The division of SJC in two chambers is a good start

On the shoulders of this fine and intelligent woman until recently stood the difficult task to represent the supreme body of the judiciary in Bulgaria. She also had and still has her serious responsibilities as a member of the Executive Board of the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ)).  She is the first Bulgarian magistrate, elected to such a high post. Sonia Naidenova was born in Assenovgrad, graduated law at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". She gradually climbed the steps of the Bulgarian judicial system. From early 1994 to 2012, she has consistently taken the positions: trainee judge at the Sofia District Court, junior judge at Sofia City Court, judge at Sofia Regional  Court, judge at  Sofia City Court. From October 2012 she is a member of the SJC. She is currently chair of the "International Relations" committee and a member of the "Public Communication Committee and the Committee on analysis and report of the workload of the organs of the judiciary for analyzing and reporting the workload of judicial authorities. Fluent in English and Russian.

- Ms. Naidenova, the Supreme Judicial Council /SJC/ examined the allegations of the investigator Boyko Atanasov and other investigating magistrates from the Sofia City Prosecutor's Office (SCPO) that in the prosecution there are mechanisms to influence prosecutors and investigators in cases against senior government officials, including politicians, as well as not coincidental distribution of case files. What has been done about this?

– The allegations of the investigator Boyko Atanasov describe different forms of influence on investigators and prosecutors to resolve pre-trial proceedings in the prosecution in an intolerable manner. At this stage I can not say whether this is true or not because an inspection of the SJC is underway, and these claims were contested by some of the investigators and prosecutors in the SCPO. The case is yet another stress test for the SJC, which has to find out whether there are internal means of putting pressure on prosecutors and investigators in the prosecution, which violates their independent judgment on how to conduct their investigations. For the first time magistrate from the ranks of the prosecution publicly talkes about the internal processes in it and the investigation - a fact which should be approached very seriously by the SJC. It has to check thoroughly the allegations and be very convincing in its conclusions. This is needed in order not to look once again as an institution that can not deal with the integrity of magistrates and conceals the real problems in the judiciary, rather than solving them. As were the findings in the report of the European Commission this year on other similar cases.

- Yes, such a case was discussed in the Report of the European Commission /EC/ to the European Parliament and the Council from 27 January this year on the progress of Bulgaria under the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification regarding the judicial system – the widespread recordings of conversations between Rumyana Chenalova and Vladimira Yaneva.

– The conversations between the two also described a system of relations between magistrates, senior officials and members of the SJC, and politicians on the other side, that are incompatible with the honorable practice the profession of the judge or the prosecutor. Unfortunately, the inspection of the SJC on the case ended without an answer to the main question: is there truth in talks, are there unacceptable relationships between member of the judiciary and politicians, including such on governing positions through which both abuse their position and power. This is a fundamental issue for any democratic and constitutional state, an issue of trust in the institutions not only by the Bulgarian citizens, but also by the foreign investors, by the partners of Bulgaria in the international alliances in which it participates. And SJC missed the chance to answer this question, or more precisely did not dare to do it, and so refused to defend its role as guarantor of the judicial independence. In this case the majority of the members of the SJC refused to show that regardless of the position of those involved, they value the truth and honesty more. So we should not be surprised at the low public trust in the judiciary.

- The highest authority of the judiciary did not accept the proposal of Kalin Kalpakchiev and you for resuming the inspection at Sofia City Court which ended in January 14, 2016. Why?

