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Bulgaria’s judicial reform still faces major challenges – UN expert

SOFIA / GENEVA – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, said Monday that including the prosecution service in the Bulgarian legal reform and making all judicial actors accountable continue to be major challenges to the judicial reform process in the country.

“All judicial actors, namely judges, court assessors, prosecutors and investigating magistrates are essential to achieve the major goals of the current legal reform process,” Ms. Knaul said at the end of a six-day visit to Bulgaria*, where she examined the situation of the independence of the judiciary, the legal profession and judicial reform process.

“Those goals are judicial reform, fighting against corruption and countering organized crime; and the first major step is to include the prosecution service in this reform and ensure it upholds the highest standards of efficiency, independence and accountability”, the expert stressed.

For the Special Rapporteur, “joint governance of the courts and the prosecution service appears to hamper a well-functioning system of accountability, and therefore limits effective prosecution of those involved in organized crime and corruption.”

During her visit to Bulgaria, Ms. Knaul focused on the judicial reform process and the integrity and day-to-day functioning of the judiciary. She also assessed issues regarding legal aid and access to justice, as well as the capacity of the judicial system to make accountable all judicial actors and the Supreme Judicial Council and to handle specialized or complex crimes, such as organized crime and corruption, among others.

“Several efforts undertaken by the Government show Bulgaria's commitment to strengthen democracy and the rule of law,” the expert said. “However, misconceptions on the judiciary may overshadow efforts to achieve the major goals of the reform.” In her view, “in a democratic and free society, no institution should be used as a scapegoat to hide structural problems that require urgent action.”

“Joint efforts at all levels are required to address a number of pressing concerns within the framework of my mandate: judges and prosecutors should not be seen to be as one and the same; access to justice should be guaranteed to all in Bulgaria; legal aid should be effectively ensured to all those who need it to resort to courts; law enforcement officials, lawyers, prosecutors, court administrators, judges and the Supreme Judicial Council should be made accountable for their actions; the courts should be adequately resourced so that they are able to function properly and uphold the principles of independence, impartiality, integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence.”

Ms. Knaul also invited the Bulgarian media to uphold its social function and help to bridge tolerance, dialogue and understanding among the three branches of the power of the State: executive; legislative and judicial. "Public opinion plays a key role in governance affairs in Bulgaria and should contribute to building public trust in the administration of justice and all Government institutions in Bulgaria.”

The Special Rapporteur’s mission took her to Sofia and Blagoevgrad, where she held discussions with representatives of the Government, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, academia, and others involved in issues related to her mandate. Ms. Knaul will present her findings to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012.

The UN expert’s mission to Bulgaria will be followed by a visit to Romania, from 17 to 24 May 2011 where she will hold a press conference in Bucharest on 24 May at 15:00 hrs in the premises of UNIC-Bucharest (UN House, ground floor conference room, 48A Primaverii Blvd, Bucharest 1, Romania).

Gabriela Knaul took up her functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on 1 August 2009. In that capacity, she acts independently from any Government or organization. Ms. Knaul has a long-standing experience as a judge in Brazil and is an expert in criminal justice and the administration of judicial systems.

(*) Read the full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11020&LangID=E

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/judiciary/index.htm

OHCHR Country page – Bulgaria: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/BGIndex.aspx

For media requests during the visit, please contact Ms. Tsvetelina Bonova or Ms. Petya Petkova, UNICEF office in Bulgaria (Tel.: + 359 88 2424443; Mob. +359 885 244 566 / email: tbonova@unicef.org; ppetkova@unicef.org) or Ms. Mireya Maritza Peña Guzmán, OHCHR (Mob.: + 41 79 20 10 119 , email: mpena@ohchr.org )