During my detention in Bulgaria I took detailed notes on scraps of paper and shortly afterward wrote a full journal. In this document I have made no exaggerations. What is written here are strict facts from a good memory and very detailed notes.
“A prison has not been built in the country (Bulgaria) since the 1920s and this alone is proof that the situation is bad. There are some cases where 12 people are sharing one prison cell meant for four people, which is unacceptable.”
— Sophia Echo (Newspaper)
“It might not be death row drudgery in Montana or the leg-ironed lifestyle of an Afghanistan incarceration, but a dozen years in a Bulgarian prison is a cruel life sentence”
— Calgary Herald
Sun Oct 11 – Arrival in Bulgaria
I arrived on a flight to Sofia and proceeded to passport control. I was born in the US and at this time still held a US passport. However I left the US in 2001 to live overseas and eventually remarried a Russian citizen. I lived in Russia on and off for nearly a decade and eventually obtained a second citizenship.
Many Americans erroneously believe that a person can only hold one citizenship. There are millions of immigrants to America that obtain American citizenship, and they retain their citizenship of birth. The same holds true when an American obtains another citizenship and millions of Americans by marriage or residence have obtained a second citizenship. There are many reasons to do so, including to make it easier to reside and work in other countries.
When I worked at Microsoft I often visited 4 or 5 countries in a week and my US passport was nearly full. Renewing a US passport while abroad requires at least two trips to an embassy. If you do not live near one this can be an expensive and time consuming proposition. Because of this I often traveled on my other passport.
When I reached passport control I handed my passport to the officer. In Bulgaria as in many Eastern European countries the older generation often speaks Russian as a second language and the younger generation often speaks English as a second language. The passport officer appeared to be in his mid 40’s.
Without asking me if I spoke Russian, he asked me in Russian, “Do you have a Bulgarian passport?” He seemed friendly and his question seemed curious rather than investigative.
“Nyet,” I replied. Nyet is Russian for no.
He continued in Russian, “Is your family Bulgarian?”
“No, my family is of German origin.” I’m not quite sure why he asked me these questions, but he seemed satisfied with my answers. Things proceeded normally from here.
I rarely check luggage and this trip was no exception. I proceeded past the luggage belts and through the green customs line. Waiting outside was a young man holding a sign with my name on it.
There were many other conference speakers waiting as well, most of whom I have known for many years and many have become close friends. We waited for a few more speakers to arrive and proceeded to a hotel van just outside the airport door.
We proceeded to the Holiday Inn which is a short ride from the airport and we checked in.
One of the speakers was a very good and long time friend of mine, Hadi. We had not seen each other in a while so after basic greeting and formalities with the other speakers we separated and took some time to catch up. Despite needing to register early the next day for the conference we stayed up until the early hours of the morning.
Mon Oct 12 – Conference
Today was the first day of the conference. I had no sessions scheduled today. This is the way I like it because it gives me extra time to make final changes to my sessions and get acquainted with the attendees. The conference was being held in an adjacent movie theater and I spent most of the day in the speaker’s lounge making refinements to my sessions for the next day.
I returned to my hotel room in the afternoon, but my key didn’t work. This has happened to me before, usually when the front desk makes a mistake with the check out date. I went to the front desk and obtained a new key.
We met in the hotel lobby and were waiting for taxis to take us to a restaurant for a speaker dinner. One of the speakers walked over to me casually and said, “When I arrived today and checked in there was a document behind the counter with your name on it. It was in Bulgarian though so I don’t know what it was.”
For a second I wondered and thought it was odd. But I let it pass and thought that he was mistaken, or that it was simply some left over check in documentation that someone forgot to file. In fact I gave it so little thought that I do not even remember what speaker it was who told me this. The only thing I can remember is that it was a speaker I’ve met a few times before, but not one that I know very well. After all, what kind of document would there be about me?
Half a dozen taxis arrived and we stuffed ourselves into them. We proceeded to a restaurant which served traditional Bulgarian food. Rakia (traditional Bulgarian liquor, a Bulgarian Vodka of sorts), beer, and grilled meat were available in unlimited quantities. I’m not a big drinker, but I had a few shots of Rakia. The meat was more to my liking and I gorged myself on that as did the others.
I had several sessions tomorrow, and my first session was scheduled at 9:00am. I decided to leave with the first group of retirees and return to the hotel. Despite being one of the early birds, it was 2:00am when we made it back to our hotel.
I wanted to perform some final checks on my demos for first session which was in just under 7 hours. I analyzed my options and decided it was better to sleep for a few hours and then work, rather than work then sleep. I set the alarm for 6:00am and went to sleep.
Tue Oct 13 – Interpol Arrest
I am sure I snoozed the alarm once or twice but I was up by 6:30am at the latest. Most European hotels have a teapot or coffee pot, but only plain tea. Because of this I carry a few tea bags of Earl Grey with me. I took a quick shower and made some Earl Grey tea to help wake up.
Unlike most people, I work best when I have some controlled background noise that I can tune in and out at will. This does not include screaming kids, or Barney. I cannot tune them out at will. BBC was not available so I turned on CNN and began a final check of my demos.
Around 7:00am my sister Hillary sent me a Skype message that my last remaining grandparent, my grandfather on my mother’s side had just died. We didn’t know my grandfather until later in our lives, but I had grown close to him. My grandfather and I didn’t communicate frequently, but I visited him whenever I could on trips to the US and we had a special kind of understanding. We were similar personalities and were close in a way that others did not understand. I was quite upset, but “the show had to go on.” I pushed down the feelings and saved them for a later time when I could afford to go “offline” and deal with them. I thought that would be later in the day and over the next few days, but that time never came.
It was around 7:30am and I was preparing to go down to breakfast. I don’t miss many meals. Before I could shut down my computer, there was a knock at the door. I assumed it was Hadi asking me to go to breakfast. It was not.
I peered through the peephole. There were three men and a woman wearing blue jeans and black jackets. I opened the door but left the security chain engaged. One of them displayed a badge. “My name is Veronica and we are police.” the woman said. “Do you know why we are here?”
“No.” I replied. What were the police doing at my door? Why did they need four of them? Police have asked me before about my travels and stamps in my passport, but they have never shown up at my hotel door in such a group before.
“You need to come with us. Bring your passport and some things you might need. You can have a few minutes, we will wait outside the door.” She noticed evidently that I had answered the door in my underwear.
I closed the door and quickly dressed. I grabbed my American passport and a light rain jacket. I also had some money, credit cards, and other identity cards which were in my money pocket which was attached to my belt and goes on the inside of my pants. I only had a light jacket because I don’t like to check baggage and I knew that most of this trip would be spent indoors. For the few excursions outdoors I could layer shirts. I thought whatever it was we would be back shortly so I did not even turn of my computer.
I opened the door and we proceeded down the hallway to the elevators. Two of them in front, two behind me. They escorted me to the front desk and allowed me to make one phone call. I called Hadi.
“Hadi, it’s me. I’m not going to make it to my first session. I need you to get a hold of Martin and tell him that I’m very sorry but something has come up. Please tell him I’m really sorry about this.”
“Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, I think so. I have to go in town unexpectedly for something important for a few hours. I should be back for lunch, so tell Martin I’ll probably be back for my second session.”
“OK. Can’t you tell me what this is about.”
“Not right now I can’t. I’ll talk to you later.”
“OK. See you later.”
We went outside and they put me in the back of an unmarked police car. I was put in the middle and a police officer sat on either side. Our car and a second unmarked car left the hotel.
“These men are from Interpol and they are investigating you about your son.” Veronica said. “I am a police officer but not Interpol. They do not speak English, so I agree to translate for them. We will go to police station #7 and there we will talk. You can make a statement and we will see what to do.”
“I don’t understand what this is about. I have custody of my son. We don’t even know where his mother is, she disappeared again. The last time he visited his mom she put him on a plane after the summer and sent him back to us.”
“I don’t know many details. I am only translator, please wait for police station and we will show you documents.”
As we entered the parking area of the police station she spoke again. “I apologize that our police station is not to American standards.”
“I left America almost 10 years ago and I’ve lived in Russia and many other countries. Don’t worry, I have a pretty good idea what to expect and don’t expect it to be like an American police station.”
We entered the police station through the main stairwell but went to the ground floor. There was a guard in a small room with a window, and an electronically activated door. One of the officers said something to the guard and the door unlocked. We entered into the hallway and proceeded to the very end. We entered the last office on the left. Despite Veronica’s concerns, the police station was actually better than I had expected.