– The inspection in SCC ended rather hastily on January 14, 2016 and in unexplained circumstances, with the main conclusion that the recordings of the conversations are illegal and manipulated and can not be used. Some of the members of SJC, including myself, opposed this conclusion, as well as the incompleteness of the inspection. A few weeks later, with my colleague Kalin Kalpakchiev we asked the SJC to resume the inspection, citing recent events occurring after January 14, 2016, namely the EC report on the monitoring where the matter was discussed, the expertise of the  prosecution presented by the site "Buffalo", new public statements of Rumyana Chenalova in the media. Our proposal was not supported by the majority of the members so formally for the institution this theme is a closed book. But the doubt remained, it intensified the distrust in the work of the council, and between us, because in addition the source of the sms, sent by the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to the President of the Supreme Court Lozan Panov on January 14, 2016 during the meeting of the SJC, remained uncovered. The common between the two cases is that in both of them judges and an investigator that speak about the way of resolving cases and case files, iе insiders. I hope the similarities will stop here and this time, in the current inquiry into the the allegations of the investigator Atanasov, SJC will investigate everything and give a logical and convincing answer to the question -are there dependencies - internal and external, of magistrates from their bosses or from politicians. Otherwise, it will reinforce the public perception that people "dressed" with power, value servility more than professionalism, morality and justice. Such an outcome is unacceptable for a self-respected state institution that claims to be independent!

- The president of the European Commission - Jean-Claude Juncker, recently said that Bulgaria will come out of the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification /CVM/ until the end of this mandate of the commission. Senior representatives of the judiciary expressed their opinion some days ago that the mechanism has already exhausted its role. What do you think - do we still need it or not?

- The mechanism for cooperation and verification is mandatory for Bulgaria under the accession treaty to the European Union and is therefore needed. The positive effect of it is obvious, but everything happens  slowlier than expected because of the internal resistance. During their University studies the law students learn that the treaty has the force of a law between the parties. And treaty obligations must be fulfilled. It's simple - when all Bulgarian institutions responsible for achieving the objectives of the mechanism do their job, then the European Commission and the EU Council, will be convinced that Bulgaria has overcome the weaknesses in the accountability and efficiency of the judiciary, in the fight with the corruption and organized crime. The supporters of the thesis that the CVM is inefficient and discriminatory, just deny it, but do not say whether we have done enough to abolish it, do not look for the cause in the actions and omissions of the Bulgarian institutions, ie in themselves. Such an approach I find wrong. Bulgarian authorities, including the judiciary, must build a bridge of trust with the society and the Member - States with results, not by denial.

- Thanks to this mechanism a step forward was taken- the change the Constitution and the separation of SJC ...

- The division of SJC in two chambers that will decide independently on issues of career development and disciplinary responsibility of judges, apart from those of the prosecutors and investigators, is a good start, which, unfortunately, was not accompanied by actions to ensure the independence of the judges and to increase the accountability and transparency in the work of the prosecution. There was no chance for the college of judges to elect the majority of the members, as were the recommendations of a number of European organizations with tradition in the study of judicial independence. Now in the college for judges, the number of members elected by the judges is equal to the number of members elected by the parliament - 6:6. The Presidents of the Supreme Court  and the Supreme Administrative Court are also members of this college for judges by right but they are not chosen by their peers (by the judges) and thus can not be considered that with them is provided the European standard for structural guarantees for the independence of the staff authority. So now it is especially important how in practice the members of the SJC from the parliamentary quota will be separated between the two colleges. The current Supreme Judicial Council has formed a lasting majority in adopting a number of decisions on staffing, disciplinary and ethical issues, against which there were both internal disagreement of the other members of the council and external disapproval - by the  guild of the judges and the society. A large part of those decisions were overturned by the SAC as unlawful. That is why it is important to divide the members of the SJC elected by the parliament, in a way that will not cast a shadow of doubt about maintaining the position, the status quo, that status quo against which the process of changing the Constitution a year ago began. Speaking about the prosecutors I think that the positive effect of the change will be delayed as yet there are no legal guarantees for increased accountability and transparency in the work of the prosecution and for enhanced individual independence of the individual prosecutor (there is such a recommendation in the opinion of the Consultative Council of European prosecutors from December 2014). The planned international expertise of the prosecution within the CVM has not yet started and its time schedule is not clear, which will probably postpone for the next stage both the legislative and the internal organisational measures in problem areas. But undoubtedly the progressive changes that led to an open vote in the SJC on all matters, to an obligation to motivate any decision of the council and to on-line broadcast the meetings of the plenum and the colleges have to be considered - all measures leading to increased personal responsibility in SJC members and public control.

