When activism meets law
Denitsa Lyubenova is a human rights lawyer and LGBTI activist who helps people live normal lives and enjoy equal rights.
The lawyers we see in movies are usually strong and confident but not always concerned with protecting innocent people or noble causes — they just do their job. However, Denitsa Lyubenova is not a stereotypical lawyer — her mission for many years is to achieve justice and equal human rights for people from different communities. She helped establish the LGBTI organisation Deystvie (meaning “action”) and now, as its legal expert, helps it change the lives and protect the rights of all groups in society.
She has helped children receive citizenship, made marriages legally acknowledged, and facilitated access to medicine for HIV patients.
A police station disaster
Denitsa’s work as a human rights lawyer is difficult because Bulgaria is not a tolerant and progressive environment. She gives the following example of the predicaments she finds herself in.
She was responsible for security at the 2016 annual Sofia Pride parade. As she recalls, two people in the Pride parade, when attacked by neo-Nazis, used pepper spray in response. The police then arrested both the attackers and the attacked. “I went to the police station, and I wanted to see the people who were attacked. Because I had my lawyer’s ID, the police had to let me talk to them”, she remembers. Initially, the police let her in to see the two people who were attacked but after a few moments, things abruptly changed. One of the police chiefs ordered some officers to remove her just as soon as he heard she had been let in. “A couple of police officers just grabbed me and threw me out of the station. Immediately after this, they made the two people sign a declaration that they refused legal help, promising to release them if they agreed”, Denitsa says.
Meanwhile, ten neo-Nazis had gathered in front of the police station. “They started approaching me, taking pictures of me, threatening me, while the police officers just sat there, smoking their cigarettes”, the lawyer recalls. So she texted her colleagues and about ten minutes later, “there was a ‘mini pride’ right in front of the police station”.
Even faced with situations like this, she has not surrendered and has kept seriously focused on helping this community in its battle for rights.
Law and rights
Denitsa decided to become a lawyer because she was inspired by an uncle who was one. She studied law in Bulgaria but, as she puts it, felt there was something missing — it didn’t feel like the right time and place. She completed a second master’s degree in the Netherlands, where her interest in human rights deepened.
Her activism had begun before that. In 2012, while she still a law student in Bulgaria, a group of friends decided to organise a music festival as a fundraiser for registering Deystvie. “We were in the beginning of our 20s, full of enthusiasm and we had free time. We managed to organise a four-day festival at four different locations in Sofia. The owners of these bars and other places were very receptive and we got over 500 people to attend, even though there was no advertising like nowadays”, Denitsa explains. Two years later, in 2014, the legal defence programme started when Deystvie received grants for pro bono legal support for LGBTI people.
While studying law, she did not notice discrepancies in legal rights. “The thing is that legislation in Bulgaria looks equal for everybody, at least in theory. It is only when you submit an actual complaint or ask for a certain right, that it turns out there is a gap in the legislation and it is unequal for LGBTI people”, Denitsa mentions. However, now she believes that law is the key tool to changing fate. “I wanted to change the system and reduce inequalities in society, and I believed that in order to change whatever the system lacks, you need to know the legislation, the system and how it works”, she explains and summarizes: “Human rights are law and law is human rights.”
She explains that in Bulgaria there is a lack of hate crime legislation on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no protection for families of LGBTI people. “We don't have a legal procedure for trans people to change their gender. This creates a very wide gap between the general public and LGBTI community. This reveals not only the legal inequalities, but also that the general public doesn’t get what kind of rights LGBTI people are asking for”, the lawyer says.
Lately, Bulgaria has suffered from an intolerant atmosphere and propaganda wars. Events, campaigns, and similar instruments are great, but they will only take progress to a certain point. “What we have seen in the last couple of years in the so-called ‘gender backlash’ or the ‘anti-gender movement’, is that they are using legal tools. I believe that to change the condition of LGBTI people living here in Bulgaria, you need to use legal tools too”, she explains.
Deystvie: the legal battles
Deystvie has been providing pro bono legal support since 2014. One important victory that Denitsa Lyubenova is proud to point out happened in 2018. This ‘win’ was achieved by working together with Veneta Limberova, the chair of Deystvie, and Yavor Konov, who then was the director of the Deystvie’s health programme, now the chair of the Ivor Foundation. They organised a campaign to change the legal act, which specifies how people living with HIV can get their prescriptions. “Before our campaign, people living with HIV had to go to their doctors every month, so they had to travel to the nearest infection centre in a big city far from where they live. After our campaign, the prescriptions were given for three months ahead. This was a very big success for us and for all people living with HIV”, Denitsa remembers.
Another topic the lawyer works on is family recognition. The latest case she is working on involves two women, a Bulgarian and a UK citizen. They got married in Spain and their child was born there. However, the child has no citizenship because the English mother cannot give the child UK citizenship and the child cannot get Spanish citizenship because neither parent is Spanish. The only way to get any citizenship for the child is for the Bulgarian mother to come back to Bulgaria and to register the birth certificate here”, Denitsa explains.
The parents came to Sofia and went to the local municipality office. However, there they asked the Bulgarian mother to provide evidence that she is indeed the birth mother of the child. Denitsa explains that was not right, it was pure discrimination because no heterosexual couple who comes back to the country to register their child is asked for DNA tests.
“The Sofia municipality refused our request for the child’s citizenship. We appealed that and the Administrative court decided to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Our hearing was on February 9, 2021”, the lawyer says. The latter court analysed the EU legislation and decided whether Bulgarian laws contradict EU ones.
“This case is important not only for Bulgarian couples and their children, but for all rainbow families and couples around Europe and their rights regarding their children. This problem does not exist only in Bulgaria, it exists in all countries that disregard the rights of EU citizens”, Denitsa says.
On the 14th December 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued a ruling on a request for a preliminary ruling from Administrative Court Sofia City. According to the CJEU judgment, once a child’s parentage is established in a Member State, it should be recognized throughout the Union, regardless of the parents’ sex or of national law. ACSC will have to implement the judgment of CJEU, obliging the Bulgarian administration to issue identity documents for the child so that Sara can exercise her right to move freely in the European Union as a European citizen.
Denitsa Lyubenova said: “The judgment of CJEU is fully in line with the principles on which the European Union is built and also with the case-law of the Court of Justice so far, namely that all European citizens should be treated equally. Bulgaria is obliged to recognize Sara’s legal relationship with her two mothers. Bulgaria cannot rely on its national and constitutional identity and public order to derogate from the fundamental rights of EU citizens. According to CJEU, the child Sara is the heir of her Bulgarian and British mother, and the two mothers have the right to inherit each other.”
Another exciting project Deystvie has worked on was training police officers how to address hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They have trained over 200 investigative officers from around the country.
New days are coming
Right now, the organisation has more supporters than ever before. Denitsa says that they have the support of companies, ministries and municipalities, and the general public; it is not just from the LGBTI community anymore. Overall, there are four LGBTI organisations who work in Bulgaria and all of them are based in Sofia. “I don’t think that the rest of Bulgaria needs new NGOs because establishing their structure and administration is difficult and requires administrative and financial capacity, But I do think these four organisations should go around the country more and work with local people”, Denitsa believes. She says that Deystvie is creating a national legal defence program to create focal points in five big cities in Bulgaria, each with one person from the community and one lawyer. “We are training these people in order to find discrimination cases, to find people and explain what discrimination is and to encourage them to seek their rights. What we have noticed is that most cases outside of Sofia are hate crime cases but people don’t recognise them as such”, she adds.
* Update was added in December 2021 regarding the case at the Court of Justice of the European Union.
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