The 13 Imams and Religious Freedom in Bulgaria

Yonko Grozev

Yonko Grozev

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

The “case of the 13 imams” sounds almost mythic. But the current case the Bulgarian government is prosecuting against 13 imams from the area of Pazardzhik – west of Plovdiv on the way to Sofia – is very real. They stand accused of preaching radical Islam, with potential criminal sentences of up to five years. It has become a test case of the limits of religious freedom in this country on the eastern edge of the European Union.

The trial began against last week after several delays. Prosecutors allege that three of the accused spread religious hatred while the other 10 have worked with a Saudi charity that the Bulgarian government banned in 2003.

As Yonko Grozev explained to me in an interview last October, the real issue at play in the case is money. Grozev is a human rights lawyer who has represented the chief mufti and the supreme council of Muslims in Bulgaria as well as the Movement for Rights and Freedom.

“The real issue is funding, which goes back to the 1990s,” he related. “There is funding for religious purposes coming from Saudi Arabia and Muslim organizations abroad. By law, this should not happen. This all happens illegally. It’s just in cash in suitcases. This is being used as a way to put pressure on Muslims here. Initially, foreigners controlled these funds, and the Bulgarian government just deported them. I’ve been involved in some of those cases, again at the European Court. We’ve complained about the legality of those deportations. The European Court agreed that this was in violation of European convention. But nothing really happened as a result of the judgments. So, that’s still an issue. Meantime, part of the money shifted to Bulgarian nationals, who can’t be deported.”

In the case of the European Court decisions on the “erased,” the Slovenian government has shown every indication of complying with the rulings. Bulgaria, however, doesn’t seem to be quite as enthusiastic about European Court decisions connected to the human rights of Muslims. Part of the reason is a decided lack of outside pressure.

“Take, for example, that example of Muslims being deported for their religious activities,” Grozev said. “It falls within the category of funding of Muslim extremism. You can’t get support from the West to enforce the European Court decision. The case involves Muslims, religious extremism. So, the pressure on the Bulgarian government to implement the judgment of the European Court is significantly less.”

We talked about the rise of the Movement for Rights and Freedom, its relationship to the opposition movement after 1989, and how it has functioned as a coalition partner in government. And we also discussed his own path to dissent, by way of George Orwell and other books in English that he managed to borrow from the national library.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I do remember. But for us, the more memorable event was the fall of Todor Zhivkov. For the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was with a friend who lives now in Vienna. We were in front of a movie theater. For Todor Zhivkov, I was in the university cafeteria. Then we went to the park where there was a rumor that there would be a public rally. It was the most optimistic time of my life. I was 25. I was studying law.

The symbolic value of the fall of the Berlin Wall was not so strong here. It was just one more sign that the system was collapsing. We expected the totalitarian regimes to collapse, and then we would have democratic governments. We were thinking of democracy as the normal state of affairs and authoritarian/totalitarian regimes as an aberration. Once you get rid of these regimes, democracy would naturally come about. That was very much the state of mind I had at the time.

Do you remember when you decided to become politically active?

When I started reading. It was part of my family environment: to discuss political events. It was something I grew up with. Then, when I was a student, I started reading a lot of analytical and historical stuff about communism, which was an eye opener. When you live in a closed space, you don’t quite understand where you live. Then you start reading and you realize that you’ve been manipulated until then, very deliberately and very successfully. There’s a feeling of outrage, of “how dare they do that to me!”

The opening step was a university professor who was teaching in the political science department, which had been recently established. He was a historian. He began feeding me books like 1984 to start with, which I first didn’t quite grasp. This was around 1985. Once I realized that there was a lot more to learn than the official propaganda, I started to go to the national library. I was pretty fluent in English at the time. There was a flaw in the system. You couldn’t get that stuff in Bulgarian, but you could get it in English.

I’ll never forget the shock and embarrassment. I was ordering books and I didn’t really know what they were. One was on gulags in the Soviet Union. The librarian put the books on the shelf, and my book was on the top. On the cover there was a hand chained to a red star, so I felt uneasy. It was a bit too obvious. Fear was also part of it. I knew I was reading something that was officially not something I should be reading. You grow up with those parallel realities. You know that some things you can talk about in private and not in public.

