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The swirling political forces playing upon the Palfreeman case

On September 19 Palfreeman, who is now 32, was unexpectedly granted parole by a panel of three judges at the Sofia Appellate Court, but was immediately taken into immigration detention. This week he was released and is now free in Bulgaria, but unable to leave the country due to a travel ban imposed on him in 2011.

Markov says though new video evidence has recently been released that appears to substantiate parts of Palfreeman’s original defence – that he acted in self-defence during an attack by a larger group – he says he is not in a position to comment on the conduct of the original trial. But he says Palfreeman’s conditional early release on parole for good behaviour is in keeping with the law and in other circumstances would not be remarkable.

Such paroles are not subject to appeal under Bulgarian law, but the Prosecutor General is seeking to have the decision overturned on a procedural technicality. Bulgaria’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Cassation, will make a decision on the matter in December.

Meanwhile the ruling coalition in government has introduced legislation that would make it possible for such parole decisions to be appealed. Markov says he would not be surprised if the government sought to have such legislation made retrospective, which might not only result in Palfreeman being returned to prison, but throw untold other settled cases into uncertainty.

Over the coming weeks two crucial votes will be held: nationwide local government elections and a second ballot for the office of Prosecutor General, which is being contested by Ivan Geshev, who is currently one of the Prosecutor’s General deputies.

Complicating the case further is the fact that Palfreeman’s victim was the son of a prominent politician. “It should be noted that the family is influential and has access to media, and this helped push the case further into the public domain,” says Markov.

Nearly 300 Bulgarian judges have signed a public letter defending the parole decision, while president of the Supreme Court of Cassation Lozan Panov issued a statement calling on the home secretary to comply with the parole order.

“Bulgaria has crossed the border beyond which law [may] fall victim to conjunctural arbitrariness and political expediency,” he wrote, according to a translated statement. He wrote that alfreeman’s freedom of movement had been grossly violated and urged his colleagues not to buckle to political pressure “or a media lynching”.

In response 10 of the 14 members of the Judicial College of the Supreme Judicial Council – the court’s governing body – have called for Panov to resign, saying he should not seek to interfere in court proceedings.

Tension over the case has been reflected in diplomacy between Bulgaria and Australia.

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During the United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September,  Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne had expected to meet with her Bulgarian counterpart, Ekaterina Zaharieva, to discuss the case. The meeting did not did not go ahead, with  Zaharieva telling Bulgarian media she was too busy. Instead the two talked while at another UN event.

It is understood Payne told Zaharieva that the Australian government would be concerned if “non-legal issues” were playing a role in the Palfreeman case. She used similar language in the Senate this week, saying on Thursday that the Australian government understood that the attempt to overturn the parole was “outside Bulgaria’s normal legal process, and we would be concerned if non-legal issues were seen to have an influence on this process”.

She said the Australian government had called on Bulgarian authorities to allow Palfreeman to travel to Australia and stressed that Australia respected, “the independence of the Bulgarian court and wish to see it make a decision according to the rule of law”.

Palfreeman’s Bulgarian lawyer Kalin Angelov said it would be a “huge catastrophe” if he is returned to jail. “I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “We’re in some very strange legal territory and nothing is following the rules.”

Palfreeman’s father, Simon Palfreeman, said he still hoped his son might be home in time for Christmas. “Having him home for Christmas would be a great thing for him, but also a magical moment for his extended family,” he said. “I just hope the Bulgarian system is strong enough to withstand this corrupt assault.”

With AAP

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