Just a few months ago, it looked extremely unlikely that Jock Palfreeman, the Australian serving a twenty-year sentence for murder in Bulgaria, would ever be paroled. Originally convicted in December 2009 of the murder of law student Andrei Monov (and of the attempted murder of his friend Antoan Zahariev) during a street fight in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in December 2007, Jock lost appeals against his conviction and sentence in 2010 and again in 2011. Now, in 2019, he’s won his parole.
Throughout these years, and despite his portrayal in the courts and media as a sociopath, Jock has maintained that he acted in self-defence during the incident, in which Monov, Zahariev and a large group of right-wing football fans – members of Levski Ultras’ South Division – attacked two Roma men.
In 2010, Jock stated: ‘When I saw what was happening … I ran towards the group of men … Judging that the men were a big group, I went around them … I didn’t want to have a clash with the group at this moment, I didn’t want to attack them. I just wanted to stop them from beating the [Roma].’ The case, which has been documented extensively by journalist Belinda Hawkins in her book Every Parent’s Nightmare (Allen & Unwin, 2013), has had many twists and turns and, like his sojourn in prison, this latest development can be best understood not only by reference to the facts of the case but the underlying economic and social conditions in Bulgaria.
To begin with, the decision by a panel of three judges at the Sofia Appellate Court in Bulgaria to grant Jock parole took most by surprise, eliciting relief on the part of his family, friends and supporters, and shock and anger on the part of his detractors, especially those in Bulgaria. The decision was immediately denounced by local political figures and triggered some public protests in the country. Following the verdict, the far-right Ataka (Attack Party) rallied in Sofia, demanding that Jock be re-imprisoned, while its leader, Volen Siderov, also took the opportunity to announce that he was running for mayor. Another far-right party, the governing VRMO, has called for the Bulgaria Helsinki Committee – a human rights organisation that has supported Jock – to be deregistered. A march led by former Bulgarian Socialist Party MP Hristo Monov (whose son Jock was convicted of killing) demanded that Kalin Kalpakchiev, the judge who presided over Jock’s appeal, be sacked. While unsuccessful in arguing at the original trial that Jock should receive a life sentence without parole, Monov has previously expressed the view that Jock should never be allowed to leave prison. Jock’s failure to pay the EUR 300,000 fine that, along with the custodial sentence, he received upon his original conviction may be reason enough for his parole to be denied. Or at least, this forms part of the argument that Monov has made. It’s the same basis upon which a transfer to Australia was denied Jock in 2013.
While imprisoned, Jock was responsible for establishing in 2013 the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Association (BPRA), which campaigns for prison reform and is the first organisation of its kind in the country. While the Appellate Courts’ decision to grant Jock parole was largely based on his good behaviour while inside, I confess to wondering if his prison activism may not have provided some other possible basis for his removal from Bulgaria.
Whether or not subsequent legal manoeuvring will overturn the Appellate Court’s decision, it has certainly succeeded in sabotaging Jock’s release, possibly indefinitely (although that remains to be seen). It also takes place just ahead of Bulgarian mayoral and municipal elections in October, in which questions regarding the future of Bulgaria, its relations to the EU, NATO, Russia and the United States, along with endemic corruption, ethnic and racial antagonisms, feature heavily. The broader context is the resurgence of fascism and the far right in Europe – one that is being played out on the streets, in the courts and the parliaments, in multiple territories. Along with these revived movements has come a partial rehabilitation of antisemitic conspiracy theories, the historical dimensions of which are usefully explored by Paul Hannebrink in A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Harvard University Press, 2018).
The former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, took the opportunity of a recent trip to Hungary to express political solidarity with current Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and to join him in expressing concern over Europe being swamped by foreigners. This is an echo of the notion of ‘The Great Replacement’ brought to wider public attention by the alleged Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant in his personal manifesto – as analysed by Robert Evans – but also featured in the propaganda output of alt-right grifters such as Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern during their 2018 Australian tour, an event widely celebrated by local reactionary commentators.
On the topic of Orban and antisemitism, the philosopher Agnes Heller recently noted that ‘[t]he question is not whether Viktor Orban is anti-Semitic; because he has no ideology … His only goal is power. And whatever means is going get him more power, he is going to use it’. This framing may also be applied to the anti-Roma sentiment that Ataka and other parties in Bulgaria, along with a wider public, seek to harness in their political struggles and – given the circumstances of Jock’s conviction – have particular resonance in his case.
While Palfreeman’s family has called upon Prime Minister Scott Morrison to intervene in his case, previous efforts by the Australian government to register concern over Palfreeman’s situation appear to have been both unsuccessful and, at least (but not only) as far as Jock is concerned, inadequate. While in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly in September, Foreign Minister Marise Payne apparently tried to discuss Jock’s case with her Bulgarian counterpart, only to be rebuffed. Similarly, when ‘Australian diplomats based in Greece sought a meeting with the director of Bulgaria’s immigration department [they too] were rebuffed’. Other diplomatic efforts, whatever they may be, typically go unrecorded. Morrison has refused to comment publicly on the matter.
As I write, Jock remains in Busmantsi Detention Centre, awaiting the outcome of an application by prosecutor-general Sotir Tsatsarov to suspend the Appellate Court’s decision and to return him to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. At the same time, in an unprecedented move, 292 Bulgarian judges have issued a public statement requesting that politicians abstain from attacking the court’s independence and respect the judgement. Jock’s supporters, meanwhile, are calling upon the public to contact Bulgarian embassies, the prosecutor’s office, and the Australian foreign and prime ministers to demand that Jock be released from prison. One petition directly calls upon the prime minister to intervene in the case, although, given Morrison’s previous refusal to be drawn into the matter, it seems unlikely to have much influence. Presumably, other channels, involving other MPs, are being pursued. In any case, only ongoing public pressure is likely to have any lasting effect.