Australian Awaits Fate after Years in Bulgarian Jail

Views on BG | December 2, 2009, Wednesday // 08:38|  views

'Jock Palfreeman was across the English Channel, one month into basic military training with the British Army.' Photo by BGNES


By Belinda Hawkins for Australian Story

Winter in the Bulgarian capital is bitterly cold and this is the third Jock Palfreeman has spent in the notorious Sofia Central Prison.

The 23-year-old Sydneysider is charged with the worst count of murder - murder with hooliganism.

His trial has been underway since May 2008 and after a series of almost farcical delays looks set to conclude today.

The verdict is likely to be handed down late today or tomorrow.

Whether the Sofia Palace of Justice finds the young Australian guilty or innocent, the Palfreeman case raises important questions about law and order in one of the newest members of the European Union.

The saga began just as the Sofia courts were breaking for the festive season in 2007.

Jock Palfreeman was across the English Channel, one month into basic military training with the British Army.

He was having the time of his life in a job that paid him to do a lot of outdoors activity with a range of people.

Two British friends suggested he meet up with them in Bulgaria where one owned a house about an hour out of the capital, near a town called Samokov.

Palfreeman had spent about eight months living and working in this area already as a backpacker and loved the place.

Christmas went well with lots of sledding and laughter.

Two days later, Bristol-based Lindsay Welsh had to return to England so they decided to see her off with a night in the capital.

Jock Palfreeman told me he did not want to go. He had seen too much violence there in the past and swore if he went again he would take a can of pepper spray just in case.

But he could not find any this trip.

Just as their car was pulling out of the Madjare house, he ran back inside and grabbed his mate's knife from the kitchen.

What happened next has been hotly disputed in court.

Fateful night

Jock Palfreeman has never wavered from the version of events he gave police later that night.

It is the same one he told me when I met him in prison earlier this year on assignment for Foreign Correspondent and it is backed up by original witness statements from independent witnesses.

According to Palfreeman, he and Ms Welsh were leaving a club in the old part of downtown around one in the morning with a young Bulgarian called Tony, they saw a group of around 25 football fans come out of a subway station chanting.

"They were singing and shouting and kicking," Palfreeman said.

"Just kicking the air and kind of dancing around and throwing their fists in the air."

One of the gang later told police they were singing a Bulgarian nationalist song called Shumi Maritza that is also known as Blood Stained.

According to his original witness statement the nearby kiosk attendant could hear the gang drunkenly falling against his shop and shouting out insults to gypsies.

Palfreeman crouched down with his friends behind some bushes.

When he saw the soccer fans attacking two men, he moved closer.

The aggressive pursuit of the two is evident in some CCTV footage taken that night.

One got away. When Palfreeman saw the gang trip over the other one and start beating him, he ran towards them.

It was then the Australian saw the victim was a gypsy.

"I knelt down on my knee and put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed his shoulder to get a response and his eyes were closed and he wasn't moving at all. He wasn't speaking," Palfreeman said.

Palfreeman told me one man was on the ground punching the gypsy while four or five others were kicking him.

Parking attendants at the Sheraton Hotel across the road later told police that the attack was violent.

The Australian said he pushed a couple of the attackers away and then stood over the gypsy to protect him.

More came at him from behind. At that moment he took out the knife and opened it.

Shouting "Go back, go back" in Bulgarian he brandished the blade. One of the gang confirms this.

The gypsy still was not moving he said, so he tried to move the gang away by moving forward metre by metre, holding the knife in the air, gesturing at them to go away with the other hand.

The attackers started moving off and with some distance now between them and the gypsy, he turned and went to check the man on the ground.

"I turned around and I see one of them running behind me," Palfreeman said.

"It was one of the guys who was trying to get me the whole time. It was obvious he's trying to punch me in the back of the head.

"He had his fist raised. I turned around quickly and put my knife up and went from left to right like a swish and he jumped backwards.

"All the group came and surrounded me in a circle. I was constantly turning in a circle and every time one of them would come at me, I would lunge at them with a knife in a swiping movement to scare them.

"They started throwing concrete blocks, throwing them over their head with two hands."

Palfreeman says he was calling out for help.

One of the Sheraton attendants later told police he saw one of the gang members come up behind the foreigner and throw something at his head.

