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Court chicanery: controversial chairperson of Sofia City Court vows to appeal against the ruling voiding her appointment.

Even by the low standards of other state institutions that routinely score very poorly in opinion polls, the public approval of Bulgaria's judiciary is plumbing new depths. It does not help that the row surrounding the chairperson of the Sofia City Court, the largest district court in the country and one of the busiest because it handles most of the highest-profile criminal, corporate and political cases, shows no signs of abating.

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On November 3, the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) voided the appoint ment of Vladimira Yaneva, who was elected to the job in June to immediate public outcry. Yaneva's appointment by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), was contested because of her limited judicial experience and for being an apparent case of blatant nepotism - she is a close family friend of Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who studied with Yaneva's husband at the National Sports Academy. Tsvetanov denies lobbying for Yaneva's appointment.

The SAC ruled that the SJC vote was void because it was a secret one, despite the new regulations that asked for an open vote. The SJC countered saying that the court appointment procedure began under the old rules, which required a secret vote.

The administrative court's decision came two weeks later than the suggested (but not mandatory) deadline. According to media reports, quoting unnamed judges, the decision was reached at least a week earlier, but the three judges on the panel came under pressure from the recently-appointed chairperson of the SAC, Georgi Kolev.

(Kolev was previously the head of the Sofia City Court and supported Yaneva's candidacy to succeed him. His own appointment to head the SAC has come under criticism because he had no previous experience in administrative law.)

Asked by Dnevnik daily, Kolev said that reporters should not pay attention to rumours and should instead wait for the court ruling.

Controversy

The ruling itself was not without controversy, with one of the three judges, Ivan Radenkov, saying he was recusing himself from the case, hinting that he could not be impartial.

However, Bulgarian legal procedure does not allow a judge to recuse himself from a case after a decision has been reached - in fact, no individual judge can recuse himself from the case, only the entire panel of judges can stand down.

Furthermore, Radenkov declined to spell out his reasons for recusing himself, which was another breach of procedure.

Yaneva said after the decision was announced that Radenkov's recusal was grounds for the case to be heard again. In the meantime, she planned to appeal the ruling with the five-judge panel of the SAC, whose decision would be final.

Radenkov, however, would not be investigated either by the SJC - which claimed that the magistrate ethics code had no provision for Radenkov's case - or the SJC inspectorate, which said that it did not want to investigate a pending case (even though it had done so for other cases in the past).

Conflicts

After Yaneva's appointment, it emerged that she might have had a conflict of interest presiding over the criminal case against the former executives of Sofia municipal real estate firm Sofiiski Imoti, who are charged with selling property at undervalued prices to the city hall's detriment, a "signature case" tracked closely by the European Commission. Yaneva dismissed the case for further investigation by prosecutors, a decision that was later overturned by the appeals court, but did not inform officials in Brussels of that change.

The conflict of interest stemmed from the fact that Yaneva bought several properties from Sofiiski Imoti, representing a company owned by her father. That in itself was illegal because at that time she was already a magistrate and was forbidden from engaging in commercial activities.

The SJC decided not to investigate Yaneva for con flict of interest or breaching judiciary ethics, although the council's inspectorate later found her guilty of breaking procedural rules at four different occasions in her handling of the case, all resulting in continued delay of court proceedings.

The new conflict of interest commission ruled in August that the mere fact of doing business with the company whose executives now stood trial was not enough grounds to ascertain a conflict of interest. That in itself was not a benefit that would "influence the impartial and fair execution of job duties", the commission said.

Yaneva is no longer the presiding judge in the case, having withdrawn in July. But on August 25, she rebuffed all criticism of her performance, saying she did not recuse herself because of conflict of interest, but because of the appellate court's decision to overturn her ruling that the case needed further investigation by prosecution.
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Author:Bivol, Alex
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Date:Nov 18, 2011
Words:770
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