Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev: Radical measures are needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic

We must be focusing on guaranteeing human life; the economy can be restored later

Our strength is in staying united; politicians should not be concerned about ratings and elections, Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev says in an interview to Monitor.

Mr Prosecutor General, the Prosecutor's Office has set up a crisis team to oversee quarantine measures and prevention of crimes related to the health, property and life of citizens during the state of emergency declared in Bulgaria. What is the current situation?

Bulgarian citizens are kept informed of all the latest on the dynamic situation in the country by the National Operative Staff. As you can see, the situation is unfortunately becoming direr by the day - confirmed coronavirus cases are growing. As for the work of the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor's Office, it is within its competence to oversee that the law is being obeyed. That function concerns powers to exercise control over public authorities tasked with guaranteeing the life and health of Bulgarian citizens. I can assure you that prosecutors throughout the country are in constant communication with local crisis teams and monitor the situation for violations and crimes related to the state of emergency. 

Are there people who violate the quarantine imposed on them? If so, have measures been taken against them and what type? How many such cases have you registered?

Of course, there are violators. It is obvious that a significant portion of the population is not taking measures aimed at containing the spread of the contagion seriously. Underestimating the situation carries grave risks that may push us into a situation similar to that in Italy, a picture we are increasingly witnessing in other European countries, too. We have launched dozens of criminal proceedings stemming from violations of quarantine imposed on individuals by the health authorities, which is an offence under Article 355 of the Penal Code. The Prosecutor's Office will do everything in its power to charge every single individual putting in danger the health of not only those around them but their relatives too. This crime has pretty severe consequences now and is punishable by a fine of anywhere from BGN 10,000 to BGN 50,000 and up to five years of incarceration. My hope is that the Bulgarian courts will soon come out with the first convictions in such cases.

The National Operative Staff has admitted that the most undisciplined group in the current situation is the elderly, who are also the social segment most at risk. What do you think should be the approach? We are already hearing voices, saying that the emergency measures are violating human rights.

Deciding on specific measures is within the competence of the executive and the legislative branches of power. I have already shared my opinion - the situation calls for radical measures. We need to learn from the experience of China and Italy, which came to the conclusion that the only secure way of limiting the pandemic is more responsibility on the part of citizens and adhering to requirements set by the health authorities. As for the claims that human rights are being violated, what we are seeing is not violation but centralised actions to protect a basic human right - the right to life and health of every Bulgarian citizen.

Some cities in the country have imposed a curfew, while the entire resort of Bansko has been placed under quarantine. You called for stricter measures recently - what should they entail and what necessitates them?

To my mind, mayors are being much more appropriate in their response and I am sure that positive effects will come out of the tightened controls imposed in some areas. It is good that politicians, albeit with some delay, are starting to listen to the doctors' guild, which is urging for a series of radical measures like bans on people who fall in the highest-risk group to leave their homes - those are the elderly - as well as limiting movement of people within and between cities and other settlements. It is high time that the voice of those on the front lines in this battle against the coronavirus, namely the experts, was heard. 

You have been monitoring profiteering in Bulgaria. Have you already spotted violations related to pricing of essential goods and medicines?

We are working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Interior, National Revenue Agency and other watchdog agencies towards prevention of all crimes and wrongdoings which you, the journalists, call “profiteering”.

Many incidents have been reported of circulating fake news and attempts to sow panic among the public with false information about the spread of the coronavirus. What measures does the Prosecutor's Office undertake along this line? In the meanwhile, you have been criticised for launching an investigation of medical doctors for spreading panic. How can a balance be found in such cases?

The balance is in abiding by the law. The probes and inspections are within the competence of concrete supervising prosecutors. The Prosecutor's Office has done everything necessary to ensure its functioning under any negative scenario of crisis escalation. The Office has to protect the interests of citizens against criminal encroachments. Including the introduction of criminal sanctions for those who expose to risk the citizens' health. 

