I would like to bring to your attention a story, published by Maria
Dermendjieva, as far as it touches quite sensitive personal issue,
processed within one non-transparent system, which often enjoys a
convenient media climate.
Translation from Bulgarian
Ambassador Kamen Velichkov acquitted, the slanderers left unsanctioned
By Maria Dermendjieva
A year ago in the Bulgarian newspapers, mostly Trud and Standard amongst others, there appeared articles about the premature cancellation of the mandate of the Bulgarian Ambassador to Thailand Kamen Velichkov. At first the Commission for Protection against Discrimination was referred to as the source of information, later – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The order for recalling the ambassador was allegedly signed by the Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov after the Disciplinary Council of the MFA had reviewed complaints against Velichkov’s work in Thailand. The nature of the wrongdoings was not specified; according the MFA spokesperson, sexual harassment was not among them. A complaint against Velichkov though involving an accusation of sexual harassment was submitted in February to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination on behalf of an MFA employee named Krassimira Trifonova, a former consul and third secretary in Bangkok.
The sensationalist sense of the scandal lead to the ‘news’ being re-circulated in several media outlets, each decorating it at the expense of the ambassador. Nowhere was he given a right to reply. Such slander feeds the media. Therefore, journalists care little that every single statement that damages one’s reputation should be backed up by evidence. This is a sad, painfully known practice in the Bulgarian media.
Thus, the lack of interest to follow the development of the story from the same newspapers and online outlets that ensued in May this year is not the least surprising. Only two or three of them published short announcements that the Commission for Protection against Discrimination issued its decision #98/16.05.2011, which declares the accusation of discrimination and abuse, submitted by the former employee of the Bulgarian embassy in Thailand Krassimira Trifonova against ambassador Kamen Velichkov, the charge d’affaires Vladislav Spassov and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nickolay Mladenov, null and void. ‘After a thorough examination of the written evidence, witness statements and explanations of the parties to the case, a five-member composition of the Commission (Irina Muleshkova, Lalo Kamenov, Blagoi Vidin, Zora Gencheva and Hari Aleksandrov) reached the conclusion that all accusations of the plaintiff Trifonova against K. Velichkov are ‘baseless and lacking evidence.’
Well, such information cannot be sold on our country’s media market. It is much more lucrative to print an interview with Trifonova provocatively titled ‘I am not a sex-slave!’, with which to allow a premeditated campaign of slander to take place, while denying the accused a right of response.
This entire story raises serious questions. The first one concerns the mechanism by which Bulgarian government institutions become accomplices in a slander campaign against and innocent and honest person and in the destruction of his career, his health and his family.
Neither the MFA, nor the Commission for Protection against Discrimination attempted to stop this process. Under the weight of their own bureaucracies both institutions yielded to Trifonova, who happens to be in familial relations with the husband of the former notorious foreign minister Jeleva and the former deputy foreign minister Milen Luzkanov, who was relieved of his duties in October 2010.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs – an Instrument in the hands of Slanderers
What was the main factor of the success of Trifonova’s defamatory campaign against Velichkov? Was it nepotism within the Ministry or its ignorance of the real reasons for the problems at the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Thailand? It is unclear, but it is important. Whichever of the two is responsible, it demonstrates the weakness of the institution. It should not be possible for the MFA to allow libeling and defamation, and groundless accusations with no evidence to destroy the reputation of a Bulgarian diplomat who has time and time again proven his ability in the diplomatic profession (and, by extension, the reputation of Bulgaria itself). Astounded by the libeling campaign against their colleague, Velichkov’s foreign colleagues stood up in his defense. An MFA should not allow this to happen neither due to nepotism and family connections with high rank officials, nor due to incompetence.
The reactions of the MFA in response to the case with our ambassador in Thailand are, strange, to say the least. Let us temporarily disregard the disclosure by the Ministry of incomplete and non-objective information to the media, an act that could be described as unethical. But even prior to the moment when Kamen Velichkov assumed the post of ambassador to Thailand, there were complaints about misconduct in Trifonova’s work as a consul there, as well about her incompetence and lack of qualification. It is known, for example, that she had ordered business cards with a title she didn’t have, that she organized personal parties at the ambassador’s residence, that she unlawfully collected consular fees far exceeding the established rates, that Bulgarian citizens who had been subjected to Trifonova’s rude behavior had filed complaints against her. For these cases there are witness reports as early as 2008, one of them being from the honorary consul of Bulgaria to Thailand, whose son Trifonova threatened to sue only because he dared to request the return of a personal item that she had taken from him.