Two of the men sat each behind a desk with their backs to the window. I was put behind a desk with my back to the wall in the middle of the room across from a couch and next to a filing cabinet.
Veronica spoke again, “We arrest you because of Interpol alert for kidnapping.”
Kidnapping? What the hell was this? Kidnapping?
We had been in the office for less than a minute, so time was already overdue for the officers to smoke. All but Veronica lit up cigarettes and cracked the window a small amount. Evidently they wanted to air out the smoke too, but it was cold and they wanted to find that delicate balance of second hand smoke and the cold.
I knew I could not ask them to smoke. I might as well ask them to bring me some caviar. “Can you open the window a bit more please?”
There was a response in Bulgarian from one of the men. I understood what he said, but it did not need translation and it was obvious that they were not interested to open the window further.
“They do not want open it more because it is cold.” Veronica translated.
I was not going to tell them I spoke basic Russian, or that I understood some Bulgarian because of its similarities to Russian.
None of the men spoke in English, so the conversation continued always with Veronica directly or indirectly translating when the men had something to ask or say. “Tell us about your son. Where is he?”
“He is at home with my wife and his brother and sister.”
“Where is home?”
“At this point I don’t want to say.”
“Why do you not say?”
“Well you have just accused me of kidnapping and I have no lawyer here so there are certain things that I’m not going to talk about right now.”
“We need you to take all things from your pocket and put them on table. Money, passport, anything.”
I didn’t have much except for the items of my money pocket. I put my passport and hotel key on the table which were in my pocket. Then I emptied my money pocket on the table which contained a few back up credit cards, some Euros, Swiss Francs, Eastern Caribbean Dollars, and about $3,000 US dollars. $3,000 US dollars seems like a lot to keep on oneself, but in a pinch cash is a must. It’s my emergency money and given the places I regularly travel its an appropriate amount. $3,000 though is many months salary for police officer in Bulgaria and this amount raised their suspicions of me.
“Why do you have $3,000? That is a lot of money. Who carries this much money?”
“It’s my emergency money. I travel a lot to countries in The Middle East and Africa. If my credit cards all get stolen, I need enough money to get home or hang out for a while until I can get things resolved.”
“$3,000 is a lot of emergency money.”
“In an emergency it’s not a lot.”
“Why do you carry Swiss Francs? Do you have Swiss bank accounts?”
“I carry them because I go to Switzerland a lot. After Bulgaria I will go to France and then to The Netherlands for another conference. If I have time I will visit friends in Switzerland.”
“What is this other money?”
“That’s EC – Eastern Caribbean Dollars.”
“It looks fake.”
“Well its not. If it was fake, I haven’t used it here so I don’t see the problem.”
“Looks like play money.” one of them said.
They took my belongings, put them in a clear plastic bag, and put the bag into a safe.
“We can call American Embassy for you. Do you want us call American Embassy?”
“No thank you. Given the situation I doubt they will be of any help.”
“We need you to write statement. We will send to America and they will say what to do. We only take information now.”
They gave me a few pieces of paper and a pen. I wrote a few pages detailing how Aarys had come to live with me, how his mother had disappeared, about my custody order, and how his mother put him on a plane back to us after the last summer visitation.
They took the papers and took them out of the room to send to “The Americans”. We remained in the office for an hour or two.
“Americans send no response yet. It is night in America.”
“How long will it take?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are we waiting for someone to come into work in the morning?”
“No. They work all time.”
“We need office to work. Move to hall and wait there please.”
I went to the hall and waited on a wooden bench outside the door. Officers came and went to the office across the hall. I was tired as I had just under 4 hours sleep and all that tea was now wanting to exit my bladder. There was a small restroom just inside the office, and I communicated enough with the men inside my needs. After a few times they just let me come and go to the bathroom as I needed throughout the day.
My watch had recently stopped working so I had no watch. In the hallway I had no way to tell the time and there were no windows to the outside. Only when I was taken into an office could I see the outside. Using the outside conditions to judge time was not effective though because it was a cold grey day.
I began to pace in front of the bench.
After a while Veronica returned from somewhere. “Please don’t pass.”
I looked puzzled.
“Please don’t pass this place. Do you understand?”
“No, not really.”
“Please just sit.” Then she went into the corner office again.
After a few minutes I understood what she had asked me. She was asking me not to pace, but pronounced it as pass. Problem was that I was so tired I was pacing merely so I didn’t fall of the small bench.
Sometime later Veronica appeared again. “The Embassy is here to see you.”
“I don’t want to see them. They will not help me.”
“Please just go talk to Embassy people.” She then led me a few doors down to a new office.
It was the office of the Police Chief for this station. There was a larger desk full of papers, and some filing cabinets and shelves. There was a cushioned chair and a couch in front of the desk.
There was an older man standing behind the desk. “Welcome. I am Police Chief. Speak little English.” He seemed a little nervous, or possibly just a it on edge, but friendly. Maybe he just hadn’t had a cigarette for a few minutes. He offered his hand and I shook it. He motioned for me to sit on the couch.
In the chair was a tall thin balding man with his hair cut short. He appeared to be in his late thirties or early forties. “Hello Mr. Hower. I’m Lance Woody and I’m from the Embassy.” He handed me his business card. His card identified him as a “Regional Security Service Officer.” His demeanor showed him to be confident and was not nervous as the Police Chief appeared to be. He had a folder about an inch thick, and my US passport.
I eyed Lance warily. His last name Woody stuck in my head and I kept picturing him in a cowboy suit with a pull string on his back.
“I’m part of the Department of Justice but stationed here at the Embassy in Bulgaria. I’m here to talk to you about your son Aarys. Will you waive your right to a lawyer and speak with me directly?”
“I won’t waive my right to a lawyer, nor will I wave my rights. But I will be happy to discuss limited topics with you.”
The Police Chief got up and left the room.
Despite my suspicion of Lance because he was from the Embassy, so far Lance had been cordial. But he didn’t like my answer. That was when I saw a visible change in his demeanor. Jekyll disappeared and Hyde emerged. I may have seen his head spin around in the process. I cannot be sure, I was still acclimating to the oxygen levels in the Chief’s office as it lacked heavy layers second hand smoke.
“Well you’ve been charged with kidnapping, and you are going to go to prison for a long time. I do cases like this all the time. They are going to extradite you. It’s really easy. Then you are going to sit in a nasty prison for a long time.”
I didn’t visibly react.
Lance didn’t visibly react either but paused for a second. He seemed to use this as a cue to proceed differently. His demeanor lightened slightly. “Look, I’m just here to chat really. I’m divorced too. My ex-wife is a bitch. I’m not here to take sides.”
But that’s like a shark saying to the bleeding man, “I’m not really hungry”. Lance said all of this very quickly and moved on. It made me feel as if he prepared and practiced that statement. Or was this his feeble attempt to connect with me? If so it was a colossal failure.
I don’t believe in karma in the religious sense. But I do believe that if you are good to people, eventually some people will remember that and return the kindness to you or others. The inverse is also true. If you treat enough people badly, eventually you will mess with the wrong person. So some day Lance will mess with the wrong person. I thought about trying to explain this too him that his fate is much worse than what he threatens me with, but I realized he was incapable of understanding it. I pondered this thought for a second and Lance seemed to interpret this as aloofness.
“Where is the child?” he snapped.
“I’m not willing to discuss that without a lawyer.” I said calmly.
”This is serious stuff. This isn’t any time to be messing around.”
“Where is the child?” he asked again.
“I’m not willing to discuss that without a lawyer.”
“What are you doing in Bulgaria?”
“I came to speak at a conference.”
“Where is the child?”
“I’m not willing to discuss that without a lawyer.”
“What is your profession?”
“I’m a software developer.”
“Where is the child?”
“I’m not willing to discuss that without a lawyer.”
“Why do you carry $3,000 in cash?”
“It’s emergency money.”
“Where is the child?”
“I’m not willing to discuss that without a lawyer.”
Each time he repeated that question I stated calmly the same reply. I knew what he was doing. It’s an interrogation technique that one might expect of a desperate school teacher. He would switch off subject in an attempt to make me feel relieved and cause me to let my guard down. Then he would snap back with a repeated question to see if I would respond with an answer. He seemed to be irritated that I remained calm. Truth be told, I was somewhat nervous, and I’m sure that showed a little. But despite being nervous, I was calm and collected.
