Sofia wants EU help

SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria should be granted full access to the European Union’s legal system to boost efforts to stem corruption and organized crime, its top prosecutor said. The poor Balkan state is scrambling to overhaul its slow and graft-prone judicial system before the EU executive body rules next week on whether it can join the bloc in 2007 or must wait another year to work on reforms. Of particular concern is a string of bloody gangland assassinations since 2001 that have killed 150 people, including the country’s top banker, the owner of a premier league soccer club and the country’s richest man. Analysts expect Bulgaria and its Danube neighbor Romania to make the grade, but say Brussels may also impose «safeguard clauses» excluding them from fully participating in EU perks such as open borders, common markets or judicial cooperation. Chief prosecutor Boris Velchev said such clauses for the judiciary would be counterproductive and could hinder efforts to tackle the powerful criminals who have taken over large parts of the economy since the fall of communism in 1989. «Personally, I do not expect any (safeguard clauses)… in justice and home affairs because of one logical reason,» he told Reuters in an interview this week. «If it would mean we could not use European arrest warrants, not communicate as equals with our counterparts in Europe, or there would be restrictions for legal aid… would this make us any better at combating organized crime? Quite the opposite.» Earlier this month, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn criticized Bulgaria, a country of 7.8 million people, for failing to provide concrete proof it can ensure the rule of law. Many Bulgarians believe joining the wealthy bloc is the only way to strengthen lax law enforcement and raise living standards to Western levels. Slow progress Authorities have not convicted anyone for the gangland killings and have also failed to jail any top-level officials for graft. By contrast, Romania’s top prosecutor has brought corruption charges against leading politicians, including ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase and members of his former Cabinet. Velchev defended his slow-but-steady approach. «It is easy to have a show case and then an acquittal a year later,» he said. «We will take the blame for doing things more slowly, but doing it by the book so we can secure convictions.» Since taking office in February, Velchev, a former professor of criminal law, has been weeding out prosecutors blamed for blocking cases against prominent figures. His recent victories include launching criminal proceedings against six prosecutors and six indictments against members of Parliament for various offenses. Prosecutors have also accused or formally charged the former heads of the national fire department and Sofia traffic police, cracked down on graft and money laundering, and have set up joint task forces to tackle specific organized crime groups. «It takes time, but I am sure that sooner, rather than later, we’ll have concrete results against the top ranks of organized crime,» Velchev said.