The case of Jock Palfreeman and the human rights of Australians overseas

Every Parent’s Nightmare tells the true story of Australian Jock Palfreeman, caught in Bulgaria’s corrupt legal system. ABC TV/AAP

Australians running into trouble with the law overseas is a common topic in the news. The coverage is usually fleeting, ending with the announcement of a conviction or, less often, an acquittal.

Belinda Hawkins’ recently released book Every Parent’s Nightmare tells the story of Jock Palfreeman, who was convicted for murder in Bulgaria in December 2009 and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Palfreeman has made headlines twice this year for his hunger strike against prison authorities, after they refused to let him continue his studies, and the ongoing refusal by the Bulgarian government to allow Palfreeman to serve the remainder of his sentence in Australia.

Hawkins, a journalist with the ABC’s Australian Story, became curious about Palfreeman’s case in 2008 after being contacted by one of his friends.

Five years and seven trips to Bulgaria later, Hawkins has written a compelling book which takes the reader through the case chronologically, starting in December 2007 when Palfreeman’s family hears the news that he is in trouble. As far as his parents knew, he was in England, having recently enlisted in the British Army. In reality, he was on leave in Bulgaria with friends. He had been involved in a fight in St Nedelya Square in the capital Sofia with a tragic outcome – two young Bulgarian men were stabbed; one fatally.

The case is not a simple one, and there are many conflicting accounts of what occurred. Briefly, Palfreeman’s version of events is he saw a group of more than a dozen young men attacking two Roma people and rushed to their defence. He was (legally) carrying a friend’s butterfly knife, having experienced violence in Bulgaria on previous visits. He brandished the knife to ward off the attackers after they turned on him. He has no memory of stabbing anyone in the ensuing scuffle.

According to the prosecution, the story about the Roma was a concoction and Palfreeman was simply a dangerous sociopath who attacked Andrei Monov and his friends unprovoked. The fact the group was seen by independent witnesses throwing paving stones at Palfreeman was explained away as a defensive reaction after the stabbings.

Hawkins highlights several problems with the case, including unexplained failures to interview key witnesses and to secure relevant CCTV footage on the part of police, as well as a prejudicial pre‑trial interview with the prosecutor. She also details inconsistencies in statements from prosecution witnesses and raises serious doubts about the forensic pathology. Independent psychologists’ positive assessment of Palfreeman is ignored in favour of the assessment of the victim’s father, who also happens to be suing Palfreeman for damages arising out of the incident (as part of the same proceedings). Palfreeman’s own father is pressed into the demanding role of second counsel for the defence, despite his lack of legal training.

Hawkins’ account raises serious concerns about the fairness of Palfreeman’s trial. Bulgaria is party to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee impartial tribunals and the presumption of innocence. Both of these seem to have been found wanting in this case.

Having previously worked as a legal adviser to an international NGO which aims to stamp out torture and other ill-treatment in detention, I was struck particularly by Hawkins’ descriptions of the conditions Palfreeman faced (indeed, still faces). He suffered a beating in the police van immediately after his arrest, and has since endured appalling prison conditions, including:

  • being forced to heat food with razor blades fashioned into an element heated by wires inserted directly into the mains;
  • being asked, during a tuberculosis outbreak in the prison, to submit to a blood test with no guarantee of a clean needle;
  • being sent to solitary confinement in freezing temperatures for insisting on consistent enforcement of prison regulations.

As recently as December last year, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported that the Bulgarian prison system displays “disturbing levels of overcrowding”, material conditions which are “not acceptable” and health care which was not “worthy of the name”.

The book’s inevitably gloomy conclusion is lightened somewhat by the revelation that Palfreeman seems to have discovered a new purpose. With the help of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, he has formed an official Prisoners Rehabilitation Association to advocate for prisoners’ rights – the first of its kind in Bulgaria. He is also planning to appeal his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Although it could apply equally to Palfreeman’s family, the description “every parent’s nightmare” actually seems to have been inspired by the man who arranged Andrei Monov’s funeral. With the 20-year sentence confirmed by Bulgaria’s highest court, nightmare is certainly an apt description for the experience of both the Palfreemans and the Monovs.

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