One of the dead man's friends told police the foreigner looked like a cyborg at that moment.

Palfreeman says he fell to the ground. He remembers desperately thinking that if he did not get up quickly he would die.

The next thing he remembers is two men with batons whom he thought were police standing over him.

Lindsay Welsh did not see what had happened. By the time she caught up with Palfreeman he was on the ground and looking very distressed.

When she went to grab his arm, one of the attackers kicked her in the stomach.

"I flew back on the floor," she said.

"Then he came towards me and put his foot on my head as if to stomp on my face."

Deadly mix

Twenty-year-old law student Andrei Monov died on the way to hospital, the knife having entered his side under his arm.

With a blood alcohol reading of 0.29 per cent, he was extremely drunk. One of his friends went to hospital with a flesh wound to the chest and a blood alcohol reading of 0.19 per cent.

Tests showed Jock Palfreeman's blood alcohol reading was 0.1 per cent and there was no sign of drugs.

By this stage both gypsies had disappeared into the darkness. They were among the many witnesses police failed to secure that night.

The Sofia Prosecutor, Parvoleta Nicova, told me they may never have existed. But in their original witness statements, the arresting police said when they first got to the scene their colleagues told them that the gang had been attacking gypsies and a foreigner had intervened.

Ms Nicova dismissed the references saying no police were present at the time of the attack.

Palfreeman says when police said he had killed someone he did not believe them, assuming they were trying to trick him.

"The police were laughing," he said. "They were saying 'we're going to screw you; we're going to put you in jail for life'."

Chained to a stairwell he could neither sit nor stand. The police investigator wanted to know if he was a member of a terrorist organisation.

It would be 12 hours before police contacted Monov's parents.

His mother is a lawyer and his father a well-known and respected psychologist who once worked for the police department and continues to work for a government agency.

The Australian knew the odds were stacked against him when the judge refusing him bail was in tears calling him a hooligan with a black heart.

He was confused and alone.

"I would lie on my bed and my heart would echo and I would try to imagine Andre Monov's heart," he said. "I still can't lie on my stomach."

Life sentence sought

Prosecutor Parvoleta Nicova says it was only luck that more of the soccer group were not killed that night.

She wants Palfreeman to get a life sentence without parole. So does the Monov family.

Yet the Bulgarian court-appointed psychologist's report which formed part of the prosecutor's indictment said Jock Palfreeman was not aggressive by nature but rather is driven by a desire to help others.

According to the Interpol reports he had no criminal record.

Jock Palfreeman has always claimed he acted in self-defence, but admitted to genuine regret and sorrow for the Monov parents in their loss.

He says he struggles to understand why it was Andrei Monov who died and said the Levski football fan must have been front and centre of the crazed attack on him.

Palfreeman says he cannot remember anything about those few seconds and speculated that perhaps the gang member had his arm raised to throw something at him and fell onto him, copping the knife.

"I had gone to help someone," he said. "I didn't want to hurt anyone and these guys just wanted to hurt someone for no reason, to kill someone for nothing.

"I don't know if I should ever have gone there in the first place. But it's too late for that now.

"These are the type of situations where if you don't go and they kill him then everyone says well why didn't anyone go to help him."

His father concurred.

"It was impulsive, it was instantaneous and it was based on a very basic principal that Jock works on which is if he sees an injustice he doesn't look at the consequences; he just runs in there and tries to fix it up," he said.

Dr Simon Palfreeman is a pathologist and more at home in a laboratory than in the labyrinthine world of the Bulgarian justice system.

"I know it might sound absurd but I knew very little about Bulgaria except weightlifters,' he said.

Dr Palfreeman is now assisting his son's Bulgarian lawyer in a case that has been running on and off for 18 months.

He has no legal training and he is unfamiliar with the culture and corruption of a country his eldest child had come to love.

Bulgarian law

Bulgaria uses a version of the Continental justice system where the judge's role is more inquisitorial than in the Common law system used in Australia.

There is no jury but there is a panel of two legally trained judges and three non- legally trained judges who have equal standing.

The family of the dead man and the injured man are running a civil claim for damages during the criminal proceedings.

Andre Monov's parents were the first witnesses called.

The victims' role extends to the very evidence able to be admitted.

The Palfreemans believe this constitutes a conflict of interest.

