Bulgaria loses case against suspected mafia bosses
The Bulgarian government has lost another high-profile case against suspected mafia bosses despite a pledge to stamp out organised crime.
A provincial court near Sofia has acquitted two controversial businessmen charged with running an extortion racket and has issued lenient sentences to a handful of their associates.
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Following judge Miroslav Nachev's verdict in the western town of Kyustendil, key witnesses against the defendants Plamen Galev and Angel Hristov said they were afraid for their own safety and that of their families.
Five months earlier, a Sofia court had acquitted Mr Krasimir and Nikolai Marinovi of similar charges. The two men are suspected to be among the godfathers of the country's underworld.
Several weeks ago, another Sofia court considerably downgraded organised crime charges against another controversial businessman, Alexei Petrov, whom the government had branded the "head of the Octopus" – local jargon for organised crime. Mr Petrov was put under house arrest and is now regularly speaking to the media. He recently divulged plans to run for president next autumn.
The new verdicts are clear defeats for prime minister Boiko Borisov and his interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov who, since taking office in late July 2009, repeatedly pledged to send top-level criminals to jail.
A widely touted muscle-flexing police exercise to hunt the local mafia has yielded few results in court, and several suspects are already suing Bulgaria in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for violation of their rights.
"Don't hurry to write off this case for this was just the first instance ruling," chief prosecutor Boris Velchev said of Mr Galev and Mr Hristov's acquittal, indicating that the verdict could be appealed in the higher courts.
While Mr Tsvetanov has often blamed the acquittals on judicial corruption, judges argue that the police failed to collect convincing evidence and that indictments were built on a flimsy basis.
Mr Galev, 42, and Mr Hristov, 41, both former elite police unit members turned businessmen, were the virtual landlords of the town of Dupnitsa, in the Kyustendil constituency, 55 km south of Sofia. Their power was so extensive that the 30,000-strong town was renamed 'Galevgrad' (Galevville) or the "first private town" in popular parlance.
The two, who are also referred to as the 'Galevi brothers,' sat in the municipal council and essentially controlled all the decisions made by the local authorities, including the kind of music played on the town square's loudspeakers. Atanas Yanev, mayor of Dupnitsa, is widely considered to be their puppet.
Many locals support the Galevi brothers because they have established an order of their own that has rid the economically depressed town of petty crime, which police had been either unwilling or unable to tackle. They have also engaged in image-polishing charity.
Prosecutor Biser Kirilov's witnesses told the court that Mr Galev and Mr Hristov had taken control of the town thanks to a small squad of hitmen, who terrified anyone who dared to disobey.
Two of those men, Apostol Chakalv and Vladimir Angelov, were convicted of battery and illegal possession of firearm ammunition. They were each sentenced to a year and four months in prison, but will not serve the term as it is a month shorter than the duration of their preliminary arrest.
Georgi Gradevski, another associate of the Galevi brothers, was sentenced to six months of probation for beating up the son of local investigative reporter Lidya Pavlova. Ms Pavolva won the WAZ/IFJ courage prize in 2009 for being the only journalist who dared dig into the Galevi brothers' affairs and publish a series of articles about them.
The court also rejected claims filed by Ms Pavolva and Plamen Milanov, a local small taxi firm owner, against the defendants for 1.2 million Bulgarian lev (BGN), roughly equal to €600,000, and BGN300,000 (€150,000). Instead, the court fined four of them – except Mr Galev and Mr Hirstov – BGN500 (€250) each for physical assault.
"Now I am afraid for myself and my family," said Mr Milanov, who had told the court that the Galevi brothers were racketeering him.
"That's it! There is no justice for the mafia! There is no court! They buy them with whole briefcases of money!" said Dimitrina Gosheva, another witness for the prosecution, who currently lives in the US and had traveled to Bulgaria for the trial.
The defendants refused to make any comment.