Bulgarian court finds guardian responsible for harm of forced institutionalisation
Georgi Tsenov spent most of his life in horrible conditions in an institution, fighting to be able to make choices about his own life. Now he has finally achieved recognition by the State for the ill-treatment he suffered over decades. Sofia City Court affirmed that the guardianship authority caused him harm by failing to prevent his forced institutionalisation and ill-treatment.
Georgi was first put in an institution when he was three days old and managed to escape only at the age of 28. Since he was a child, every aspect of his life was regulated by the rules of the institution. At the age of 21, he was placed in the Podgumer institution, where the nurse at the institution, and subsequently its director, became his guardian. The conditions in the institution were horrendous. The residents were cold, undernourished and had almost no access to warm water. They had absolutely no personal space and choice. Georgi spent months in isolation in terrible conditions. He was forced to take excessive doses of psychiatric medications without any medical reason and had no contact with the rest of the world. As a final insult, his State disability pension was taken by the institution to pay for these “services”. Amnesty International and Bulgarian Helsinki Committee wrote reports about the deplorable living conditions for people in the Podgumer institution at the time that Georgi lived there.
After Georgi escaped, he decided to fight for recognition that his rights had been violated and to compel the State to provide him with compensation. With the help of Validity and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, his lawyer, Aneta Genova, sued the guardianship authority for failing to supervise the actions of his guardian when his guardian locked him up in the institution and subjected him to ill-treatment.
The Sofia City Court judged in April 2019 that the guardianship authority is indeed responsible for not preventing Georgi´s ill-treatment in the institution and ordered them to pay Georgi part of the damages he sought. For a childhood and large part of adulthood locked up in a horrible institution, with no possibility of leading his own private or family life, Georgi was offered approximately EUR 5 000 compensation. Finally, Georgi obtained acknowledgment of the violation of his rights.
Aneta Genova, Georgi´s lawyer, is only partly satisfied with the judgment:
“Georgi fiercely wanted to live in the community, to work, to be active politically, to have his own home. During the time he was placed in the institution and under guardianship, he was punished terribly for this wish. Isolation in inhuman conditions was one of the punishments. The treatment with psychotropic medications to control his behaviour was another way to punish him.
The judgment came more than ten years after he managed to escape from the institution, and during the time, the State offered him almost no help with integration in the community. He is one of the examples that the social system doesn’t like and refuses to support people, who are dreaming of real independence.”
Although the judgment is the first of its kind in Bulgaria and therefore an important step in achieving redress for victims of forced institutionalisation, compensation cannot provide real redress for the cruelty of Georgi´s experiences and the life-long damage that they caused to him. Georgi therefore appealed the judgment on 7 May 2019.
Georgi is therefore committed to further fight for his rights:
“I knew they will not give me the full compensation. The court´s approach to my case was not good, you could see that they looked down on me. Outside the court, the situation is now quite good. But the State is still in debt toward me, nobody can even estimate how much I suffered. Nobody can know this. My rights were violated. I never wanted to live in an institution, but nobody asked me. I fought for my rights, but they punished me for that.
In the end, I want to say something more general: Where is the integration for people who grew up without parents? Should they live in the community or in an institution till the end of their lives? They are basically convicted by the State! The group homes came very late, and still even in those, the staff only control you, like in an institution, where you are placed forever. Because of that, I even chose to live on the street for a while.
I also want to ask the State on behalf of other people with disabilities: Where is their integration? Should they live locked in an institution, or in the society? It is time their voices are also heard!
For example, for many years I wanted to speak publicly, to have a press conference, to have my words heard. I would like to call to other people who suffered like me to come to my side and to start fighting for their rights, seeking real compensation they deserve. They must insist that it’s only they who can decide about their own lives, not to allow somebody else to do this instead of them. This is the real answer for the people who were convicted to die in the institutions!”’