Indeed, everyone who is familiar with the mentality of the employees at the Foreign Ministry (and at other ministries as well) knows that before and immediately after elections, in order to survive, employees should keep a low profile to preserve their careers and guarantee development opportunities. It is therefore wiser to disregard such inconveniences.
Another fact, completely neglected by the new management of the MFA emanating from GERB (the newly-elected ruling party, Citizens for a European Future of Bulgaria), are the odd personalities of the plaintiffs against Velichkov -- suspicious people with murky business dealings, such as Plamen Haydutov and Stavros Portokalidis.
Here is a quick portrait of Haydutov: he is a former local coordinator for the King’s party and candidate for mayor of the city of Yambol at the 2007 municipal elections, representing the National Revival Movement “Oborishte”. Haydutov claims to be a businessman. Online, Haydutov has published an offer for the sale of a construction investment project in Pukhet, Thailand. The price of the offer is 500,000 euro. According to an online business portal, the company which allegedly belongs to Haydutov, ALMEIDA INTERNATIONAL LLC, was established in 2005 in Yambol, with an initial investment of 100 000 US$ and specializes in the trading of brand cigarettes. It is important to note that the company which Haydutov claims to represent in Thailand, SIAM-BUL INTERTRADE COMPANY, is not registered in Bulgaria or in Thailand. Haydutov is as well an active user of several online dating sites. His friends on impulse.bg are girls and boys between 13 and 19 years old. Haydutov is old enough to be their father (he was born in 1946) and is married to a Thai woman (probably visible on one of his online photos). The first ‘complaint’ of Haydutov against ambassador Velichkov is in relation to a group of 15 Thai girls who, according the plaintiff, were about to be offered jobs in Bulgaria as massage workers…
Stavros Portokalidis is a Greek national, who has business interests in Bulgaria. Currently he owns one real estate company, ALIKA Ltd, while another, APOLON 1 Ltd, has been liquidated. On a Greek website with sells land around the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria there is a Bulgarian mobile number, which belongs to ALIKA Ltd. According to an employee of the company, many compatriots of Portokalidis are interested in buying real estate, agricultural land and other services. On an online advertisement for APOLON-1 Ltd, Portokalidis is featured as a contact person for ‘Relationships with women from Bulgaria and Belarus’. Portokalidis wanted to bring to Bulgaria ‘a girlfriend’ of his from Thailand, whom however he ‘did not intend to marry.’ According to the Greek embassy in Thailand, Portokalidis never appeared at the embassy’s premises, and even if he had, he could not have received a visa for his girlfriend under the above circumstances. Portokalidis, though, had no doubt that in Bulgaria everything is possible. Based on instructions from Sofia the visa was refused by ambassador Velichkov, and then again by the charge d’affaires Vladislav Spassov. Portokalidis then started spreading slander against both of them, determined not to stop until the ambassador was recalled and the girlfriend of Portokalidis received a long term stay visa for Bulgaria. This is in spite of the fact that the lies and falsifications of Portokalidis were denounced by six Thai citizens who accidently became witnesses to the fact that the Thai woman couldn’t even spell out the name of her ‘Greek boyfriend from Bulgaria’…
If the employees of the MFA had studied more carefully the people who had suddenly started complaining against the work of ambassador Velichkov, (while in fact they are slanderers who spread lies and falsifications against him) these employees could have asked themselves some logical questions: for example, was it not the case that Velichkov had somehow prevented some of the plaintiffs’ not very lawful actions and as a result received their defamatory replies. Or were they dependent on Trifonova because of some services that she had rendered to them, which made them accomplices in the smear campaign orchestrated by her.
Indeed, these types of investigations are not within the competence of the MFA’s departments. Nevertheless, the ignoring of these logical questions by the MFA puts in question the reliability and objectivity of the professional assessment that presumably preceded the sanctions against Velichkov and his recall from Thailand. Minister Mladenov has stated several times that the sanctions were based on complaints by citizens. It was not made clear, though, how those complaints were reviewed. It was not made clear if somebody thought about the real motivation of the authors of the slander at all. It is ridiculous that an institution such as the Ministry would base its decisions only on groundless complaints with no supporting evidence whatsoever and would not even question for a moment whether their authors are pursuing ulterior interests.
Does the Commission for Protection against Discrimination really defend Human Rights or is it a Formality?
