In a recent ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered a damning verdict on Bulgaria's practices concerning secret surveillance, data retention, and the accessing of communication data. The ECHR found that Bulgaria had violated the European Convention of Human Rights, particularly Article 8, which safeguards the right to respect for private life and correspondence. This decision stemmed from a case brought forward by two Bulgarian lawyers and two rights protection non-profit organizations in 2012. The ruling sheds light on a contentious issue that has long plagued the Balkan country since its accession to the European Union in 2007.
Bulgaria's Breach of the European Convention of Human Rights:
The heart of the matter lies in Bulgaria's failure to adhere to the standards set by the European Convention of Human Rights in matters related to surveillance. The ECHR chamber's unanimous decision outlined two primary concerns.
Excessive Surveillance: The court found that Bulgarian legislation did not meet the Convention's requirements for limiting surveillance to what is strictly necessary. This implies that the country's laws allowed for surveillance activities that exceeded what was deemed essential, thereby infringing upon the right to privacy and correspondence enshrined in Article 8 of the Convention.
Inadequate Data Retention and Access Control: Bulgaria's laws pertaining to data retention and accessing communication data were also deemed inadequate. The ECHR chamber concluded that these laws were incapable of effectively restricting such operations to what was strictly needed, thus further violating Article 8 of the Convention.
Secret surveillance has been a contentious issue in Bulgaria for quite some time. Notably, a special parliamentary commission uncovered disturbing revelations in August. It was revealed that special services had eavesdropped on over 900 Bulgarians, including politicians, journalists, and activists, during the period spanning from the start of anti-graft protests in 2020 until May 2021. This period coincided with the ousting of the former center-right government from office.
Nikolai Hadzhigenov, the head of the commission at the time, disclosed that classified data pointed to what could be described as the most extensive wire-tapping and eavesdropping on Bulgarian citizens in recent history. It was a revelation that sent shockwaves through the nation.
The prosecutors' office, however, staunchly denied any illegal eavesdropping on politicians, further deepening the divide on this contentious issue.
Lack of Judicial Oversight:
The ECHR ruling also highlighted a significant shortcoming in Bulgaria's surveillance practices - the lack of proper judicial oversight. The court observed that decisions to issue warrants for surveillance were not subject to adequate scrutiny by the judiciary. This lack of clear regulation created a situation where secret surveillance data could potentially be used for nefarious purposes, raising concerns about the misuse of such data and its implications for the right to privacy.
The European Court of Human Rights' ruling against Bulgaria serves as a stark reminder of the importance of upholding fundamental rights, even in the face of national security concerns. Bulgaria must now take immediate and effective measures to address the violations outlined in the ruling and bring its surveillance practices in line with the European Convention of Human Rights. This case underscores the need for a delicate balance between national security and individual privacy and emphasizes the crucial role of proper oversight and regulation in safeguarding citizens' rights.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Angus MacSwan)