The European Court finds once again that Bulgaria has breached the right to vote of persons with disabilities
On 5 July 2022, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Mr. Genchev’s right to vote was infringed because a director of a psychiatric institution made it impossible for him to vote in the Bulgarian legislative elections.
On 12 May 2005 Mr Genchev went to the Radnevo Psychiatric hospital for a voluntary treatment. During his stay, the director of the hospital started preparing for the upcoming legislative elections taking place in June 2005. The applicant had at the time full legal capacity and thus was allowed to vote under the relevant Bulgarian laws. The director decided however to only permit ‘mentally capable’ residents to vote and appointed a medical commission to evaluate which residents were fit to vote. This commission decided that Mr Genchev could not vote and he was subsequently prohibited from leaving the premises of the institution. As a reaction, Mr Genchev, – who until that point was residing in the hospital voluntarily-, withdrew his consent to remain. This was met with the hospital director’s request in court for involuntary commitment and forced medical treatment.
In Bulgaria Mr Genchev challenged the abusive behaviour of the director of the hospital hoping to find recognition of its discriminatory nature and receive appropriate compensation for the harm which he had suffered. After 11 years of proceedings, the Bulgarian Court decided that he had been indeed discriminated; however the courts did not consider that he had suffered any prejudice as a result of such discrimination. In other words, erasing one’s rights is discriminatory, but the person should not be distressed about it, it just happens.
It its judgment of 5 July 2022 the European Court agreed that the applicant’s right to vote had been breached. For the Court this was a straightforward case, as the director of the hospital acted in breach of the national law at the time. For the applicant it took 11 years of arduous national proceedings and 6 more years of waiting for the European Court to give its ruling. We are pleased to see that the Court has recognised this breach of what should be a universal right available to all. Yet, the case also highlights the extent of control that directors of psychiatric hospitals can have over persons with disabilities.
This is a story we hear far too often, and it is notable in this case that the Bulgarian courts refused to grant relief even after acknowledging discrimination. The case highlights the need for systemic change against the arbitrariness faced by persons with disabilities living institutions, as well as the need to strengthen remedies for victims of disability-based discrimination.
Aneta Genova, representing the applicant before the Court said:
“We welcome the finding of the European Court in Georgi’s case whose arbitrary disenfranchisement has finally been acknowledged. We are hoping that our government and society will realize that voting is a right and not a privilege so persons with disabilities should be able to exercise this just as any other citizen would.”
At the same time Simona Florescu, litigation officer of Validity Foundation stressed: “We are actively committed to supporting persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities in exercising their right to vote. This is one of the many cases we have brought before the European Court and we will continue working with national and international partners to ensure that the civil and political rights of persons with disabilities are respected.”