“This is getting ridiculous. I thought you said you were going to talk with me.”
“I said I would talk to you on limited topics.”
“Why won’t you tell me where the child is without a lawyer?”
“Because it’s my right.”
He couldn’t get a definitive answer from me, so he tried a twenty questions approach. “Is the child in Bulgaria?”
Aarys wasn’t in Bulgaria, so I really had nothing to lose by answering this question. “No.”
“Is the child with your parents in Tennessee?”
I had been slowly building some suspicions that Lance was a bull dog. Bull dogs have a loud bark, but also are not very intelligent. Now my suspicions were confirmed. My father is deceased, and neither of my parents has ever lived in Tennessee. Not only did Lance not know very much, but he didn’t even know how to keep his ignorance hidden.
“No.” I replied.
“Where is the child?”
“Look, if you are just going to ask me the same question over and over, lets call it quits.”
What Lance did next is hard to describe, at least in terms that one would normally attribute to a grown man. He threw a hissy fit.
When he regained his composure a little bit and his voice became masculine and understandable again he picked up my passport and showed it to me. “This is your passport.”
“It appears that it is”. I don’t think that is the answer he was looking for.
“You’re not getting your passport back. We are keeping it. Without it you cannot travel and you will have to go back to the US.”
I didn’t react and this seemed to bother Lance. I finally said, “I thought you said I was going to be extradited?”
My passport is not a usual passport. Normal US passports contain 32 pages. Some of these pages are cover pages, information text, and contact information. There are approximately 24 usable pages for visas and stamps. With my travel for Microsoft I would easily fill those pages in just a few months. Instead I had ordered the larger 52 page version for frequent travellers. It had also been expanded twice with extra pages which swelled my passport to around 100 pages. This is the maximum allowed pages before you must obtain a new passport even if it is not expired. Even with so many pages, it only took me about a year to fill it up while working for Microsoft and one of the reasons I often used my other passport for travel.
Because it has so many pages, finding stamps in it can take hours and it often frustrates passport officers in some countries when I leave if they have to find the entry stamp. Some countries require an exit stamp to be near the entry stamp, others don’t care. Passport officers routinely after getting frustrated would hand my passport back to me and ask me to show them where my entry stamp was.
Lance was digging through my passport in search of the Bulgarian entry stamp and I suppose he was also trying to figure out where I lived currently. Given that there were over hundreds of stamps that was an impossible task. “Where is your Bulgarian entry stamp? Did you enter legally because we can’t find it in here.”
Sometimes passport officers ink pads are dry, and stamps are not visible. I find this is very common in Athens for example. In this case I had entered on a different passport, which is perfectly legal.
Lance didn’t know I that had another passport, and I wasn’t about to tell him. “Keep looking.” I told him.
He spent some more time looking through it again, and became visibly frustrated each time he failed to find a Bulgarian stamp.
When I worked for Microsoft, I worked for Microsoft Middle East and Africa. I spent most of my time in The Middle East and spent a lot of time in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
By now Lance had seen multiple visas for Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistan. “There are a lot of stamps in here for Pakistan. What were you doing in Pakistan?”
“Work for Microsoft.”
“What kind of work does Microsoft do in Pakistan?”
“Is that all you did in Pakistan?”
“What else did you do in Pakistan?”
“Sometimes I had a few extra days.”
“What did you do then?”
“Went to the mountains to enjoy nature. Spent time with friends. I even attended a wedding once.”
“You have friends in Pakistan?”
“Yes of course. Some work for Microsoft and were colleagues I worked with closely, others are software developers I met and who showed me around when I had extra days. Its a beautiful country.”
“Are you a Muslim?”
“Is that relevant?”. I’m not a Muslim. When you apply for a Saudi visa you have to declare your religion and it is printed on the visa in English. All Lance had to do was look.
“You know you have friends in Pakistan. You’ve been to mountainous regions of Pakistan. You have multi entry visas to Pakistan. This does not look very good for you. When you go to trial, this will be brought up.”
“President Bush visited Pakistan. Maybe you should ask him some questions.”
Looking unamused he asked, “Is the child in Pakistan?”
This was tempting. I could say yes and drive them crazy. But no, I was not going to lie. I would decide that I might not answer certain questions, but I was not going to lie. “No.”
Lance had been holding a folder that was about an inch thick on his lap. He opened the folder to the first page which was a copy of my passport cover page, looking at it as if he did not know what to do. Or maybe it was supposed to be some sort of dramatic pause. “You’re current wife is Russian isn’t she? Her name is Elena?”
“Yes.” So far he had revealed that he had the full backing of an intelligence service which had access to Google. Or more likely they had not even gone that far and had simply looked in the Embassy files for my wife’s past visa applications which are linked to my passport.
Maybe he had details of when the US Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprs filed a malicious and false report with the Federal Cyprus Authorities that I was a drug dealer after I reported a staff member for inappropriate behavior. Is it any mystery why I don’t trust the US Embassy?
Finally he closed the folder and threw it down down on the Chief’s desk for dramatic impact. I wonder, is that a special technique learned in FBI training? Or is it just a behavioral meme? “OK, well enough of this. This was just all polite talk anyways. I have a big file here with everything I need to know.”
Lance left and another person entered with the Police Chief.
The woman was a plump middle aged woman. “My name is Deborah J Ash and I’m from Consular Services”. She handed me her card.
The Chief interjected briefly to explain his return. “Must be here. On desk…. secret papers.” If they were so secret, I’m not sure how he left the room so long with only Lance and I. Anyways he was friendly and unobtrusive. He sat down in his chair and observed.
Deborah and I shrugged.
Deborah continued, “I’m not the same as Lance. I’m here to see if you need any help. I can help you find a lawyer or try to provide basic needs you might have.”
I was familiar with Consular Services. I’ve dealt with them in several countries and they are the section dedicated to serving US citizens only. They handle passport renewals, tax forms, and absentee voting.
Whether she was there to play bad cop, good cop, or was genuinely nice, I didn’t know. But she did not smoke and she was polite.
“Mr. Hower, do you need anything?”
“I haven’t eaten or had anything to drink. I am a bit hungry.”
“OK, we will speak to the Chief about that and see if we can get you something to eat and drink.”
“I have some forms here that let us know who we can speak to if they contact us. You can check the items and sign below. You can specify media, friends, and/or family.”
I selected family only, and returned the form to her. I later found out Martin had been calling the Embassy after I disappeared as someone had seen me being escorted out of the hotel by police. They would not tell him anything, but finally after he bugged them enough they at least confirmed that they knew “about me”.
“Is there anyone you would like me to contact for you?”
I didn’t have my computer with me, and I only knew a few numbers in my head. “Please contact Barbara Mountjoy in Meadville, PA and Neil Saltzman in New York. They are my lawyers. I don’t have their numbers with me, but you can find them in Google. You can talk to my mother if she calls, but please don’t call her. Her father just died this morning, I’m not sure what mental state she is in right now.”
At this point I didn’t know the FBI was already preparing to portray this to the media as a major FBI success story. “International Kidnapper and fugitive caught in Bulgaria and awaiting extradition.” My mother would soon find out while listening to the radio.
We spoke of a few other small items and she left. I wanted to put Lance and Deborah’s card in safe place, so I put them in the insole of my shoe.
“Here is a list of lawyers you can contact if you decide that you need one.” She handed me a pack of stapled papers. “I need to leave now, but call me if you need anything.”
We left the office and I was instructed to wait again in the hall. Wait for what? I still did not know. Godot I suppose. Outside the Chief’s office were some old cushioned chairs that apparently had been deemed in too poor condition for them to remain in any office. But they were far more welcome than my previous residence, the wooden bench. I took up residence on the best of the lot.
Another person who had been arrested was brought in and sat next to me for some time. I’m not sure what language was his native tongue, but his Bulgarian was heavily accented and I could not make any sense of it. After about an hour he was taken away.
There was no clock on the wall, but I knew it was early evening. I realized that this was not going be resolved today and that I did in fact need a lawyer. I looked through the list again that Deborah had given me. My phone was at the hotel though so I had no way to call any of them. I asked each police officer that passed if they could help me call one of them. Finally one of the officers went and returned with an officer who spoke a little English. They used their personal phones and helped me call several lawyers, but none of the ones we reached were able to help.
