Capsicum Oleoresin, or pepper-spray, a chemical weapon classified as a “less lethal” alternative to fire arms, was most likely used by Bulgarian riot police and special forces against peaceful protesters and journalists on September 2, 2020. Its use is reserved by law for incapacitating violent offenders resisting arrest. Instead, the police used it indiscriminately against peaceful protestors, press reporters and even children, who experienced severe symptoms. For over 3 days following the incidents Bulgarian authorities have refused or shunned requests by the media to disclose what agents were used against non-violent protesters.
Tens of thousands gathered on September 2 in Sofia’s government square to demand the resignation of the cabinet and the Prosecutor General over accusations of corruption and systemic violations of the rule of law. Following 56 days of anti-corrpution protets in Sofia and other cities, the demonstration on September 2 co-incided with the reopening of Bulgaria’s Parliament after the summer recess, and was the most intensive to date.
Excessive police numbers were gathered to defend the Parliament which was convening for the fist time in a new venue – the renovated Head Office of the former Communist Party of Bulgaria. The security forces used a water cannon and pepper spray to defend it during the day. Over 120 arrests were made, including Borislav Sandov, a co-chair of Green Movement, the Bulgarian member of the European Greens, and Stoyan Beshkov, a renown lapideptorologist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Amongst those pepper-sprayed were the members of a reporters’ crew from naitional TV networks BTV and BNT, who were broadcasting live from the demonstration.
Symptoms self-reported by pepper-sprayed vicims to social and mass media are consistent with the ones described by Corey J. Hilmas, in his Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents, as well as other specialised scientific publications. They involved sever eye pain and burning sensation, which would persist for over 30 minutes after being sprayed – far more than the prescribed usual effect from police pepper spray.
Both the protest’s organisers and police sources confirmed that the escalation of violence was purposefully provoked by footbal fans who had penetrated the demonstration. In spite of this, the police response was indiscriminate and affected many peaceful protesters. Rather paradoxically, no chemical compounds were used against the allegedly organised provocateurs. After enduring their assault for an hour, the police were unleased against the peaceful protesters on the square. They beat them up and arrested them indiscriminately, including passers-by and a journalist who clearly identified as a member of the press.
They were haphazardly targeted by the police, sometimes unsuspectedly attacked from behind while walking in the streets, then beaten, detained and denied access to a lawyer.
Many of the people sprayed on with a chemical agent during the earlier protests that same day searched medical help at the local hospitals. Doctors there were quoted by the media saying that they were not sure what the agent was, given than the severity of the symptoms exceeded what they would normally expect in such cases.
A mysterious chemical
Television screenshots shared by the media showed what looked like seemingly undisturbed police agents using large-flacon sprays of an unidentified agent, nothing in their posture, facial expression or disposition indicating that the use of the spray was sanctioned or necessary in the circumstances. As indicated by the guidelines of multiple organisations, e.g. the Geneva Guidelines on Less-Lethal Weapons and Related Equipment in Law Enforcement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), less lethal weapons can only be used by police as a substitute of fire arms against violent offenders, which once again raises eyebrows on the Bulgarian authorities’ take on the supremacy of the rule of law in the EU-member country. Over the years, Bulgaria has been repetitively advised to tackle police brutality by human rights organisations; the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has, on several occasions, also found Bulgaria in violation of the prohibition of torture established in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
With the Bulgarian police refusing to disclose the substance used against protesters and journalists so far, a search of police equipment websites reveals that the package on the photos of policemen is consistent with or similar to the following product: SABRE Red 1.33% MC 16.0 oz Stream (MK-9). Its specifcations here show that the formulation with the highest concentration of Capsicum Oleoresin may have been used against the protesters.
Following a critical statement by the Council of Europe, Bulgaria’s President Radev who has outspokenly supported the protests, summoned the head of the Security Services and the Chief Secretary of the Interior Ministry for explanations on the following day.
Serious questions were raised by him and media comentators regarding the use of force and chemicals against the demonstrators by the police. Were the policemen deployed to guard the protests sufficiently briefed and properly trained about what constitutes excessive use of force? Why were policemen photographed carrying brass knuckles and bizarre symbols, both associated with gangs and radical, potentially Neo-Nazi, groups on their uniforms? Who and under what conditions sanctions the use of non-lethal weapons on protesters? Why did the police do close to nothing to detain provocateurs even when they stood out from the receding crowd in what seemed to be organized groups; and why they targeted peaceful protesters, protest organizers, political opponents or journalists instead. Who in the line of command should be held responsible for the assaults on journalists or for indiscriminately using pepper spray on protesters, some of whom minors?
Sources near the protest’s oranisers and extraparlamentarian opposition group Democratic Bulgaria alleged collaboration between the authorities and the rioting groups, given that the actions of a handful of possibly specially recruited ultras were later on used by the government as a justification why that they should not resign irrespective of any ensuing social unrest or the two months of civil protests.
Another important issue
In order to keep finding voices and points of views of those who are less and less heard in mass media as well as keep ethical, democratic and professional standards of journalism in the public interest, we need to remain independent. You can support us by making a donation to BlueLink Stories through the bank account of our publisher – the BlueLink Foundation, a member of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.