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Exclusive: A judge describes the brutal political pressure on Bulgarian judiciary

Metodi Lalov [ClubZ]

Judge Metodi Lalov spoke to Krassen Nikolov, exclusively for

Two weeks ago, Judge Metodi Lalov slightly raised the curtain over the political influence on the independent judicial system in the country. He told the story of how he was elected chairman of the Sofia Regional Court – the most workloaded court in Bulgaria. Before the public vote for Lalov’s election in the Supreme Judicial Council, he met with two high-ranking judges in a restaurant in Sofia. One of them was the chairman of the Sofia District Court (the upper instance of the regional court). The second was the chairman of the Supreme Administrative court (who is a member of the Supreme Judicial Council too). They both lobbied for Lalov’s nomination. A famous Bulgarian politician appeared at the meeting surprisingly. Judge Lalov does not mention his name because there is no record of the meeting, but many Bulgarian media have recognized the politician as the well-known DPS MP and media mogul Delyan Peevski. Judge Metodi Lalov told exclusively this website about all attempts of illegal pressures during his career:

“Before telling the story I want to explain why I am doing it now, and why I have not informed the institutions about these cases. I do not believe that the Supreme Judicial Council, The Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council or the prosecution would have done anything. There are enough indicative examples of this. The Supreme Judicial Council covered the TZUM-gate scandal (a scandal related to the unofficial meeting of the Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov with a politician and businessman who complained of the alleged pressure applied on him by Tsatsarov). There were no aftereffects in other similar cases. At the same time the solution to the problems of the Sofia Regional Court depended on these influential people. At that time the court did not even have a normal building. My goal was to provide this building, as well as work to reduce the workload of judges. The pressure on me had no effect, because I did not succumb to it. But at the same time I did not want to create any further problems for the court and ruin its projects.

I know I will be blamed for being silent till now. But now I see that there is public energy, civil organisations, judges who try to raise the curtain and talk publicly about the problems. That’s why I have a good reason to tell about these cases. I want to support this public energy. The status quo should be changed.

The meeting with the politician

In 2012 I was appointed temporary chairman of the Sofia Regional Court after its chairman became a supreme judge. The chairman of the Sofia City Court, Vladimira Yaneva, offered me to run for chairman of the regional court. The procedure goes through public discussion and voting in the Supreme Judicial Council. Then Vladimira Yaneva told me that we should meet the Chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court Georgi Kolev, who was a member of the Supreme Judicial Council. She explained to me that without his support the Council would not elect me. The purpose of the meeting was to present my plans for the development of the court. We met at a restaurant on “Tsar Samuil” Street in Sofia near the Supreme Administrative Court. At this time Yaneva had bodyguards from the Ministry of Justice. She told me there was a threat to her life. One of the guards witnessed the meeting, even though he was not directly present at the talks. Myself, Yaneva and Kolev sat at the table and ordered food. Judge Kolev asked what I thought of the court. I explained that the main problems were the court buildings and the workload of judges and judicial officers. I said that I would work with my colleagues to solve these problems. Kolev told Yaneva: “If you work well with Lalov, I will support him.” Then Yaneva’s guard came in to us. The man was white-faced. He said, “What’s going on? 4-5 luxury cars stopped in front of the restaurant “. Then a famous corpulent Bulgarian politician came in. One of my two companions saw him and mentioned his first name. The politician sat down at another table, but after a while he saw that Yaneva and Kolev were in the restaurant and moved to our table. They seem to be good acquaintances. He asked what we were doing. Yaneva and Kolev told him about my nomination. And the politician said to them, “OK. Hopefully he would keep (his promises), and not act like Veselin Pengezov (former chairman of the Sofia Appellate Court). I personally led him [Pengezov] to meet Ahmed Dogan (the honorary leader of the DPS) so that he could become the chairman of the Sofia Appellate Court”.

I did not say a word all the time. The world was like ending for me. I do not approve of such meetings and behavior. Then the politician went back to his table.