Some more time passed and Veronica returned.
“I have a list of lawyers and I need to contact one. We tried earlier but could not find any who could help.”
“Come with me.”
I followed her down the hall to the last office on the left again where two of the original officers who had arrested me were. The three of them used their personal cell phones and we finally found one who would represent me.
“We have found a lawyer who will represent you. His name is Viktor Dimitrov. His his number is ——–. He will find you tomorrow.” Veronica said. “Now we go to your hotel and search your items.”
That second part did not sound good to me, but she was not asking. I wondered what I might have of interest in my room?
Some of the policemen from before readied to go along with a new officer that I had not seen before. He was carrying a large hand held case.
In the hallway was a young thin man with short hair who introduced himself to me in English. “My name is Jordan Kultiski. I am a translator and the police have hired me to translate for you.”
We took two cars and proceeded back to the Holiday Inn. We arrived at the hotel and proceeded to my room. The man with the double sized briefcase sat down and set it on the table. I had expected that this case would contain a computer and other electronic equipment. I was quite surprised to see what it actually contained. It contained rubber gloves, clear plastic bags, wax and seal, and a single digital camera. He had carried it so seriously and with an air that I had expected a full forensics kit. When in fact it contained what I could buy at a grocery store.
An officer spoke in Bulgarian. “Please collect all your things and bring them to the table.” Jordan translated.
I did as requested.
They went through every item in my suitcase, computer bag, and wallet. They separated the items into things that they wanted and things they did not. They wanted my wallet, documents, paperwork, my computer, family photos, airline tickets, and all electronics including my cell phone and MP3 player.
They also found my other passport. “Hey look, a fake passport!” one of them said.
“Wow what a criminal he must be. Interpol will have fun with him.” another said.
These two spoke in Bulgarian, but I was able to understand what they said. I still did not let on that I could understand much of what they said. Neither Veronica or Jordan translated.
They photographed and inventoried each of these items. Then they put them in clear plastic bags and sealed them with wax.
Finally they gave me a piece of paper with a lot of printed text and a list of items that they had taken. “Please sign here.”
“I can’t read that. Its Bulgarian. I could be signing a document that says I killed someone. I’m not signing it.”
“You need to sign so they can take the items.”
“Well then I definitely have no interest in signing it. What happens if I don’t sign it?”
“They will still take your items but it will create a lot of trouble for them.”
“I don’t intend to cause you unnecessary trouble, but I’m still not signing something that I cannot read.”
“Can you write a statement that you agree this list matches what they want to take and sign?”
“OK”. I wrote a statement that said I was signing only to verify that the list matched what was being taken from me, but that I could not read the Bulgarian printed text and my signature did not imply that I agreed with anything that it said whatsoever.
“These other items. Pack them and take them with you.”
The “other items” were clothing, toiletries, and a paperback book. I brushed my teeth and packed them into my suitcase. They kept my computer bag.
We proceeded again down the hall with some officers in front and some in back. This time though was near dinner and other speakers were coming and going and saw me being escorted by a number of people.
When we reached the first floor and the elevator doors opened, Hadi was waiting to go upstairs. They did not let me stop to chat but I was able to exchange a quick word in passing.
“Whats going on?” Hadi asked.
“Roman Polanski.” I didn’t have much time to say anything else as I was being ushered out of the hotel. Roman Polanski had just recently been arrested and the US was trying to extradite him. I was very vague, but it was the closest I could do in the passing second I had.
We returned to the cars and headed back to the police station. I needed Bulgarian money though so I could by dinner. We tried several exchanges, but they were all closed at this hour. They had also become more relaxed and I was seated by the door. I could have opened the door at any one of our stops and ran. I’m not in tip top shape, but I was a lot better off than any of the officers, and I didn’t smoke like a chimney. I decided that it would be better to let the law take its course, after all I was innocent.
Not finding any open money exchanges, we headed back to the police station. One the way the two officers in the front were carrying on a conversation in Bulgarian. I didn’t understand all of it, but did catch the exchange about my passport.
“Can you believe he had a fake passport?” the driver said.
“Yeah, but you can get them for $20 in black markets in Sofia.” said the other officer.
“I wonder why he chose that country though. I mean if you are going to go through the trouble to get a fake passport, get an American or Canadian one.”
“Those ones are too hard to fake. Easier to fake the other countries.”
“Why does he have a fake passport? Who is this guy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you have any more cigarettes?”
“Sure friend. Here you go.”
We arrived at the police station. “I still have not eaten and the Chief promised that I would be fed.”
“OK, they can take you to a small cafe they eat at often. Its near to here and we can walk.” Jordan translated.
“I still don’t have any Bulgarian money though.”
“I don’t have much Leva on me, but I can offer you 13 Leva for $10.” Jordan said.
“OK, at least I will have some Leva.”
“I have to go now, I hope you solve this problem.”
I followed two of the officers to a nearby cafe. I realized that I wasn’t hungry any more for some reason. I purchased three small bottles of water.
We returned to the police station and they motioned me to one of the offices between the Chief’s office and the corner office. In fact it was immediately adjacent to the Chief’s office. There were two officers in this office and I took a seat on the couch. I guess that their job was to babysit me for a while. There was a sign on a filing cabinet near one of the officer’s desk that read “You might like to smoke. I like sex. I don’t have sex in your office, so don’t smoke in mine.” He was a rare exception and in fact he may have a member of some elite and small group of non smoking Bulgarians.
An hour or so passed and Veronica returned with another officer. “Please go with this policeman. He will take you to another place. Leave your suitcase here but take your food. Take off your belt and shoe laces. Leave them here.”
I followed him outside and we went to another nearby building that was also a police building. They put me into a small holding room with a wet concrete floor and a small L shaped bench. The bench was made of slats of wood with large gaps between them which made it extremely uncomfortable to sit or lay on. It ran the length of one wall, and half the other. The room had a small opening with bars to the hallway. I thought this cell would be temporary for a few hours at most until they moved me. It was not temporary and I spent the night there. It was the equivalent of what might be described as a very small Bulgarian “drunk tank”. This police station was in the University section of town, so its cell was adapted to drunks and fighters.
I had only a light jacket, and two shirts on. It was quite cold. It was nearly impossible to sleep on the bench, both because of the wide gaps, and because it was hard not to fall off onto the damp floor.
About two hours passed and another person was brought into the cell. He didn’t say anything. After some time I asked him, “Do you speak Russian?”
“Yes, of course.” he replied.
Well at least I had someone to talk to. “Why are you here?”
“Hello. I’m Peter. I got into a fight with a durak and I hit him.” Durak is Russian for a “stupid person”. Peter was still a little drunk, but friendly. “I’m Bulgarian, but I lived in Moscow for a few years and was married to a Russian lady.”
Peter and I chatted for a while to pass the time. We eventually tried to sleep, but in such conditions it was very difficult. Later in the night two more people arrived. They were wide awake and talkative so we had no choice but to be so as well. They didn’t speak Russian, so Peter and the two new arrivals chatted away in Bulgarian.
We were not allowed to carry anything into the cell except the clothing on our bodies. I had to leave my water with the guard. When I wanted a drink I had to ask him for a bottle and I had to hand it back to him when I was done.
I had water. The others had cigarettes and could request them from the guard one by one. Even in here I could not escape cigarette smoke.
“Guard, excuse me please.” I said. “Is there any chance of blanket? Or a pillow?”. I was cold and only half my body could fit on the half bench I had staked out. Still, it was better than the only choice one of the last arrivals had. A nasty, wet, cold cement floor.
The guard chuckled. “Maybe I could get you a television too?” He meant no malice though. There were no blankets or pillows and he was just replying in a jovial way. In fact he was very friendly and no matter how many times we asked for water, cigarettes, or to go to the toilet, he always kindly obliged and never expressed annoyance. The others carried on long conversations with him in Bulgarian.
Sometime in the very early morning we all settled down and slept on and off for a few hours. This didn’t last long and about two hours later everyone seemed to understand sleep was impossible for very long. It was back to chatting and smoking.
A family was let in and put in the room across from the cell. They seemed to be waiting for someone, but I never learned really why they were there. After about an hour they went farther down the hall and I never saw them again.
Peter somehow had gone back to sleep on the long portion of the bench. The other two men were pacing in the back of the room. They didn’t speak Russian, but I decided to give it a go anyways. I used very simple phrases in Russian and spoke very slow. Bouncing back and forth with alternate words, they understood what I wanted in Russian, and I understood their Bulgarian.