About that time, I decided I wanted to go into law. I went into the army and came back in 1987. Law was a decision based on my interest in the humanities. I was considering sociology and political science. But in the end, I thought law would give me some tools and I would still be staying in the basic humanities. I can’t recall any particularly strong urge to study law. It was a bit of a default decision. Then in the early 1990s, I moved into human rights, and I’ve been doing human rights ever since.

Were human rights, and the rights of ethnic Turks, part of those early demonstrations?

Not directly. There were a few public rallies before the regime change, before Todor Zhivkov fell. For those, the focus was more on democracy. When Zhivkov fell, for example, we heard at the university that there’d been an internal coup. We went to the park, where there was a permanent protest to release Ahmed Dogan from prison. There were signs. I was part of it, but human rights was not the top issue. If you were looking for one common word, it was “democracy.” It wasn’t human rights or the Turkish issue.

It became more of a political issue after that. I still remember the first big public rally. It was at Alexander Nevsky cathedral. It was the only time when there was a clear dividing line, with people booing when the issue of the rights of Turks came up. It split the audience. At the time there was a human rights group, but it was a scam actually, initiated by the security services. It had the logo of an open hand. When the issue of ethnic Turks came up and there was booing, people started raising open hands in support. We didn’t learn until many years later that it was a scam. Maybe not all the people in the group were part of this scam – I’ve done some research myself – but the most prominent person we later learned was controlled by the security services.

The high point was winter 1989 when there was a protest next to the parliament building. Turks came into Sofia from all over the country. They stood there. It was much quieter. There were also some very strong political feelings on the other side. In the end, a consensus was reached that the name change policy would be reversed but without publically admitting it and without saying very loudly that these policies were abhorrent.

It was also a strategic mistake by the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) not to include Turks. That gave them no other option but to create their own party. If the UDF had taken a more integrationist policy at the time, things might have developed differently. But unfortunately, those “lovely” nationalist feelings prevented that.

How would you evaluate the record of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the ethnic Turkish party?

The MRF has had a very mixed record. On the one hand, they created more visibility and more career paths for a lot of young Turks. Ethnic Turks have also been integrated into governance, which is clearly a positive thing. On the other hand, the internal dynamic within the movement has always been that it would keep its voters’ allegiances by keeping them separate. In other words, there is a path for you to improve your life but only through the movement. The movement has been rather authoritarian in its governance, and there have also been very clear corruption issues.

But again, in my mind, the original sin is the UDF’s. If they had integrated the Turks before the round table that started in January 1990, we might have seen a different story.

You’ve worked, as a lawyer, with MRF?

Even now I am representing MRF. In the last elections, they were deprived of a political seat. The votes from ethnic Turks now living in Turkey were annulled on an absurd pretext, on very unsound legal grounds. The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. I’m expecting a judgment within half a year.

The convention says that there should be some form of restitution – a recovery of rights violated. So, ideally, the judgment would mean getting back the member of parliament they lost. But by time the judgment comes out, there will be new parliamentary elections. So, it’s more about creating a precedent. It is politically important for MRF to make a statement that denying those votes in Turkey is illegal. There is also a procedural precedent. The constitutional court did an investigation on its own; it did not behave like a proper court. This is a clear due process issue. The most important thing, from my perspective, is that the votes were annulled and the people affected were not allowed to be part in the proceedings. The MRF was not formally part of the proceedings. The member of parliament who lot his seat was not part of it either.

I was also involved in representing the chief mufti and the supreme council of Muslims in Bulgaria over the issue of who is the legitimate mufti and supreme council. The government has used its ability to register the chief mufti and the council, which are elected by believers at a conference, to influence who the mufti would be and the leadership of the Muslims in Bulgaria. The European Court twice found that the whole process is flawed, that there were violations of religious freedom. Unfortunately, the issue is still ongoing and, in the end, the mufti has to have some sort of approval by the government, which goes beyond strictly procedural matters. The MRF has not been interested in changing that. Even when they’re not in power, they still prefer to have leverage over the religion. Currently there is no process that would make the election of Muslim leadership fully independent from the state.

