By Argiris Malapanis
SOFIA, Bulgaria — More than 5,000 people, mostly young, rallied outside the Palace of Justice here on July 31 to condemn violence against women. “Not a single woman more!” proclaimed many of the signs. “We will not be silent,” was the theme of the action at Bulgaria’s capital. “Stop the genocide against women.”
Similar protests took place nationwide. Bulgarian National Television reported the evening of July 31 that many thousands filled the squares of more than 30 cities and towns across the country. Demonstrations with the same demands spread to other cities on August 1.
A harrowing attack against an 18-year-old woman — identified so far only by her initials, DM, to protect her from further abuse — and the authorities’ initial refusal to prosecute the perpetrator prompted the actions, protesters told World-Outlook.
The attack took place in Stara Zagora, a city in central Bulgaria, on June 26.
The young woman said her attacker, Georgy Georgiev, an ex-boyfriend, slashed her with a knife repeatedly, broke her nose, and shaved off her head. Medical personnel treated her after the brutal assault, administering 400 stitches.
The police arrested the 26-year-old suspect after the attack. But a court in Stara Zagora later ruled that the woman’s injuries were “light” and released Georgiev, even though this was his third offense, according to Bulgarian National TV.
Outraged by the ruling, the young woman’s family made the case public at the end of July, sparking the demonstrations, protesters said.
“Georgiev, criminal, in jail!” read some of the signs at the Sofia rally. “The judicial system in the morgue.”
Protesters also demanded the resignation of judge Tatyana Gioneva who released the attacker.
“How is it possible that such sadism is labelled ‘mild bodily injury,’” Emilia Stoyanova, 39, told the French Press Agency (AFP). “The reaction of the court is shocking.”
“I also have a young daughter who will be 18 one day, and she can be in her place,” a man at the Sofia protest, who was not identified by name, told Radio Free Europe (RFE) in a videotaped interview.
Under pressure from the wave of public outrage, police re-arrested Georgiev on July 31 as authorities revealed he had threatened to kill the young woman. The Stara Zagora District Court appointed Zhaneta Nedkova as the new prosecutor in the case. Nedkova ordered a new medical exam to document the seriousness of the victim’s injuries. The accused is now charged with two counts of inflicting “medium” bodily harm and uttering death threats, though the investigation is ongoing.
“Other such cases were all the more tragic because the women are no longer with us,” a young woman at the Sofia rally told RFE in a videotaped interview. “I think it’s time for reform, time for change.”
Protesters called for new legislation to protect women against domestic and other violence.
Bulgaria, a country of nearly 7 million people in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, is a member of the European Union (EU) since 2007. Its government has not ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. The EU joined the Istanbul Convention in June.
Women’s rights activists say the numbers are actually much higher.
“Many cases, including many when women die, do not become public,” said Elena Tudjarov. “In others, even when women seek protection, existing laws don’t help us.”
Tudjarov pointed to the case of Kristina Blagoeva, a 32-year-old woman from Bulgaria’s capital. On March 9, Blagoeva contacted the Animus Association, a non-governmental organization that offers counseling to victims of domestic violence. The previous day the man she was having a relationship with had threatened to kill her, Blagoeva told Animus.
Less than a month later, her body was found in the trunk of a car with two bullets in her chest. On April 7, police charged her partner, Kaloyan Kaymakchiyski, with her murder. According to the prosecutor’s office, a likely motive was that Blagoeva had ended the relationship.
The case reignited a debate across Bulgaria on the country’s domestic violence law.
“Women like Blagoeva can’t get restraining orders against abusers because they are not married or living with a partner,” Tudjarov said. “That’s a major problem with our legislation. We need to change it.”
Further protests may take place across the country in coming weeks, according to reports in the media.