“They can only hold you for 24 hours without a judges order.” one of them said. The other one preoccupied himself with smoking and did not participate in the conversation, but seemed to listen in. “So you should be set free in the morning since they have held you since yesterday morning.”
I began to make plans. I needed to get to one of the lawyers. I had the address of Viktor. The address was written in Bulgarian, but since Bulgarian uses the same alphabet as Russian I was able to easily read it. It was in the city center in a shopping center.
“How can I get to the city center from here?” I asked.
“There are many buses on the road just outside the door. Across the road is a big University.”
“Which bus number do I need to get on to go to the city center?”
He told me the bus number, and I made a mental note of it.
“How much does a bus ride cost?” I had just a few Leva.
He told me how much it cost, and I had enough for the bus.
Buses usually run both ways on the street. “Which direction do I need to take the bus?”
“Cross the road and take the bus from that side. That will take you to the city center.”
While the experience was quite unpleasant, the Bulgarian police, and even the guard who joked with me about a television, were all extremely polite and professional. They did their jobs as they should have. They did not take sides. While America has some good police officers, most could learn a lot from the Bulgarian police. What an irony.
Peter and I had chatted for a while because we both spoke Russian. But carrying on a conversation in simple Russian and simple Bulgarian was tedious and only good for communicating basic concepts. I staked out the opening to the hallway and watched for the sun to rise. It began to snow.
I would like to say this was the worst night of my life. But I’ve had quite a few rough spots in my life, and as bad as this night was, it did not approach the worst. There are simply too many contenders which were far worse.
Wed Oct 14 – Detention Center
The sun finally rose and around 8:00am police officer came for me. I was the first to be released. Peter was still somehow sleeping and I did not want to disturb him. How he was able to sleep in such conditions I will never know. Maybe the hangover had kicked in.
The officer took me back to the adjacent building and into the office where my suitcase was stored. I was allowed to put my belt back on.
We waited a short time and Veronica appeared again. “Now we will go by car to another facility.”
“I was told that I could only be held for 24 hours without a judge’s order.”
“You are not arrested. You are detained. Rules are different. You will have a hearing soon.”
Two officers, Veronica, and I entered a car and headed for another facility.
“We are taking you to a detention center. It is a special place for people waiting for court. It is not a prison.”
This difference between a prison and detention center becomes important later. I often refer to it as a prison simply because it is easier to type and read.
A gate was opened and our car proceeded into a gated compound. The car pulled up before a six story building.
“Veronica, this might seem strange but I would like for you to translate something for me for the officers in the car and at the station. It is also for you to hear as well. I want you to thank everyone for acting professionally and not taking sides. Everyone helped me the best they could given the situation. No one mistreated me and several went out of their way to assist me as they could. The situation for me is of course not a comfortable one, but I appreciate what was done for me.”
She seemed visibly surprised. After a small pause she translated for the driver and the officer in the back seat with me and said she would convey the message to the other officers at the station. “They thank you for your kind words and wish you luck in resolving your situation.”
They transferred custody of me to a guard who was waiting at the door to the building. Inside the door were two tiny holding cells with typical jail bars. If you stuffed them full and no one sat down on the small bench, four people could be fit into each one. The guard put my suitcase on a table and locked me in one of the cells.
The guard worked on some sort of paperwork related to me. After his paperwork was complete he motioned for me to stick my hands out so that he could handcuff me. When I was handcuffed, he opened the cell and motioned for me to walk in front of him. Another guard appeared and I followed him down the hall to the right. We passed a few doors and entered one on the right. In this office was a desk with a chair behind it, and a small table surrounded by two chairs. There was a door behind the desk which connected it to another office.
The guard removed the handcuffs and pointed at my belt and shoelaces. He then pointed at the desk. “Tuka.” he said. He also wanted my jacket because it had a drawstring in it that could not be removed without destroying the jacket.
I had no idea what “Tuka” meant but put my shoelaces and belt on the desk. A slim older guard with grey hair appeared from the adjoining office. He seemed to be some sort of senior guard. He directed the other guards and helped fill out an inventory list.
Next they wanted me to go through my suitcase. None of them attempted to speak directly at me as the paperwork said I was a foreigner. The only word they used to speak to me directly was “Tuka”. The rest of the communication was achieved mostly by pointing.
As I pulled items out of my suitcase one by one the guard would point at the item, the suitcase, the desk, the table, or one of the chairs and say “Tuka”. It was obvious they were somehow sorting my items but I still had no idea what Tuka meant. At first I thought Tuka meant my suitcase. Then I thought it was items that were not allowed.
They separated the small amounts of money that I had. On the inventory list they listed every single bill including serial numbers and this took quite some time. I signed the inventory list stating that it was correct.
Whatever Tuka meant, it often confused me and several times I put an item in a different pile than they intended. The guards became a little frustrated, but not irritated and patiently corrected things.
I was getting a little frustrated too, amplified by the fact that I was tired, and hungry. I swore lightly in Russian.
The senior guard looked surprised. “Do you speak Russian?” he asked me.
“Well, you might speak a little but you speak it well and comfortably. Your paperwork says you are an American so we assumed you only spoke English. It’s a surprise to us that you speak Russian. I’m Bulgarian but my wife is Russian.”
He spoke in Bulgarian to the other two guards, telling them that I spoke Russian. The two guards sighed and let the senior guard take over the conversation.
“Please put these items back into your suitcase and close it up. We will keep these locked away during your stay. The items in the chair you can put into the plastic bags and take them with you.”
The items in the chair consisted of 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear, 1 pair of shorts, 1 long pant, 3 short sleeve shirts (2 of which were from the conference), 1 long sleeve shirt, 1 T-shirt, and 1 book which I had already read a third of, 2 disposable razors, finger nail clippers, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a pair of shoes without laces.
He handed me a sheet which was printed in English. “This is a list of rules we ask that you follow. If you follow these rules there will not be any problems for you. Please sign it.”
I read the paper, signed it, and returned it to him.
“I am sorry but we must handcuff you again. You will be taken to one of the rooms for foreigners. It is the same as others, but there will only be foreigners in it. This particular room has people who are much cleaner than others. Many of our residents are quite untidy.”
The two guards escorted me out of the office and farther down the hall. We passed a gate which appeared at both ends of the hall and into a stairwell. We climbed the stairs up a few levels. If I recall correctly I was on the third floor.
We passed a small room for washing dishes, a kitchen, and a few offices. Then there was the gate again as there was on the first floor. Once we passed this gate there were a series of heavy metal doors secured by large padlocks. In the middle of the hall on the left was another stairwell. They escorted me halfway to the other stairwell and stood me next to a door on the left. Next to each door was as small box with a door mounted on the wall at eye level. It had razors and other grooming instruments in it. They made me remove my disposable razors and nail clippers and put them into the box.
Then they opened the door and ushered me inside. The door was locked behind me after they gave me a pillow, a blanket, and a cushion. Well at least those are the closest words I can find to describe them. Calling the cushion a cushion was like calling a piece of cardboard a piece of armour. The blanket and pillow were also sick impostors masquerading as bedding items.
The room was the size of a small dorm room with four beds. The room was about 10 by 16 feet, 160 square feet. There were 4 beds, a small table, one tiny stool, a toilet, and a sink. The beds were all on the floor, not bunk beds. This left very little space. Even by Bulgarian law, there is supposed to be a minimum of 65 square feet per person. This room had less than half the required space, and that is if you included the toilet area.
In the room was one person. He was standing when I entered, obviously alerted by the noisy process involved in opening the door.
“Do you speak Russian?” I asked.
“No.” he replied in Bulgarian.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, a little. I also understand a little Russian, but I cannot speak it. I am Ivitca. Here, please sit down.”
“There are two more people, a Russian and Armenian, in this room. Now they go walking. Soon they will return. They don’t speak English. They speak Russian and Bulgarian. The bed at the window will be for you.”
I looked at the bed, and again at the items given to me by the guards with which I was supposed to use with the bed. It was not really apparent how they were supposed to go together, so for now I simply threw them on the bed by the window.
A short time passed and we heard light banging sounds at the door, and then a loud clunk, followed by another. This would be a sound that would become familiar. It signaled that the door was being opened and that we should stand up so the guards could see where we were unless we were sleeping.