Of course, the MRF always protests about interference, but they don’t want to establish a system in which such interference doesn’t take place. Someone calls a conference — an ex-officer of the state security services, who also was chief mufti at the time of the changes — and the government gets to choose on the basis of political preference. It’s been a legal mess for 20 years. Right now, every conference changes the bylaws of the religion, then the courts revoke those decisions, declare them unlawful. Right now, the bylaws were adopted in 1994 and are so out of date. So many things have happened since then that it’s practically impossible to make a decision any more in accordance with these bylaws. That gives those who are registering immense powers. And yet no one wants to put this on solid legal ground to prevent future interference. In this case, I was working for a human rights group that was refused registration. On the other side was the guy who presided over the forced name changes for ethnic Turks. How much support would you expect him to have among Turks?

Because it is a legal mess, the European Court keeps sending the case back in an effort to clean up the legal mess. There are clear signs that some of the judicial decisions here in Bulgaria are motivated by political rather than legal considerations. By now, it is such a legal mess that you can’t blame anyone for anything. It is virtually impossible to resolve it with a proper legal procedure. The current supreme judicial council cannot summon a conference, because the bylaws from 1994, which established a procedure to summon a conference that elects a new chief mufti and council, require a certain number of votes to summon a council, and those votes are just not there. The term of office for the council elected in 1994 has run out, and there are not enough people left over from that council to call a new conference. The only thing you can do is to disband the legal entity.

The Muslim community is frustrated. In their mind, it is the Bulgarian government that is preventing them from exercising their religious rights. The MRF is savvy enough to present the issues in a way that demonstrates that they are defending the rights of Turks and Muslims and that the government is not willing to recognize them. But when the MRF had the opportunity, when it was in the government for a lengthy period of time, they could have passed any legislation they wanted. But they didn’t, because they didn’t want religion at that time to be independent of government.

There are now disputes over who should control the mosques. This translates into some people just walking into a mosque and saying, “Here is the local mufti and the local council.”

For the time being, it’s been resolved. The registered leadership of the Muslim communist is now legitimate. But the process is still not on firm legal ground. So, the issue could blow up at any moment. If there is another dispute, it will be difficult to resolve it.

There is currently a case here in Bulgaria against 13 Muslim clerics accused of spreading the teaching of radical Islam. Can you tell me more about this case?

The real issue is funding, which goes back to the 1990s. There is funding for religious purposes coming from Saudi Arabia and Muslim organizations abroad. By law, this should not happen. This all happens illegally. It’s just in cash in suitcases. This is being used as a way to put pressure on Muslims here.

Initially, foreigners controlled these funds, and the Bulgarian government just deported them. I’ve been involved in some of those cases, again at the European Court. We’ve complained about the legality of those deportations. The European Court agreed that this was in violation of European convention. But nothing really happened as a result of the judgments. So, that’s still an issue.

Meantime, part of the money shifted to Bulgarian nationals, who can’t be deported. Now, the government has changed tactics and decided to prosecute them. The current case is mostly about that. There is hard evidence that there is illegal money coming from abroad; I don’t know how much of that evidence will be confirmed at the trial. Money was transported during the haj. Muslims would go to Mecca and Medina, get small amounts of money, and bring it back. These amounts are not subject to customs and don’t have to be declared. A lot of people participated in this activity, and they simply gave over the money when they returned to Bulgaria.

That money is later used for all sorts of religious purposes, mostly religious training. The charges are that this religious training is radical and extremist, and it is aimed at establishing a sharia state and undermining democracy in the country. To what extent that will hold depends on how much importance the court decides to give to the books found among those guys. I assume that some of these books might have statements and positions that would seem to be contrary to democratic principles and rules. To what extent having a book like that is a crime is a different issue.

There are also witnesses testifying about what some of the imams said in their preaching. Precisely what the witnesses say in court will be important in the outcome.

There is also the charge of organized criminal enterprise. The government searched the email correspondence of this group of men, and it was obvious that the group agreed on a religious training program. They reported that they received money for it. This, the government is arguing, is an organized criminal enterprise.