"The dead man's family stands to gain money and revenge," Dr Palfreeman said.

"The injured man is also able to cover his own role in the fight and his subsequent perjury."

Ironically the victims are able to block the admission of the original witness statements, many of which support Palfreeman's version of events, using a law drawn up to assist defendants claiming police verballed them.

Until recently so too could the prosecutor.

The defence cannot refer to discrepancies between what was said soon after the event and what is being said in court now.

I asked the prosecutor why she has refused to allow the very witness statements she drew on to form her indictment.

She says they do not count, only what is said in court counts.

It is clear in the hearing transcripts that some witnesses have changed their stories significantly.

The Palfreemans worry they are either partisan or fearful of the powerful family.

When the defence raises a discrepancy, objection from the prosecution and civil claimants is carried.

A number of key witnesses for the defence have repeatedly failed to turn up.

One of the panel members failed to front court twice and the presiding judge threatened a retrial if that member was absent again.

When the key Sheraton workers did turn up to court their evidence backed Palfreeman's version of events.

Head of the Centre for Social Practices at the New Bulgarian University, Dr Evgenii Dainov, says the odds are stacked against the defendant getting a fair trial and has grave doubts about the capacity of the Bulgarian justice system to withstand cronyism.

"The entire law enforcement structure seems to be permeable by any sort of pressure," he said.

"Under the normal circumstances you can get justice. But if anyone puts pressure on any link in the chain you cannot.

"So the rule of law depends of who you are. That is the way this country has become - more corrupt than it was five years ago."

Bulgaria only got membership to the European Union two years ago.

Last year the Commission of European Communities came out with a scathing report condemning the former Communist country's failure to reform its justice system.

A recent report by the Global Corruption Barometer of Transparency International claims the judiciary system is the most corrupt sector in Bulgaria and that Bulgaria ranks along with countries such as Cambodia, Georgia and Mongolia.

Last hope

I wanted to understand what kept Jock Palfreeman in rural Bulgaria as a young man on a world trip.

The countryside where the young Australian spent his time was chocolate box beautiful and knee deep in snow.

A man in his seventies opened the old Orthodox Church twice a day with a massive key and climbed the narrow stair case past faded icons to ring the bell.

The peeling was mournful and set the birds flying. A giant stork's nest sat on top of the tower, beckoning spring.

Palfreeman had a profound effect on those he met, both young and old. They are sticking by him.

A gently spoken gypsy called Simeon told me the Australian rescued him from knife carrying thugs at an outdoors concert in 2006.

Engineering student and Samokov friend Didi Alexandrova wondered if Palfreeman's fatal flaw was naivety.

"Not everybody would help a stranger, taking a risk with their own life," she said.

I saw the kind of knife that Palfreeman had on him that night in one tourist shop after another.

They cost anywhere from to , depending on the size.

Dr Evegenii Dainov says this is still a peasant culture and carrying knives is normal, particularly in rural areas like Samokov where there are wolves.

Jock Palfreeman's mistake was brandishing one under threat.

If Jock Palfreeman is convicted, his family wants him to serve a sentence outside of Bulgaria, preferably in Australia.

There is precedence for this. Michael Shields, a 19-year-old British soccer fan from Liverpool was found guilty of attempted murder in 2005.

Once again serious doubts have been raised about the police investigation into his case and trial.

After his parents mounted a campaign to free him, Shields was transferred to a British prison to serve out his sentence.

Recently the British government quashed his conviction and released him.

But Jock Palfreeman does not have a British passport despite still belonging to the British military.

The British government has shown no inclination to help.

Australia does not have an extradition arrangement with Bulgaria. It does not even have an Embassy here.

The Australian Government says it cannot do anything except send the honorary consul based in Sofia to check up on him in prison and court.

Jock Palfreeman will make his final pleas late this afternoon Australian time, as will his father and Bulgarian lawyer as well as the prosecutor and the civil claimants.

The accused seems to have lost all hope in getting justice.

But Simon Palfreeman still believes the presiding judge will see through what he has located as deficiencies in the original investigation and the prosecution case.

Until the verdict comes down he is reserving judgement on the Bulgarian justice system.

That is likely to happen either this evening Australian time or tomorrow.

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Tags: Jock Palfreeman, jail, court case


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