World Bulletin/News Desk
More than 100 Bulgarian judges protested on Friday against the dismissal of a judge and government critic, accusing the top legal body of bias and double standards.
The Supreme Judicial Council sacked Miroslava Todorova, a chair of the judicial professional body, the Union of Judges, for taking too long over judging three cases.
"Todorova is one of the most prominent critics of the Supreme Judicial Council. Obviously she was inconvenient and was sacked in an unclear procedure," said judge Neli Kutskova at the demonstration in front of the council's offices in Sofia.
Rightist groups and professional organisations of magistrates also condemned the decision and called it an attempt to intimidate reformist judges and stifle change in the inefficient and graft-prone judiciary.
The centre-right government of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, which came to office three years ago promising to end a climate of impunity in the European Union's poorest state, rushed to distance itself from the dismissal of Todorova.
"The decision of the Supreme Judicial Council, whose reputation I can call controversial, is a provocation aimed against the government," the prime minister said in a statement.
Borisov said other judges had been given lighter punishments or none for similar delays to cases and urged the council, an independent body which administers the legal system, to reconsider its decision.
Brussels has repeatedly urged its newest member to overhaul its justice system. It is to issue a report next week on Bulgaria's progress in fighting corruption and organised crime.
On Thursday, European leaders reprimanded neighbouring Romania, which also is under Brussels monitoring, for failing to protect the rule of law, sending a signal that the independence of judges should be respected.
Todorova said her dismissal was "humiliating and unfair" and she would appeal it. She called on judges not to be intimidated by the council.
"I may be a subject of repression but I do not feel a victim ... There is no need for the colleagues to be afraid," Todorova told a news conference.
Todorova has criticised the government for not going far enough in its reforms and called for changes to the way members of the Supreme Judicial Council are chosen.
A survey carried out by the independent Centre for the Study of Democracy in May showed more than 50 percent of Bulgarians did not trust the courts and 72 percent believed magistrates could be easily bribed.
More than 60 percent believe the judges are susceptible to political influence.
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