A middle aged man and a younger man entered, and the door was closed behind them. The older man seemed excited to have a new person the room and said something to me in Bulgarian that I did not understand.
Ivitca told him that I did not speak Bulgarian but spoke English and Russian.
“Ah, welcome! I’m Vardo,” the older man said, “and this is Nikolai.”
Most people when speaking a foreign language that they do not speak well are shy and afraid to say the wrong thing. I am completely the opposite. I’m like a child with firecracker. I just mash the best words I can together to get my point across, usually totally goofing up tenses and other conjugations. For native Russian speakers I am quite a source of entertainment.
We spent the next hours getting acquainted.
Vardo was Armenian and lived in Bulgaria with is wife and kids. He had also lived in Russia.
Nikolai was Russian but grew up in Bulgaria.
Ivitca was Serbian and was engaged to a Bulgarian woman who he met in prison in Serbia.
Before entering the prison, my biggest fear was of the guards. Having known some people who have done time in the US, guards were my fear. It appears though that the US penal system targets mean people for hire. While other countries hire normal people. The guards were all nice. They were human. They could not really help, but they spoke to you, even joked with you sometimes. They were never mean, nor even snide. I had a reasonable idea what a Russian prison was like, so I prepared myself for the worst. I assumed it was better than the Russian prison, and since I was prepared for that I was OK. I also figured that while it would be bad, it must meet EU standards right? WRONG. Not only did the prison not meet EU standards, it did not even meet Bulgarian standards by law. It was worse than a Russian prison. One of my roommates had done time in a Russian prison. He told me that this prison was far worse and that he dreamed to go back to a Russian prison.
There was not much else to do, except talk and smoke. Except I don’t smoke, at least not actively I don’t. Though during these two weeks I was a passive smoker because we had little ventilation.
If one person was moving about, the other three had to be sitting on their beds.
Vardo helped me to make my bed, because given the cushion and blankets it was not apparent the best way to construct it. I had to use one of my shirts as a pillow case. The beds were old military style beds made from metal straps about 3 cm (just over an inch) wide weaved together. But the weave was very wide, with the open squares being 15 x 15 cm (6 x 6 inches). The cushion was only 1 cm thick (1/3rd inch). The beds were also very old, and several of the metal straps on mine were snapped. Sleeping was not only uncomfortable, but painful. It was hard to sleep more than one hour at a time. I would sleep until it became so painful that I had to turn or move. Then I would move and turn, and try to sleep again. We were given 3 blankets and were not allowed more. Most of the other inmates had received beach chair cushions or thick padding from family to make the beds more bearable.
We were given no toilet paper, no toothbrush, no razors, no shaving cream. I was told there was a “store” that you could buy items from once or twice a month. But that I must wait for special days. But there was a catch. I later learned, a lot of things had catches. You had to deposit Bulgarian Leva into an account, and only family members or outside people could do it. The paper they had me sign also said you could earn a bit of money in this account for good behavior. However from what I was told, that does not actually occur. Fortunately, my roommates (cellmates sounds mean, they were not mean) were extremely kind people. In fact, I was amazed at the generosity as I will explain more later, not just of them but other prisoners I met on the various trips to the detainment cell while waiting on court hearings. They had toilet paper and the other essentials and shared everything without question.
I had this impression that this was our room, and that there were common areas that could be used for at least a few hours a day. That being the case, I figured it would be tolerable. But that was not the case. We were confined to our room 23 hours a day. The 1 hour we were allowed out, was to go “walking”. Which I later found out was usually worse than staying in the room.
We even ate in our room. The paper declaring our rights declared all sorts of things that we were guaranteed. But none of them mattered because not even the basics were followed. It stated that we had a right to three meals a day. We were given two. And they were very small. We were each given a small metal bowl, the size of a slightly over sized cat food dish. The dish was appropriate for a chihuahua. If filled it could contain about 300ml (10 fluid ounces). Less than the contents of a Coke can. This was for food. No drinks were provided, except twice a week a little compote. So there was only water from our sink to drink. Worse yet, the small bowls often came only half full. This was a very frequent occurrence, probably more than half the time. We were also given half a loaf of a medium size loaf of bread. At dinner we were offered an “extra” that we had to scoop into old containers and share. But the extra was normally so nasty no one dared touch it. It was nearly always either margarine that looked like old solidified yellow paint which otherwise resembled play-doh, cheese that tasted like a salt block, or “Magic Mac”. Magic Mac was some sort of noodle, chopped into tiny pieces so it looked like sticky rice, and then mixed with some sugar.
The bread was either a few days old, or purposefully baked in some manner as to repel. We ate it because we had nothing else. But the bread turned out to be useful for other things that I’ll discuss later. I’m surprised the let us have this bread though, because the crust was hard enough to smash a guard on the head and render him unconscious.
The police had called a lawyer for me yesterday and he was supposed to visit today. He didn’t arrive as expected. Tomorrow would be my first court appearance.
We had no right to call our lawyers. I later learned this was because we were “detained”, rather than “arrested”. Vardo was in the detention for center two months before his family even knew where he was. To his family he had just disappeared. More than a year passed before the Bulgarian authorities even notified the Armenian Embassy.
Truth be told there was a provision for access to a telephone, but it too had a catch. You had to request to use the phone a week in advance. Then on some Saturday you would be scheduled five minutes to use a phone. However lawyers and other important places are unreachable on Saturday. Furthermore, they gave you a mobile phone and you had to insert your own SIM chip to use. The only way to get a SIM chip was for a family member to bring you one. But if they did not know where you were, and you could not call them with out a SIM chip, how could they bring you a SIM chip?
Each inmate was allowed to receive certain items from family. Every two weeks on Saturday you could receive two packages, and they would be delivered to you on Sunday. Each inmate was allowed 5 kg (12.5 lbs) of food, 5 kg of other items, and up to 50 packs of cigarettes. No that is not a typo, 50 packs of cigarettes every two weeks. Family members could only visit on Saturdays for 45 minutes, every two weeks. During this conversation you had to speak on a phone through a Plexiglas window. But the phones were old, and not all of them worked well. So even after your family found where you were, it took another two weeks for you to receive anything you could ask for.
There was really nothing to do all day long. We tried various ways to entertain ourselves. But mostly we tried to sleep, play cards, and talk. Sleeping however was difficult, so mostly people actually smoked continually all day long. With 50 packs per person, times three people (remember, I don’t smoke), that makes 150 packs of cigarettes. Divided by 14 days, that is almost 11 packs per day, and they smoked pretty close to that. The rest they used to pay the guards for small favors like some warm water from the shower to make coffee. I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke, and always have been. Its not just that I don’t like it, it makes me sick. After a few days I spent the mornings coughing up phlegm into the toilet. When I was released I was weak, and quite sick. I went from pant size 42, to 38 in just two weeks. I can even now fit in a 36, but not comfortably. This is despite the fact that they each equally shared their food from their families with me. Wonder what size I’d be if I only had the food provided by the prison?
I continued to get sick. Vardo wanted to call the doctor, but all the doctor wanted to do was give me medicine for an infection, which would not help me. I refused to tell them what the problem was. They could not stop smoking if they tried. There was nothing else to do, I could not ask them to stop the one luxury that they had. We had two small metals door that opened at the window. On the other side was double paned glass with embedded wires. So opening provided no ventilation, only let a little bit of sunlight through. The glass was not transparent, you could not see through it. Fortunately, someone had smashed a small hole about the size of ones face in the glass. From there we could get a little tiny bit of ventilation and see the outside world.
They also made and drank cold coffee, both instant and ground. The coffee was brought in as part of the families food pack. To make ground coffee, they used a small cup with a hole in the bottom over top of a bigger cup, and used toilet paper for the filter. The ingenuity or rather desperation at many of the things I saw still boggles my mind. The water was very cold from the sink, so we filled empty water bottles and let them sit until they at least reached room temperature.
I had one book, and I was afraid to continue reading it. I wanted to save it until I was so bored that I could not possibly find any other way to pass the time. Vardo lent me a book he had, “Bulgarian for English speakers”. I read it a few hours a day, but there is only so much studying you can do especially without sufficient paper to practice on.
We had roaches. Not just a few roaches. A complete colony, probably few colonies. They were around all day long. We tried to entertain ourselves by killing them, but you can only kill so many before you get bored. If we had spring loaded suction cup dart guns it would have been more fun. We killed flies in that manner when I was young. I even thought about setting up roach races. But they never go in a straight line and we had nothing to bet.
