearly. They have embraced
the opportunity to apply a solid new law and in doing so correct the
injustice suffered by Romani victims of discrimination. Also, the
Bulgarian example proves that breaking new legal ground does not always
need to take a long period of time, once the necessary statutory tools
have been made available."

For additional details regarding the above lawsuits, please contact
Branimir Plese, ERRC Legal Director (e-mail: branko@errc.org, phone:+361
413 2200). 


The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) is an international public
interest law organisation engaging in a range of activities aimed at
combating anti-Romani Racism and human rights abuse of Roma, in
particular strategic litigation, international advocacy, research and
policy development, and training of Romani activists. For more
information about the European Roma Rights Center, visit the ERRC on the
web at http://www.errc.org. 

European Roma Rights Center
1386 Budapest 62
P.O. Box 906/93
Phone: +36 1 4132200
Fax:   +36 1 4132201



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