The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Bulgaria is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Bulgaria is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Bulgaria is a State Party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Article 43 of the 1991 Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria governs the right of peaceful assembly.
(1) All citizens shall have the right to peaceful and unarmed assembly for meetings and demonstrations.
(2) The procedure for the organizing and holding of meetings and demonstrations shall be established by law.
(3) No notice to the municipal authorities shall be required for meetings held indoors.
The primary legislation governing the right of peaceful assembly in Bulgaria is the 1990 Law on Gatherings, Meetings and Demonstrations (as amended through 1998).
Under Article 11(1), the organisers of an assembly must notify in writing the municipal people's council its "objective, time, and route" no later than five days prior to the day it will be held, and, in urgent cases, no later than two days prior to the day it will be held.
Article 12(2) gives the President of the Executive Board of the Municipal People's Council, or the mayor, respectively, the power to prohibit assemblies where there is "unquestionable" evidence that:
1. they are aimed at a forcible transformation of the constitutionally established public and state system or are directed against the territorial integrity of the country;
2. they endanger the public peace in the respective population centre;
3. they endanger the public health in an epidemic situation announced beforehand;
4. they infringe the rights and freedoms of other citizens.
The organizer of the gathering, meeting or manifestation is entitled to file an appeal against the prohibition.
The constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly are said to be generally respected. In 2016, however, a counterterrorism bill was passed by parliament that critics described as overly broad; under it, the president has the power to declare a state of emergency in the event of a terrorist attack, which would allow the government to ban rallies and demonstrations.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Use of force by law enforcement officials is generally regulated by the 2014 Ministry of Interior Act (especially Articles 85 to 88). Article 85 stipulates that, in performing their duties, the police may use force only when absolutely necessary.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
According to Article 87(1) of the 2014 Ministry of Interior Act, the police may use lethal weapons only when absolutely necessary, among other situations, in case of an armed attack or a threat of use of weapons, or, following a warning, upon detention of a person who has committed or is committing a serious crime if he resists the police or attempts to escape.
This is more permissive than international law allows.
According to Article 87(2) of the 2014 Act, when using firearms, the police authorities are obligated to do everything in their power to preserve the life of the person against whom they are directed and not endanger the life and health of others.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2018 Concluding Observations on Bulgaria, the Human Rights Committee addressed the right of peaceful assembly only briefly, calling on Bulgaria to continue "training police officers in human rights standards relating to freedom of expression and assembly and the lawful use of force".
In its submission for its 2015 Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council, Bulgaria claimed that:
The right of peaceful assembly and association is fully guaranteed by the Constitution and the relevant legislation to every person without discrimination, and in full conformity with the international legal obligations.
Kiril Ivanov v. Bulgaria (2018)
In its judgment in this case, which concerned the refusal to allow an assembly by ethnic Macedonians in Bulgaria in 2006, the European Court of Human Rights noted that under its case law,
the right to freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the [European] Convention can be exercised not only by the participants in a gathering but also by those who organise it, whether they be individuals or legal persons....
The mayor and the court which upheld the mayor's decision to prohibit the assembly had "justified the ban by reference to the holding of a municipal event at the same time and place and by the need to protect the participants in that event from being exposed to controversial statements on historical issues seen as sensitive". But, the European Court observed,
The domestic authorities provided no details regarding the logistical or security difficulties which two parallel events might have posed and, more importantly, the Government have not explained why justifications considered insufficient in previous cases should suffice in the instant one. In addition, it is noteworthy that on a previous occasion when the authorities did not ban a rally organised by Ilinden, they allowed a counter-demonstration to proceed on the same day....
The Court therefore found that there had been a breach of Article 11 of the European Convention.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Bulgaria:
The authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. A number of mass demonstrations proceeded without incident during 2018, with participants airing grievances on issues including construction projects in national parks, a controversial annual march by far-right groups, and the cost of living.