Above the door was a fence type grill and behind it a light bulb. The roaches seemed to like this area and had a pattern worked out. Across the top and bottom was a small gap. The top was for moving to the right, and the bottom was moving to the left. They were like a non stop train going back and forth. At night I would count them instead of sheep to try to sleep. The first night I asked about the light. Can we turn it off somehow? Does it go off at a certain time? No, it stays on 24 hours a day. At night the roaches would crawl on us and we often woke up to flick them somewhere else.
That night just as we got to sleep, we heard a lot of noise in the hallway. The guards were performing room searches for disallowed items. They eventually came to our room, and made us remove everything, strip down the beds and put it in the hallway. Then they went through it and we were allowed back. Frustrating, but they were polite. They saw our deck of cards and said that they were not allowed. But then the guard smiled and said “No worries. They are harmless, I won’t tell anyone”.
Thu Oct 15 – First Court Appearance
Today was my first court appearance. About 7:30am they woke me up and told me to get ready. I quickly brushed my teeth and dressed. I put on three shirts. They returned in 15 minutes to take me. I asked for a jacket, but they said there were none. They put us in the back of a small truck and took us to the basement of the court house, about 30 minutes drive. In the basement are holding cells that are about 6 sq meters (70 sq feet) with small table and two benches. There is a window high up that is open. They put in 4-10 people in each one. We have to wait there all day for our court hearing, and afterward we are returned there until about 4pm. Then we return to the prison. This day it was very cold, and even snowed. The heat was not on and the room was quite cold. I was freezing and shivering. One of the other prisoners gave me his jacket to wear for the day. I asked him what he did. He told me “It is something so bad and not for speaking”. He spoke a tiny bit of English.
Of course, they all smoked all day long. They offered me cigarettes and gum. I took a piece of gum. Even here, everyone shared what they had. Even a jacket, which really amazed me.
At 2pm they took me upstairs to the court room. I was very worried that I had no lawyer, but the inmates downstairs told me just to object that I had no lawyer and they could not proceed. We waited a few minutes and at 215pm my attorney arrived and I met him for the first time. We had no time to talk and went straight before the judge. After he objected, she gave us a 5 minute break to discuss. When the hearing started, my lawyer objected immediately, and the judge asked why. She said all the documents were in order, and that they would extradite me. My lawyer requested a 3 day break to allow him to research more. This is a normal time in Bulgaria. She refused, but rescheduled it for tomorrow. My lawyer objected that he still would not have time to speak with me because visiting hours at the prison were only until 5:00pm, and I would not return in time. The prosecutor said he would make a call to the head of the prison and allow a special visitation tonight.
We reached the prison about 4:30pm. My roommates had saved me lunch. The guards collect the bowls and spoons about an hour after they deliver them, but my roommates over their time have collected old plastic containers and used that to save me some lunch.
That night the lawyer did not reach the prison.
Fri Oct 16 – Court Again
Today we returned to the court. Today I wore all five shirts, and two pairs of socks. It was a bit warmer today. The other inmates were gathering cigarette butts from the floor, and I only later learned why. They take out the little bit of tobacco to collect it. They then roll new cigarettes using normal paper.
My hearing was scheduled at 10:30am, but they took me upstairs around 11:30am. Fortunately I have some very good friends in Bulgaria who live about 90 minutes away from Sofia. They had learned that I was detained and came to the hearing. I only had a chance to say hello, but it was wonderful to know at least someone knew what was going on and could help.
My lawyer requested a break to speak with me as he could not make it to the prison yesterday. She asked why, and it turns out the prosecutor did not call the prison, and also did not answer his phone when my lawyer called. She granted us 30 minutes.
Bulgaria like most countries is civil law, not common. This means most family issues are civil, not criminal. The judge returned. My lawyer had a book with the treaty and extradition law. He immediately objected that:
- The prosecutor did not state which crime was equivalent in Bulgaria. According to the treaty it is required to prove the offense would be criminal and punishable by more than 1 year in prison by Bulgarian law.
- The documents were not originals, but only copies.
- The documents were not in Bulgarian as required.
The judge had been ready to send me on English documents she could not even read. A new hearing was scheduled for the next Tuesday.
I was returned to the basement until 3:30 pm, and then we returned and reached the prison about 4:00 pm. My roommates saved me lunch again. I ate, we played chess, and I started taking notes that I’m using for this document. I wanted to record everything while it was still very fresh in my mind.
Of all the food items I missed, it was hot tea. The room was always cold. In Bulgaria they use central heat, and the city had not turned on the heat yet. I thought of all kinds of ways to make tea. While in the basement, one inmate told me that they make tea with two cans, one for the stove, one for the tea and burn paper. But he says it takes a lot of paper and they only get it warm. Just about then, I smashed a medium size roach and he exploded everywhere. These roaches are not that big, but they are loaded with fat. I thought that if I squished enough, I bet that fat would make a nice fuel to make hot water for tea. I didn’t have any cans though to try it out.
I snore. I know that, its not news to me. Vardo asked me to sleep only on my side, because when I was on my back I snored very loud. But Nikolai said I should sleep on my back, because it scares all the roaches away.
Dinner arrived at the usual 5:00 pm. I quickly learned that while they do cook the food, by the time we get it, it is lukewarm at best and usually cold.
Sat Oct 17 – Card Games
I slept till 11:00 am. If you are able to sleep, you try to sleep as long as you can. There is nothing to do when you wake up.
The others played some card game for two several hours per day. I think it was bridge, although it looked like some kind of card fight to me. I used to play Rummy when I was younger. Yesterday while waiting in the courthouse basement, I thought about Rummy all day. The card deck consisted of cards from many decks. There were many duplicates and even missing cards. For whatever game they normally played it didn’t matter. We had to sort out the cards, and use a pen to modify some cards to be others. Finally we had a full proper deck. I finally remembered more or less how to play it. We had to play a few rounds before it all came back. We played Rummy for a few hours.
Today I started pacing in the small space we had so my legs would not cramp. Vardo did it for a few hours each day. You could walk 2 meters (6 ft) from the door to the table, turn around and repeat. I did it for 2 hours today and also started doing push ups, and stretches.
Today was delivery day for packages delivered by families. I don’t remember whose arrived today, but it came with cookies, chocolate, bananas, oranges, cucumbers, tomatoes, and kielbasas. I never asked for anything, but they shared it equally. Each day they would take a little bit after dinner, or in the late evening and we would eat kielbasa with bread, or make a salad.
Today Vardo asked the guards for some warm water. They let him run down the hall to the showers and fill up a bottle with warm water. We had warm coffee. I do not like coffee. I just don’t like the taste at all. But it was warm, so I added some sugar and drank some.
On Saturdays the dinner is half a bowl of cabbage salad, and fish. But not fish as you might expect. Its was whole smoked fish, partially cleaned, and then chopped into pieces about an 3 cm long (1 inch). Today I got the head, so I had very little meat.
Vardo had a radio, but batteries were a problem. Using the aluminum foil from the cigarette packs he made wires. He would then tape batteries together with cardboard and adhesive from food packaging to increase the voltage. 6 weak batteries instead of 2 good ones, and the radio would work.
I studied more Bulgarian again, and looked at the Bulgarian newspapers and tabloids that arrived. I could read enough to get the general ideas of articles, but it still didn’t make it very interesting.
Vardo told me a story that during the older days in his village the garbage truck once a week would come and everyone had to bring their trash out. To notify people the truck was coming, it would ring a bell. He had some friends that moved to Canada, and every time and ice cream truck came by, they felt compelled to take the trash out.
Vardo had a Russian book, The Count of Monte Cristo Vol 2. I tried to read it, and got to about page 50. But it uses quite a few large Russian words, and I only understood about 25% of them. I understood the story enough to page 50, but it just became too tedious to read without a Russian-English dictionary.
The guards were interested to have an American in the prison. They started calling me jokingly “Talibani”. Because what else would the Americans go through so much trouble to detain someone for? My roommates tried to explain to them what I was being held for, but the guards could not believe it.
Sun Oct 18 – Deliveries
Two more bags arrived today with more food and Bulgarian magazines. We ate quite well this day.
