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Legal aspect

The presence and exercise of religion in Bulgarian prisons have been never a subject of special study. Until the end of World War II, the access of religious ministers to the detained persons was determined on confessional grounds. In the mid-1940s, however, this tradition was interrupted by the new communist rulers who pursued the eradication of religion from society. Meanwhile, the religious revival, provoked by the end of their atheist rule in 1898, reached the prisons with considerable delay. The first steps in this direction took place in 1998, when the Penalty Law of 1969 finally addressed the religious rights of prisoners. Its amended text allowed the prisoners to take part in religious services and rites, as well as to have access to religious literature. It also envisioned an access of religious ministers to prisons and custody places, and granted them the opportunity for private meetings with persons under detention. In addition, the law guaranteed the free will of prisoners and those under temporary arrest to attend or not religious services. Furthermore, its amendments ensured an equal treatment of prisoners without regard of their religious affiliation. In addition, the new freedoms concerned only the religious denominations that had been officially recognized by the state authorities. Yet, only the representatives of the traditional religion, i.e. Eastern Orthodoxy (1991 Constitution, Article 13 §3), were recognized eligible to be appointed as part of the prison’s staff. Finally, in 2005, another amendment to the old Penalty Law allowed the approbation councils, set up at the regional courts, to ask the opinion of religious ministers on the cases of individual prisoners.
Today, the religious rights of prisoners are arranged in accordance with the new Penalty Law, adopted in 2009. It takes into account the stipulations of the Religious Denominations Act of 2002 as well as the requirements of the legislation of the European Union which Bulgaria has joined in 2007. To a great degree, the new legal act repeats the amendments of 1998 and 2005 (Article 167), but it also introduces some significant changes. If the old texts allowed the pay-roll of religious ministers only from “the traditional religion” (Art. 70b §5), the new ones do not mention the traditional religion. Instead, a new criterion has been introduced. According to it, the appointments should take into account “the faith which is confessed by the majority of prisoners or person under detention” (Art. 167 §5). In practice, however, it is difficult to find official information as to whether non-Orthodox religious ministers have been appointed at all.
At the same time, the 2009 Penalty Law offers a more elaborated description of the rights of prisoners. More specifically, it envisions a separate treatment of persons under alleviated detention. They now have the right to attend religious services in the city or village where they are serving their term of imprisonment (Art. 72 §3.2). Another article forbids the distribution of specific types of literature in the prison, including publications that propagate religious hatred (Art. 97 §7). The new law also permits restrictions on religious activities in prison, in case of natural disasters, fires, floods, etc. (Art. 119 §2). Furthermore, it treats religious support to prisoners and the persons under custody as part of their social and educational/instructive activities (Art. 152 §2.4). In a similar way, the exercise of freedom of religion in prison is included in the section for creative, cultural and sportive activities (Articles 166 and 167). The last novelty concerns the re-socialization of the prisoners: namely, it allows the participation of religious organizations in this process (Art. 170 §1).

D 15 January 2016    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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