There is much to be said about the role of the Commission, whose mandate is to defend the rights of citizens when they are not treated equally. The first complaint of Trifonova against Velichkov was submitted to the Commission on 19 February 2010. On 31 March 2010, the Forth Specialized Subcommittee of the Commission decided that the complaint did not conform to the requirements, stopped any further proceedings and gave the plaintiff 7 days to correct the irregularities, in other words to submit a new complaint that specifies how and by whom the plaintiff was discriminated against and on what grounds. It is precisely during this period that Trifonova consulted experts in the Legal Unit of the Commission on how to improve her complaint.
It was revealed during my interview with the member of the Commission Essen Fikri that these consultations had not satisfied Trifonova and her mother (who, while in Bangkok, was appointed assistant by her daughter in direct defiance of the rules). The two of them requested and were granted a meeting with Fikri, who was a member of the Subcommittee that rejected the first complaint by Trifonova. What was discussed and what happened during the meeting remains a secret, but, according Fikri she felt that the meeting could have influenced her and decided to withdraw from the case. Within the 7-day deadline, Trifonova filed three addenda to her complaint and the case was assigned to a Five-member Extended Composition of the Commission. This time the complaint was accepted, since it now appeared that the underlying nature of the complaint were allegations of sexual harassment, of harassment preventing the exercise of the free right to work, as well as of the violation of other rights outlined in the Law for Protection against Discrimination. It is now clear that none of the accusations of the plaintiff had been based on facts and none of her falsified statements had been substantiated by evidence or witness accounts of discrimination, sexual harassment or any other kind of harassment by the accused. Most of the documents that were presented to the Commission are administrative and bureaucratic irrelevancies, while the witness statements in her support are from her mother and from other related people who benefitted from her consular services; in other words, they are biased.
Even worse is the fact that the Commission, the institution that in theory should preserve and guarantee equal opportunities and rights, did not treat the two sides of the legal case equally. First, the Commission, as per the request of the plaintiff, convened the meetings and proceeding behind closed doors. The chairperson of the Commission even warned the two parties that the disclosure of information about the case to the media would be fined. But it was announced long after Trifonova’s version of the story has been widely disseminated in the all too complying media. Kamen Velichkov has been subjected to defamation and denied right to defend himself because of the decision of the Commission, as per the request of the plaintiff. At the same time the Commission’s decision did not prevent the plaintiff from freely revealing documents which were allegedly confidential.
The double standards do not stop here. When I officially requested to interview the Chairman (Kemal Eyup) or his deputy Lalo Kamenov, who was the rapporteur on the case, I was told that there would be no interview with Eyup and that I would be informed whom I will be interviewing when the decision is taken. I asked that whoever was to be chosen for the interview be informed of the details of the complaint against Velichkov. As is evident from the interview with Fikri, this was not the case. I was not informed in advance of this in order to refuse the interview.
During the whole time Velichkov did not have the right to defend his name, which for the public remains associated with the sensationalist articles written, most likely, under dictation by Trifonova – articles which ruined the integrity and the reputation of a professional with a proven record of excellent achievements. They were published in complete contradiction of the Code of Ethics of the Bulgarian Media and in defiance of basic human ethics and morality. Nor was any attention paid to the fact that Velichkov has a family and children, subjected to stress and psychological hardships by the vicious campaign of slander.
Another curious trend can be seen. The Commission against discrimination very quickly closed a sexual harassment complaint against another high rank official of the MFA – the current deputy foreign minister Dimitar Tsanchev. The plaintiff against him was also an employee of the MFA. But there was no information leaked to media and the Commission acted expeditiously. Does it mean that the Commission has double standards? Could not the acceptance of complaints that include slanderous accusations establish a dangerous precedent that could affect employees in other institutions who are targets of slander campaigns?
The case of Trifonova is obviously not isolated. It is a case about people relentless in the pursuit of their goals and carrier ambitious. This type of people is aggressive and nothing can stop them.
I recall the thriller Disclosure, featuring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. In the movie, a sexual harassment case was similarly constructed on false accusations. Indeed, it is frightening when decent people suffer because of someone’s insane ambitions. Examples like this one place doubt on the effectiveness of the legislation against discrimination in general and on harassment in particular. The groundlessly accused are deprived from the opportunity to defend their case publicly. They are treated as though the assumption that one is innocent until proven guilty does not apply to them and the burden of proof is misplaced. Meanwhile, the accusers remain unexposed and unpunished for their slanderous lies.
Interestingly enough, Trifonova is awaiting assignment to a new consular position. God save the ambassador to whose mission she will be posted!
(Published in www.glassove.com on June 9, 2011)