For me it is discreditable to take a magistrate to a political leader so that this magistrate would become a court chairman. I realised that the dependencies in the judiciary were big and real, not just rumors. Although my meeting with the politician was by accident, I was considering withdrawing my nomination as chairman of the Sofia Regional Court. At the same time, I was quite aware that the court could not get a normal building without Yaneva’s support and her good relations with Georgi Kolev and GERB’s Deputy Chairman Tzvetan Tzvetanov. It was known that Tzvetanov was Yaneva’s family friend. I am convinced that the authorities heard my complaint about the court’s problems because of Yaneva. And not because of the sincere convictions of the key figures from the executive power and the Supreme Judicial Council, on whom the solving of the problems depended.

After all, I decided not to give up because I was sure that no influence on the court could come through me. I have never allowed that.

The conclusion is that without knowing the key figures and without their approval, nothing essential in the judicial system can happen. I was not chosen to be the court chairman after a competition and wide public discussion. I was elected thanks to the majority close to Yaneva and Kolev. I am convinced that things are not very different now. At least as far as it concerns the most important judiciary institutions.

Meeting with a GERB MP

In 2015, I was already the chairman of the Regional Court. The court had been accommodated in a new building. A supreme judge, who is a member of the Constitutional Court now, phoned me. We know each other well – we have worked together in the Sofia Regional Court and the Sofia District Court. The supreme judge asked me to meet with a member of GERB who had a significant contribution to the legislative process.

I agreed because the solution to the problems with the extra workload of the regional judges inevitably goes through law changes. On the next day, the MP came to my office in the court. I asked him if there was some problem or his visit was to bring some good news for the court. Unfortunately, there are often problems in court with delayed cases. I expected that he would either ask for something wrong or talk about legislative changes that would facilitate the work of the court. But the politician said straight away that there was a lawsuit against his party in the regional court. And that it would be nice if that case was delayed so that the society would not find out about it. He explained to me that it was about 24,000 leva (€12,000) that the political party did not pay for renting a building at the foot of Vitosha Mountain. I was told that thе party had delayed the rental payment and it was convicted to pay. A receiving order has been made against the party. The MP asked if this case could be stopped because it was a pre-election period and it would be quite unpleasant if the public found out that the party owed money. I asked him why he had come to tell me this. He replied he had come to inform me. I told him that once they owed money and they were convicted, they had to pay.

The MP said he suspected there was something wrong with the case because the judge had decided too quickly. In fact, I knew about this case, because several days before, the judge, Stefan Shekerdjiiski, came to me. The judge was outraged by a complaint filed by a GERB representative. The judge was unacceptably strongly criticised (This website has information that the complaint was filed by GERB MP Danail Kirilov, who was the chairman of the legal committee in parliament. The description of a high-ranking MP from GERB, who has contributed to the legislative process totally fits him. Danail Kirilov is the  Minister of Justice now). Judge Shekerdjiyski is known as one of the judges in the Sofia Regional Court, who work extremely devotedly and quickly. I told the MP that the judge had just done his job quickly and he was known for working like that. I reminded him that the party was taking millions levs as state subsidies so it had no problem to pay. I thanked him for the new court building that we acquired with the assistance of the GERB government. But I told him that we got the building because the executive power was obliged to provide the judiciary with buildings (before the Constitution was changed).

Finally, I said, “If you think you have bought a court through me because of a building or something else, you’re really wrong”. I saw that the MP was not pleased at all. I asked him if there was anything else. He said “no” and left.

This story is a striking example of the double standard on the respect for justice. They complain of delayed justice, and then come looking for a delay. I suspect that the MP was trying to correct some mistake that he had made with the case, but that’s just my guess. I suppose he was afraid for himself not for the party that the information about the case might become public. The worst thing is that an MP who has to create rules that provide public welfare has allowed himself to ask the judiciary to work not by the rules but for his personal benefit.

How the judicial officers are appointed

While I was a chairman, the Supreme Judicial Council decided that ten judge assistants should be appointed in our court. However, the judges decided that 10 assistants would not be enough for 160 judges. So we would rather have some more judges or judicial officers. I wrote to the Supreme Judicial Council about this decision. I also stated that clearly at meetings in the Council. However, the SJC decided to give ten assistants to the court. A few days later, one of the members of the Supreme Judicial Council called me. He explained to me that the SJC had decided that 10 assistants would be appointed in the court and he wanted me to appoint four people whom he would tell me. In order to show him how absurd his request was, I asked him if there was some quota among SJC members to recruit people in the courts. I asked him: “If three more members of the SJC want to appoint four of their people, then the places would not be enough”. I explained to him that it would not happen and that if I ever appoint assistants this would happen through a competition, and the selection board would include deputy chairmen and other judges so that any influence would be avoided. While I was chairman of the court, I did not organise a contest and did not appoint assistants, as it was also the judges’ will.

