NYT: Standoff in Bulgaria With Organized Crime

Views on BG | November 11, 2010, Thursday // 08:25|  views

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov came to power last year promising to crack down on corruption and organized crime. Photo by EPA/BGNES

By Matthew Brunwasser and Doreen Carvajal

The New York Times

When Bulgaria's burly new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, took office, he pledged to stamp out organized crime. But the man nicknamed Batman is now being tested by a weak judiciary that this month acquitted two men suspected of leading their own street enforcement gang and freed from jail a man accused of being a crime boss.

Zlatomir (The Beret) Ivanov, a heavily tattooed man in his late 30s who is charged with murder and drug trafficking, was released by the Sofia Court of Appeals last week and put under house arrest after he complained about stress and a urinary infection following surgery. Then on Wednesday, a judge canceled his trial and scheduled a new one after a juror was arrested for distributing child pornography.

It was the latest in a string of acquittals and lenient treatment of people accused of organized-crime offenses in a nation that vowed to root out corruption to earn membership in the European Union in 2007. The cases have become a battleground between the executive branch of government and the judiciary, which have failed to convict a single prominent organized-crime suspect.

The murky underworld of mutri — or Bulgarian gangsters or mugs — is also getting restive. Two Bulgarian newspapers reported this week that a criminal gang had issued a EUR 400,000, or about USD 550,000, bounty for the assassination of the prime minister, whose security was tightened.

The emergence of threats against the prime minister, came just a few days after a regional court in Kyustendil acquitted two businessmen, Plamen Galev, 42, and Angel Hristov, 41, who have been accused of leading a violent criminal group that engaged in fraud, racketeering and blackmail. The case had been closely watched by E.U. authorities and the prime minister, who publicly called it a test for the nation.

The two men are former police officers who are commonly referred to as the Galev Brothers. It is a name that inspired a new Bulgarian word — Galevizatsia — which means the ability of criminals to act with impunity and to manipulate Bulgarian state, political, municipal and judicial institutions.

Mr. Galev and Mr. Hristov are businessmen and landlords who dominate the town of about 44,000 in Dupnitsa, nicknamed Galevgrad for the two partners. The town lies at the foot of the Rila mountains, about 70 kilometers, or 45 miles, south of the capital, Sofia, in western Bulgaria. There the two men have acted as advisers to the mayor and run a string of businesses in construction, waste collection, trucking and gambling.

The pair gained notoriety in 2008 when the interior minister at the time, Rumen Petkov, admitted he met secretly with them. Vanyo Tanov, former head of the anti-organized-crime police and now director of Bulgarian customs, accused Mr. Petkov of helping the two protect what he said was a methamphetamine-trafficking business. Mr. Petkov resigned, but now is a member of Parliament.

In December 2008, Mr. Galev and Mr. Hristov were jailed after highly public police raids at their homes and businesses. They were released, though, in June 2009 to campaign for Parliament, taking advantage of the state penal code that permits registered candidates to halt all legal proceedings to campaign. They effectively delayed their trial.

So did another candidate under a legal cloud. Alexander Tomov, former head of the debt-ridden Kremikovtzi steel plant and the CSKA soccer club, delayed his corruption trial while campaigning for Parliament.

All of these would-be politicians failed to win seats, but their efforts raised the question of what could have happened to their court cases if they had won and qualified for immunity.

Emil Velinov, the lawyer for Mr. Galev and Mr. Hristov, describes his clients as "two businessmen and residents of Dupnitsa" who are the subject of widespread envy. "No one likes successful people," he said. He said the men had not received credit for their support of charities.

Some Bulgarian analysts said they were not surprised that a provincial judge had spared two powerful figures.

"That would mean you would have to leave town," said Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst of organized crime at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, who likens the role of Mr. Galeva and Mr. Hristov to "feudal leaders."

During the trial, the prosecutor, Biser Kirilov, presented witnesses that said Mr. Galev and Mr. Hristov had taken control of Dupnitsa through a squad of enforcers who used violence to intimidate anyone who disobeyed.

Two of their men, Apostol Chakalov and Vladimir Angelov, were convicted of battery and illegal possession of firearm ammunition. Another associate of the men, Georgi Gradeski, was sentenced to six months' probation for beating the son of a local investigative journalist, Lidia Pavlova.

Ms. Pavlova, a reporter for the daily newspaper Struma who investigated the pair's activities, has lived under constant threat, according to the South East Europe Media Organization based in Vienna. Her car window was smashed, a bullet left inside. In January her teenage son was confronted in a nightclub and beaten. Before a recent court hearing, her car tires were slashed.

She was a prosecution witness in the trial of Mr. Galev and Mr. Hristov, although she said she expected the acquittal of the pair because of "the weakness of the court and its submission to the Galev brothers."

"I can't tolerate the injustice," she said during a telephone interview on Wednesday. "And I'm not the only one. There are many people who have been beaten. But there is no one to help us, because the institutions stand behind them and not us."

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Tags: Galevi brothers, Plamen Galev, Angel Hristov, Dupnitsa, judicial system, justice system, Boyko Borisov, Zlatomir (The Beret) Ivanov


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