AntiNote: This interview originally appeared in German in issue #104 of the Antifaschistisches Infoblatt (AIB) and was posted online in December 2014. It bears mentioning that since the interview was initially conducted in English, it has now been translated and re-translated. Apart from any fantastic coincidences, these are not the exact words of Jock Palfreeman. His spirit and intention, however, are intact.
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Note from AIB: In 2007, Jock Palfreeman, then 21, traveled from his home in Australia to Bulgaria on vacation. On 28 December, he was witness to a racist hate crime in Sofia: a group of rightwing hooligans attacking a Roma person. Jock did what (unfortunately) few would. He intervened.
In the ensuing altercation, one of the attackers—Andrej Monov, son of a high-ranking government official and former police officer—was fatally stabbed.
Ever since, Jock has been sitting in Bulgarian prison—including stints in solitary—sentenced to 20 years for murder. He is currently appealing his sentence and fighting for extradition to Australia.
Antifaschistisches Infoblatt: Hello, Jock! We have reported on your case a number of times—it is of great concern to us. First things first: how are you?
Jock Palfreeman: No, first things first: I’d like to thank European antifascists for their continuous support!
I’m in pretty good shape, good enough to keep fighting the Bulgarian state for another fourteen years if that’s what it comes to.
AIB: How is life in prison? How are you being treated by guards and other inmates? Do you have problems with neo-Nazis or racists among them who know about your case?
JP: Day to day life is pretty simple. At 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. they take roll, which the guards use as a chance to harass us. They get us out of bed and have us line up.
If there’s no trouble, by 9:00 I’m in the computer room working on my history and politics degree. Access to a computer is really important to me. Because I’m dyslexic, doing things by hand is really hard. Time in the computer room, for me, means freedom for my mind and for my fingers to dance on the keyboard.
I get along with the other prisoners okay. They appreciate my humor and my attitude. I’m known for my sense of justice, which is also why I got voted onto the prisoners’ representative council. This council usually serves as a mode of internal repression, though. For example, if a prisoner goes on hunger strike, the wardens task the prisoners’ council with intervening. That usually means intimidating the prisoner, either through threats of violence or by hiding drugs in his cell and alerting the guards. Both happen regularly.
During the mass hunger strike of Syrian refugees in the summer of 2013, a member of the prisoners’ council beat up one of the hunger strikers (whose only “crime” was crossing the border) and stole his pen and paper, which are really important tools—for filing complaints, for example.
I try to work against this kind of repression. Since I represent my whole cellblock, the prisoners here can demand that I be present for searches. I also help with submitting witness statements or complaints. Some guards try to prevent me from doing these things, of course.
There are also a couple neo-Nazis in the prison. But neo-Nazis normally get protection from the state, like in Russia, so they usually don’t get found guilty and imprisoned—if they’re even investigated or charged with anything. The inmates are almost 70% Roma.
I don’t get harassed by racists, although the white majority in Bulgaria is extremely racist. Mostly they feel sorry for me! They think that I was naïve to throw away my life for the sake of a “dirty gypsy.”
AIB: For newer readers of our magazine, can you tell us again what happened on 28 December 2007? And what’s going on with your appeal?
JP: On December 28th, 2007, I saw twelve neo-Nazis, Levski Ultras [a soccer team fan club] chase a Roma person down the street and start beating him up. When I ran over to break it up, the neo-Nazis turned their attack on me. I was holding a knife over my head to keep them away or scare them off. But they started throwing bricks, stones, and pavement tiles at me. They had me completely surrounded, so I had to stay moving to protect myself. Ultimately, there were just too many of them. I got knocked unconscious by a blow to the head.
When I woke up, I was in police custody. They said that one of the neo-Nazis had been stabbed, and had died. His name was Andrej Monov, and was the son of Hristo Monov, who at that time was a member of parliament, from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).
My appeal hasn’t made any progress. Nothing is moving, even though my family is trying to exert pressure to bring me back to Australia. The office of the Prosecutor General in Bulgaria is too strongly controlled by the government—in which Hristo Monov is a leading politician—and is constantly under pressure not to grant my extradition.
Since May 2013, the BSP has been in a governing coalition with Volen Siderov’s nationalist party, Ataka. Since my arrest, several prominent BSP politicians’ sons have been accused of murders. Especially crazy was the murder of two men, committed by the son of a BSP official, just because they had been speaking English. The court released this killer from pre-trial detention so that he could skip the country. This is another sign of the influence the government has over the justice system.
AIB: The Australian journalist Belinda Hawkins wrote a book about your case—or about your father’s struggle, to be more precise. What does this book mean to you personally, and does it have a political significance beyond that?
JP: The book means a lot to me, since it lays out the basics of my case. Still, I would criticize it for depoliticizing the situation and leaving out information about the connection between neo-Nazis and soccer, something that’s hard for non-Europeans to understand. There are many cultural differences between Bulgaria and the rest of Europe that the book doesn’t really address, in my opinion. The neo-Nazi ideology of the attackers is completely ignored, and the whole incident is trivialized as a bar fight instead of a cold, calculated racist attack by people who vocally promote genocide.
AIB: You co-founded the Bulgarian Prisoner Rehabilitation Association. What are the goals of the BPRA?
JP: The BPRA is working to reform the Bulgarian criminal justice and prison systems. Building prisoner solidarity is one of our main goals—but racism and drug abuse are big obstacles to prisoner unity. The BPRA uses the European Recommended Prison Rules as a framework. Right now not even 1% of these proposed rules are being enforced.
AIB: What kind of support are you getting from outside?
JP: I get money from my family. Other than that I don’t get a lot of support. Right now I’m looking for someone to translate my blog into Bulgarian.
Through the BPRA, we are collecting money for legal counsel—we just set up an account. For 200 or 300 euros a month, we could get representation for as many as a dozen prisoners. Most prisoners are completely at the mercy of the prison administration and its policies and practices, which are arbitrary and frequently illegal. Without financial support for legal counsel, prisoners are defenseless. We just have to sit and take it. I think with global support it should be realistic to raise 300 euros a month.
But as I mentioned, besides this practical help for prisoners we’re also trying to increase solidarity among prisoners. If we see that we can collectively defend ourselves, fewer individual prisoners would be afraid to stand up for their rights and the rights of their fellows. Without firm solidarity among the prisoners ourselves, I don’t really see the possibility for prison reform.
AIB: At the end of 2011, you wrote to us: “I’m putting out a call to action, to all those opposed to racism both on the street and in its institutionalized form of fascism.” What else would you like to say to our readers? And how can they support you and your work?
JP: I’m glad you asked, because we’ve changed tactics a bit with my case. We’re not demanding my immediate release anymore, but focusing on my extradition to Australia. I mean, even during the time of the Soviet Union, foreign prisoners were transferred to their home country within four or five years. Now, even though Bulgaria is in the European Union, it is refusing to extradite me to Australia. It took the Prosecutor General two years to even acknowledge receipt of my appeal.
Ultimately, Bulgaria is a signatory to the European Convention on Extradition. It would help a lot if Europeans would hold them to it.
AIB: Thanks for talking with us! We wish you strength and solidarity.
JP: Thank you for your interest, and same to you. I’ve got a feeling we have a hard road ahead of us in Europe.
Translated by Antidote
Featured Image: Youtube screengrab via AIB