One of the first things that Stefan Milev – appointed for temporary chairman of the court after I resigned, did, was to appoint these 10 assistants. (Milev is a former prosecutor who has not worked in the regional court for a single day. He was appointed a temporary court chairman in violation of the judiciary’s self-governing and election rules.)

The conclusion from this story is that the SJC often did not grant funding or places for judges or administration to resolve the problems of the regional court. But when the majority or some of the SJC members want to install their people they do it willingly and even against the interests of the court.

There was another case with the same SJC member. During an interview for employees came a woman who did not have one day of work experience. I asked her to show to me and to the appointment commission how she worked with text programs. She said she could not, but that this member of the SJC had sent her. I was furious and I called this SJC member in her presence and in the presence of other colleagues judges. He confirmed that they knew each other and asked that she would be appointed in court. I explained to him that this could not happen because the woman could do absolutely nothing. He urged me to give her a chance, I refused, and I sent her away.

To confront the media

As a judge I had a theft case. It was a very old case. The defendant was late. His wife told me he was traveling to the court. I gave one hour break so that he would be able to come and not make me postpone the sitting. After one hour only his wife appeared. She told me that after all her husband would not be able to come. The other witnesses were not there. I postponed the case and imposed fines on both the defendant and the witnesses. Some of the witnesses entered the courtroom five minutes later. One of them turned out to be the editor-in-chief of a national newspaper. I did not know that then. I told him I had fined them because they did not come on time. Then he started shouting in the courtroom: How could I fine him, do I know who he is, he would take a picture of me with his smartphone and file a complaint against me in the SJC. He took out his mobile phone, explained to me that I was fining innocent citizens but not the criminal. I answered him that I sanctioned all the people who did not appear on time, and that his behavior was unacceptable. I also told him that he could not call someone a criminal before there was a final sentence. But he did not stop. So I had to call the court guards to take the witness out of the courtroom. After the court hearing, the court chairman (Krassimir Vlahov, now a member of the Constitutional court) called me to his office. And I was told that this witness was a journalist who had gone to the chairman after he left the courtroom. The chairman was angry, he asked me how I could behave like that with journalists and what they would write about us. I was disappointed that the chairman presumed that it was my fault without clarifying the facts. On the next day, the editor-in-chief had gone to the chairman to ask if I was already fired.

How are some cases solved

Before I became chairman of the Sofia Regional Court, I was a judge there. One day the deputy chairman called me and asked me to go to his office. He told me that there was a case in the afternoon and showed me its number on a yellow sticky note. He said, “They called me from the Supreme Judicial Council and told me this”. I was angry and took the note with the intention of having proof of his behavior. I told him: “Be careful what you are doing.”

The defendant in this turned out to be the assignee of “Kremikovtsi” – the defunct giant steel factory from the socialist era. Later, according to the evidence and my inner conviction I decided that this woman was not guilty. After I pronounced the decision I told the defendant and her lawyer: “If you think this outcome is such because you called someone from the SJC, you are wrong.” The lawyer made a gesture that she could not understand me and explained that she did not know what I was talking about and that if something was done, it was without her knowledge and involvement. But her client remained silent. I kept the yellow note for many years. I told the court chairman about it, but he did not react. After a while, I threw it away, knowing that a case number, with nothing else, could not be an evidence. But for me, however, this yellow note remains a symbol of the malpractices in the judiciary.

Bulgarian citizens do not deserve to have such a judicial system. Or to work in it. Someone had said that reforming the judiciary is like moving a graveyard – no help from inside should be expected. Citizens need to know that although in serious crisis the judiciary is still alive, and there are decent, clever and capable magistrates in it. It’s because of them that I reveal these cases.”

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