Guest Blog by Radosveta Vassileva Part One: A Firsthand Account of Bulgaria’s Interpol Abuse
In the first of a two-part guest blog by Radosveta Vassileva, the legal scholar writes about her personal experience of Bulgaria misusing Interpol to peddle falsified criminal charges and transnational political persecution against her and her family.
The second part will examine Bulgaria's attempt to manipulate the Commission for the Control of Interpol Files and how eventually, Vassileva successfully appealed against the politically motivated Red Notices and Diffusions.
A Firsthand Account of Bulgaria’s Interpol Abuse
I can personally testify about four distinct instances in which the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF) has found Bulgaria in violation of Article 2(1) of Interpol’s Constitution, which requires that mutual assistance between police authorities be exercised “in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR).
One can discern a pattern of abuses of Interpol’s system by Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office. Sadly, contrary to the popular line from Ian Flemming’s Goldfinger that “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action”, it is my opinion that none of these abuses were accidental.
Bulgaria, an EU member, misuses Interpol’s system to target those who are inconvenient for its regime similarly to rogue states like Russia and Turkey.
Harassing an entire family via Interpol’s system
Over the span of three years, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office targeted my father, then my mother, and then me by putting us on Interpol’s wanted list. There are specific features of our story which may be interesting to those researching the misuse of Red Notices and Diffusions by rogue states. Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office had a personalized strategy on how to weaponize Interpol’s system against each of us.
Such personalized harassment is possible because of loopholes in Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data (RPD), coupled with the fact that Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office is not subjected to any checks and balances. In fact, the Prosecutor’s Office is considered one of the longstanding threats to Bulgaria’s rule of law because it has a vertical structure, inspired from the Soviet prokuratura, where all decisions depend on the General Prosecutor. Furthermore its decision-making in the pre-trial phase, which can last indefinitely, is not subject to judicial oversight (see, for instance, here, here, here).
The Court of Justice of the European Union held that European Arrest Warrants issued by the Prosecutor’s Office, including those based on domestic arrest warrants issued by the Prosecutor’s Office, violate Article 47 (the right to fair trial) of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights because they are not reviewed for legality by the national court.
My family has been granted political asylum by Serbia and, in separate proceedings, Serbian courts have refused our extradition(s) to Bulgaria on the grounds of politically motivated persecution (as envisaged in the European Convention on Extradition and the Bilateral Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia). Nevertheless, it was the CCF that first took a stand in our case by identifying prosecution in violation of the UDHR.
The facts of this case span over a decade and even merit a book (more details can be found here, here, here). Nevertheless, a short background seems necessary to explain how the abuse of Interpol’s system weaves into the story.
In a nutshell, my father Tzvetan Vassilev, a Bulgarian entrepreneur, was racketeered by politicians. He refused to succumb to their demands to transfer assets for free, and in 2014 Bulgarian politicians, state institutions (including the Prosecutor’s Office), and Russia’s VTB conspired to artificially bankrupt the bank where he was the majority shareholder. The bank’s assets could then be stolen – a practice known in Russia as state raiding. Today, the assets of the bank are easily traceable – they either passed through the hands of VTB’s proxies or through the hands of proxies of the political circles that racketeered my father.
The collusion, nevertheless, involved blaming the bank’s failure on my father. The Prosecutor’s Office fabricated various charges accusing him of bankrupting his own bank, issued a public Red Notice, and requested his extradition from Serbia. To me their plan was clear – they eventually wanted to keep him in custody where they were either going to murder him or torture him to admit he was guilty of something which was not true, thus burying the entire story and the traces of their conspiracy.
The more my father sought to defend his rights by speaking publicly about what happened or by submitting applications before competent institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (see here for a case that was recently won), the more Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office retaliated. The catalogue of abuses is rich and long – forging documents, harassing witnesses, including keeping them in custody, to force them to provide false testimonies against my father, keeping my father’s own lawyer in custody, etc.
Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office became progressively frustrated that they could not obtain my father’s extradition from Serbia. They sent three additional, messy requests for his extradition before the Serbian court had conclusively ruled on their first request, violating the well-established principle of speciality in international law. Meanwhile, in a highly mediatized PR move, they also sent letters to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe asking them to put pressure on the Serbian courts to allow his extradition, compromising the fairness of the proceedings.
The harassment then transferred onto the only two direct family members of my father – my mother and me.
Personalized harassment against family members
In both of our cases, there is a relationship of causation between my father’s attempting to defend his rights and the misuse of Interpol’s system by Bulgarian authorities.
In 2016, my dad gave an interview (now conveniently deleted after Boyko Borissov’s regime forcefully closed an independent TV station) in which he spoke about Borissov’s practices of racketeering. Shortly after, my mother Antoaneta Vassileva, a renowned professor of economics who served as Dean of the prestigious Faculty of International Economics and Politics at the University of National and World Economy, found herself with an Interpol Red Notice.
In her case, similar to my father’s, the Prosecutor’s Office planned to use the notice as a lynching tool in collaboration with tabloids close to Borissov’s regime. Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office traditionally misinforms the public of the purposes of Red Notices and the role of Interpol – it uses these notices to assert an individual’s guilt in public (my mother does not have an indictment to this day), presenting them as international endorsement and recognition of its work.
In 2017, my father submitted an application under the US Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) against then General Prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov and a behind-the-curtain ally of Borissov, politician Delyan Peevski, describing in detail their involvement in the conspiracy against him and arguing they were responsible for corruption and human rights abuses (see here). Peevski was later sanctioned for corruption by the US OFAC in 2021 and by the UK government under its Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations in 2023.
My father’s application received substantial media attention in Bulgaria and abroad. Shortly after, I would find out the hard way that the Prosecutor’s Office had issued a Diffusion for me. While a Diffusion has the same effect as a Red Notice, it is much simpler and quicker to issue as it does not pass through Interpol’s General Secretariat for examination under Article 77 of the RPD.
Diffusions are sent directly by a National Central Bureau (NCB) of Interpol to other NCBs around the world. It is entirely on the issuing NCB to ensure compliance with Interpol’s RPD. In Bulgaria, however, the NCB, which is formally part of a directorate of the Ministry of Interior, is, in practice, a mere extension of the Prosecutor’s Office.
A peculiar Diffusion
I am a legal scholar normally based in the UK and ever since my father was living in Serbia, I would visit him for his birthday. In 2017 I bought my ticket from London to Belgrade several months in advance. The submission of my father’s application under the GMA overlapped with this trip and shortly after my arrival in Serbia I was arrested and delivered to the NCB.
It turned out that Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office had constituted me as an accused party in absentia, and issued an arrest warrant and an Interpol Diffusion on the same day. I had never been questioned by the Bulgarian authorities, nor was I summoned according to law. In fact, to this day, I have neither been questioned, nor indicted.
Even more shockingly, I was told by Serbia’s NCB that the Diffusion was sent to three countries – Serbia, Ireland, and Cyprus. After my trip to Belgrade, I was scheduled to be a speaker at the Annual Conference of the Society of Legal Scholars in Dublin and at another event linked to Cyprus – both public conferences. My visit to Serbia could have been a reasonable guess or the Prosecutor’s Office may have obtained information from the airline, but the other two choices of countries made it obvious they had stalked me online and issued the Diffusion with the purpose of kidnapping me by abusing Interpol’s system. The goal was not to pursue a legitimate law enforcement aim, but to get hold of me and use me as a pawn to put pressure on my father.
The second-part of this blog will be published by Red Notice Monitor on 28 April 2023.
Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Visiting Research Fellow at Middlesex University. She holds a PhD in Law from University College London where she also served as a Teaching Fellow. You can find out more about her work by following a link to her blog, here.