Some of those charged argue that there is no evidence that they themselves were involved. The one running the whole operation had their names in his file. But there is no evidence of cooperation among them. Some of them might be found not guilty on those grounds.

There are also concerns that a lot of young Muslims study abroad, many to Saudi Arabia where the type of religion they’re exposed to is not what is traditional here. This, the government is arguing, is extreme and radical.

The big question still remains: how do you deal with money coming from abroad for religious purposes. Should it be completely banned or allowed under certain circumstances?

Aren’t there international Christian organizations providing money to Christian groups in Bulgaria?

Certainly religious groups here get funding; I suspect that Muslims groups do also. The official leadership gets some funding. Why do they have to do it on a private basis? These donors don’t want to give money to the official leadership of Muslims because of all the legal disputes.

There was an early organization that was registered, not as a religious entity, but as a foundation, and it was banned. It could be well be that the government is not allowing entities to register, and those donors are not allowed to give money to official leadership. In any case, there is a clear divide between young guys coming from Saudi Arabia who are Wahhabi-trained and the local imams who are more traditional.

What about freedom of speech?

The European approach on freedom of speech is a bit different than in the United States. It gives less protection. Plus there has been less prosecution of such ideologies. In Europe, we’ve had cases of Kurds in the PKK coming from Turkey, as well as Islamists, arguing their positions, and the European Court has taken a nuanced approach. It basically has said that there has to be an imminent threat – a real and present danger, to use the U.S. standard – to prosecute. Whether this case in Bulgaria would pass the standards of the European Court is a different matter. In principle, it’s possible to ban an organization for advocating the overthrow of a democratic government, so the content of those messages could be reviewed.

MRF has been a kingmaker, determining coalition governments. It has not been very interested in a litigation strategy. When in power, they could resolve issues in power. The case of the 13 Muslim clerics is an exception. And even then they reached out to human rights lawyers to do the litigation rather than develop their own legal strategy.

There are quite a few major issues involving human rights in Bulgaria before the European Court: regarding the rights of people with mental disabilities, the right to housing with respect to Roma, freedom of speech connected to public information on ownership. The effectiveness of the European Court is not so great when it comes to the implementation of its judgments.

How do people assess EU membership in terms of human rights issues?

A lot of people look to the EU for alternative routes for litigation and advocacy. My overall assessment is that there has not been a radical change in public attitudes. I’m not a sociologist. I haven’t closely followed the polling data. But I don’t think there was much of a change. There was some exhaustion with liberal talk at the end of the 1990s. There was so much talk about human rights and liberal values that it created the perception that these were the dominant views deciding policy. But that’s not necessarily true. At a certain level, there has been improvement, but it has been incremental: in the details not in the overall picture.

What has changed dramatically has been 9-11 and the West. The West has changed. All of a sudden, the West was sending different messages here. The U.S. government has grown significantly less interested in human rights. That has made it more difficult to advocate for those liberal values and principles.

Take, for example, that example of Muslims being deported for their religious activities. It falls within the category of funding of Muslim extremism. You can’t get support from the West to enforce the European Court decision. The case involves Muslims, religious extremism. So, the pressure on the Bulgarian government to implement the judgment of the European Court is significantly less.

Arguing against illegal wiretaps in Bulgarian has also become a lot more difficult. Before, when the government wanted to read email, it was a proper search. It wasn’t in real time: they seized the computers. Now we have practically no control over electronic surveillance. There has been a judgment by the European Court. They refused explicitly to step into implementation, because they say that implementation is a function of the council of ministers where the minister of foreign affairs represents the government. The ministers have to come to consensus on the best way to implement. So, you can guess what happens!

Over the last 20 years, I haven’t seen any dramatic breakthroughs on any of these issues. Of course, we are notoriously bad in foreseeing major shifts in social and political realities. That history professor who actually gave me all those books in the mid-1980s? He emigrated to Los Angeles in the fall of 1989. He was fed up. He thought that this system would never change.

Sofia, October 1, 2012

  • Rufat Ahmadov

    “The registered leadership of the Muslim communist”

    - presumably “Muslim communities”

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