03/25/2013 09:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2013

Religious Freedom in Bulgaria

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 the other books in English that he managed to borrow from the national library.

The Interview

How would you evaluate the record of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the party that particularly represents ethnic Turks?

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.