Bulgaria's economic circles came out with statements claiming that it is inadmissible to make businesses suffer losses owing to this crisis and emergency measures would result only in companies' shutdowns. Is it really so? What is more important - the economy or people's lives?

It is clear to all that economic losses are inevitable. Even if we didn't do anything, the global economic crisis would not have passed unnoticed in our country. What we have to do is undertake measures in support of businesses and the economy, having in mind the country's capacities. However, it must be made clear that the key priority is only and solely the people's lives. The economy and national wealth can be restored. We have managed to revive the state even after more severe crises and catastrophes, including wars that took a heavy death toll. Fortunately, the situation today is far less serious but before tackling the economic crisis we have to guarantee the Bulgarians' lives and health and overcome the pandemic with as little damages as possible. 

Opinions have been voiced that the Prosecutor's Office, and the Prosecutor General in particular, don't have the right to exert control over the activity of other institutions. Is it true, and why such statements are being voiced now?

And do you know where exactly they appeared? In the media outlets controlled by the indicted Ivo Prokopiev who most cynically stated in one of his articles that the pandemic will take a toll of (I quote): “…several tens of thousands of Bulgarian citizens, the larger part of them elderly people over 60 suffering from different concurrent diseases”. I cannot comprehend how these people who pretend to care about human rights may show such cynical attitude to the elderly, their parents probably falling into the same category. It appears that to them the retired people mean nothing and money is the only thing that interests them. Maybe the explanation to that lies in the fact that they have enough financial muscle to even buy a private hospital and have the best of medical care. The situation is quite different for the Bulgarian retirees.  

The State of Emergency Act currently voted by the Bulgarian parliament envisions suspension of all procedural periods. Will this be effective for the already imposed restraints by state institutions on the indicted persons, leaders of organised crime groups and economic circles? 

When we are having this conversation it is not clear at all what rules exactly the parliament will adopt. It's a total mess there: some try to downplay the situation, some look to reap political dividends from it. Others have not realised yet that we are living in a different reality. The truth is that if politicians do not cope with the crisis, their political careers will be finished. The sad thing is that the price is human lives. 

A day ago, the Court of Justice in Luxembourg rejected the claim filed by Tsvetan Vassilev concerning the suspension of forfeiture cases in Bulgaria. What does that mean?

Actually, the court ruling has foiled the attempts by many oligarchs (not only Vassilev) to keep their booty. To many of those who posed as legal aces in the media outlets run by the indicted Prokopiev it has become clear whose interests they are protecting. These are the interests of the oligarchs and the people who generated wealth at the expense of the Bulgarian citizens in the period of our murky transition to democracy.

Do you personally feel optimistic about the end of this crisis?

I am optimistic by nature. We, Bulgarians, are tough people. Our history shows that we coped with much harder situations. We have survived wars, times of starvation and epidemics. Our men died in military actions and women had to provide for their families. I'm sure that we will overcome this critical situation as well, fortunately it is far less serious. However, we must be aware that we will suffer damages and make sacrifices. The question is to reduce them to a possible minimum. And this is the business of the state and each one of us. It will be feasible only on one condition - that Bulgaria's statesmen shoulder their share of responsibility, the responsibility for their people and the country, and stop worrying about elections and ratings. Standing united we can do it, suffice it to recall the motto of the National Assembly - Unity makes strength. Now is the moment to take action in support of our nation, our families, the dear ones and friends. I am convinced that the Bulgarians will again show the best of our abilities, which we have displayed as a nation not once in times of trial.

Close-up

Ivan Geshev was born on 19 December 1970. He has a master's degree in law. Since joining the judicial system in 1996, he has steadily gone up through its ranks from examining magistrate to prosecutor general. The Supreme Judicial Council elected him as Prosecutor General of the Republic of Bulgaria on 14 November 2019. A month later, on 18 December 2019, he assumed the position.

Geshev has earned numerous accolades, including two Giovanni Falcone Awards.

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