- It was not clear why they surprisingly changed you as a representative of the SJC. As far as we know, none of your colleagues challenged your moral and professional qualities.

- In the past three years of our mandate, we have had opposing views with some members of the SJC on some fundamental questions about standards in management, candidates for administrative heads in the court and the prosecution, the due conduct of magistrates and members of SCM, on which we could not find common ground. Working in a collective body as the SJC suggests differences of opinion, but also a dialogue, listening and respect of the position of the other, assurance of the legality of the decisions, but not making compromises with principles, not authoritarianism. What I believe in, the values that I defend, are those to define my behavior as a SJC member, not the position. I think that every lawyer who is on a leading position as a member of the SJC, must keep in mind that if he/she allows to be led by conformism, he/she is lost as a good manager.

- But you received the trust of the lawyers in Europe and are a member of the Executive Board of the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ). For the first time a Bulgarian magistrate is elected to such a high post. What are your responsibilities there?

- ENCJ is a unique organization that unites 22 Councils for the Judiciary or other similar independent management bodies of the judiciary in the Member - States and another 15 observers /ministries of justice in the country-states where there is no Judicial Council, or Councils and similar independent bodies for management of the judiciary in European countries which have the status of a candidate members of the EU or are members of the European economic Community/. The objective of ENCJ is to support the judicial independence, to improve cooperation and build trust between judicial councils, to develop standards for good governance and operation of the judiciary. 

In the summer of 2013 the SJC hosted in Sofia the 9th Annual General Assembly of ENCJ and we had the opportunity to get to know closely the activities of the Network. A few months later ENCJ launched a new multi-annual project "Independence and accountability of the judiciary", and I took part in. My work on it during the first two years helped me meet with exceptional lawyers, most of whom are judges from across Europe and also amazing people. Besides being committed to the mission to maintain the independence and competence of the judges as a guarantee of justice, they look into the future for the challenges in front of justice. This project proved to be a large-scale, long-term research and analytical work, during which indicators for assessing judicial independence and accountability of objective and subjective side were designed. On the jubilee 10th Annual General Assembly of ENCJ in Rome in June 2014, I was elected a member of the Executive Board of the network with a mandate of two years. The SJC participates in the activities of the Network since its creation, but for the first time it has a representative in its management.

The Executive Board, together with the President of ENCJ, deal with organizational issues, as well as those related to the implementation of the Strategic Plan of the Network. Valuable partners in the work of the ENCJ are the European Commission, the Consultative Council of European Judges and Prosecutors, the European Judicial Training Network, CEPEJ and others. In its 12 year history ENCJ managed to establish itself as a representative of the viewpoint of the judiciary in the European institutions.

You have been a judge for many years. What would you say to the young lawyers who choose the judicial profession? Is such a choice justified amid the new decline of the public trust in the judiciary, according to recent polls?

- The profession of a judge as well as other professions in public interest require dedication. In my professional career, and in my personal life, I was convinced that people's trust is gained not only with daily effort but with personal example and behavior, which must be in line with the generally accepted measure of decency. Since I became a member of the SJC I see that the number of candidates to become judges is not reduced, it even is inversely proportional to the decline in the trust in the system. This keeps me optimistic that there is a chance for progress and the gradual return of the trust in justice. It is due to the fact that the Bulgarian society, part of which are the young people who choose the profession of a judge, became more critical towards the double morals and double standards, more irreconcilable to various corruption practices and more demanding to institutions to defend the rule of law.


Photos: “Diplomatic spectrum” magazine and personal archive of Sonia Naidenova

1. At a session during the 9th Annual General Assembly of ENCJ in Sofia, June 2013

2. With some current and former members of the Executive Board of ENCJ and the President of the Network - Lord Geoffrey Voss (seated in the middle,) Madrid, September 2014

3. At the opening of the new court building of the Sofia Regional Court, October 2015

4. At an awarding of magistrates ceremony, December 2015