Mon Oct 19 – Bread
I expected to see my lawyer today because the hearing was scheduled for the next day. The lawyer did not visit today. I’m not very good at chess, so I suggested Backgammon. We played with rules and starting positions the best I remembered. But I must have remembered incorrectly, because the game lasted for hours. Dice are not allowed, just as cards. The dice were obviously self made. They were hard like rocks, and looked like they had been carved from bone. I asked Vardo, and he replied “Bread”. If you wet the bread and then compress it, it becomes like glue. If you let it dry, it becomes hard like epoxy. I found out that the bread was also used to hang cut outs from the tabloids on the wall, and had many other uses. I think it may have been used for dental fillings as well. I considered taking up the hobby of bread sculpture, but I’m not artistically gifted. Although handcuff keys don’t look that complex.
Tue Oct 20 – Embassy Visit
Today is supposed to be a court hearing. But the guards to not come for me in the morning. And in this place, no one knows anything, and so no one tells you anything. It could be tomorrow, or a year. I only have scraps of paper to write on. Ivitca gives me paper as I ask, but I cannot ask him for too many sheets. There is absolutely no way to communicate to people on the outside unless you have a lawyer that visits and you give him messages to pass on.
Today Kimberly Atkinson from Citizen Services at the Embassy visits. She says she is here to inform me that my passport has been revoked brings an official letter. This is the American strategy when they think someone will not be extradited. Cancel their passport, inform the host country the passport is now invalid, and have the person deported. With no passport, people can only go one place. Back to wherever they have citizenship. She says “but you don’t seem surprised. You expected this didn’t you?”
Of course I did. In fact I entered Bulgaria on a different passport. Because of this I will not be deported. I did not enter Bulgaria on a different passport for this reason though. I had no idea that I was wanted by Interpol. Several times the Embassy accused me of using my second passport to avoid Interpol. However if I knew I was on Interpol, why would I have used my American passport to check into the hotel? Kimberly was not the one who accused me of this, and I’ve forgotten who it was.
I tell her that mentally I’m fine, but the conditions are very bad and I’m getting sick from the smoke. I also need a blanket, toilet paper, towel, sweater, and reading materials.
Kimberly asks me if I want to speak to the local FBI agent about the situation. I decided it wouldn’t hurt, and besides it will get me out of the room for 45 minutes. If it gets me out of the room I’ll accept visits from mimes.
Tuesday is shower day for our room. Once per week the four of us are locked in a room with two showers and two sinks. I have a beard that grows at a rapid pace, so shaving once a week is useless. Because of this I went straight to the shower while the others shaved. The hot water in the shower only lasted about 5 minutes and I was the only one who got any of the hot water. I don’t have a towel or soap. Vardo lets me use his bottle of shower gel. I do have a scrubbie though! We are given about an hour, so I shower first and drip dry. Showers are also the only times you can shave or clip your nails, because razors and nail clippers are not allowed in the room.
Wed Oct 21 – FBI Visit
Kimberly and the FBI (Pauline?) agent visited today. I knew the evidence against me was false. But my past experience led me to believe going back would be a bad idea. I know that the FBI lady cannot give me her opinion, but I push her a bit. “Do you think I’ll get a fair trial? I’m not asking you to predict an outcome, only do you think the judge will look at the situation?”. I also asked about a jury trial, how I would be transported, how long the court process would take, etc. I decide to go back to the US and sort this out.
At the end, the FBI lady asks me very politely about the Pakistan, Saudi and other stamps in my passport. “Is there anything we should know about?”. I said no, that all that was business for Microsoft. “Are you sure they won’t find anything?”. I said I’m sure. I don’t believe that she personally was trying to suggest anything. But now other events have me concerned that others will attempt to use this as part of a character assassination at a later date, or worse yet accuse me of something worse in an effort to extradite me from Bulgaria. One of Nancy’s lawyers paraded this blog post in court in 2004. Her lawyer tried to paint me as a law evader based on the second to last sentence of the first paragraph. With a passport like mine… one wonders what they might try to say.
Kimberly brings me a Bible, a prayer book, a vitamin journal, and an old Entertainment Weekly. She also brought a sweater, a blanket, and two rolls of toilet paper. At least it was something to read. I read the Entertainment Weekly front to back, including the fine print in the ads. Magazines are good, because they have dual use. After you read them, they are useful as toilet paper.
Thu Oct 22 – On the Roof
Each day we are allowed to go walking on the roof. I had a vision of a roof with a high chain link fence and guards. We could walk about freely, see the city and stretch our legs. It turned cold and the first few days I declined to go because I had no jacket and could only layer my shirts and “pillow case” (my 5th shirt). Today it turned a bit warmer so I went for a “walk”. They handcuffed us and we walked up the stairs to the roof. But it was not the roof. It was the top floor where they put the three of us (Ivitca never went walking) in a room a little smaller than our own room. The only difference is that it was empty except for a small bench on one wall, and it had a hole in the roof for about 2/3rds of it. The only way to walk was to walk in small circles. You could not see anything except for straight up into the sky.
There are several of these “walking” rooms. You can yell over the top to “walking” neighbors. Vardo has been here for more than a year and knows most of the other inmates. He and Nikolai have a conversation by shouting at the hole in the roof. There is also a small hole in the base of the wall that connects the two rooms for drainage purposes. Through this they sell our neighbor a few cigarettes.
Vardo’s radio batteries have finally gotten too weak to power his radio. Nikolai and Ivitca have one though. Unfortunately they listen to one of the most annoying channels I have ever heard in my life. Radio Veronica. This is not to be confused with another Radio Veronica in Bulgaria that plays some kind of modern Bulgarian Folk Music derivative. This Radio Veronica plays an annoying mix of mostly English, and some Bulgarian dance mix. But the most annoying part is that they only seem to have 15 songs. And each hour, on the mark, they repeat it. It also seems to be commercial free. I would have loved a break from the “music” with a commercial. Or were there commercials and my brain had just been lulled into a numbing stupor? Vardo dislikes it too, and describes it as “chuka chuka chuka”.
Thu Oct 22 – If I were Swiss
Today the lawyer visited me. He was not able to bring the translator, but he speaks a bit of Russian. Through basic Russian we are able to communicate. He shows me through the Plexiglas several printed e-mails from my family and allows me to write some responses which he scans and faxes back to them and my US lawyers. One note was to my Federal Lawyer in the US. I told him I planned to come back and that if he felt I was better to stay in Bulgaria, he should let me know ASAP.
Shortly after I returned to my room, the guards came for me again. Today Deborah Ash from the Embassy came and brought me four books of the type I said I liked. One is a large hardback novel. American Embassies have no budget for prisoners, and must rely on donations. Some of the items Deborah gave herself I’m sure and I appreciate the effort. Most other Embassies in the world have budgets for at least toilet paper and the like. The Americans though are too busy spending money in Iraq, and spending millions (yes, they are spending millions against me.) of dollars extraditing people on false information. The Swiss Embassy visits its citizens every week, and brings reading materials and other items. But of course the Swiss have a lot to admire beyond how they treat their citizens. Of course if I was Swiss, I wouldn’t have been in prison in the first place
I don’t remember which day the City of Sofia turned on the heat. In countries like Bulgaria, events are announced on the radio and we heard it. It was Thursday or Friday. I asked Vardo why it was not getting warmer. He replied that the large radiator in the corner of our room is “only for advertisement”. I thought he was joking, but he was not. He spent all last winter in this prison, in a room on the north side. He said its worse there because you don’t even get the sun. He was later moved to our southern facing room. In Bulgaria it regularly reaches -20 in the winter, sometimes colder. He said that there is heat on the first floor, but by the time the water reaches the fourth floor its cold. He said the room temperature last year was about 5 degrees Celsius (less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit) all winter.
Fri Oct 23 – Call the US
Deborah Ash visited again. She asked the guards if I could call one of my lawyers in the US. We talked in the head guard’s office. She had arranged a time with the US lawyer for me to call. We called using her cell phone. As I understood the situation, the FBI would continue to persist in extraditing me and that even if I came back voluntarily, they were interested in a conviction rather than looking at the case or the complete set of issues. As a lawyer, he could not tell me to stay in Bulgaria or to return to the US. But based on this, and statements the FBI had made to my parents earlier, I felt it was much better to remain in Bulgaria and exercise my legal rights against the extradition.
I informed Deborah that I had decided to no longer return voluntarily. Deborah I understand is a strong Christian person and has helped me the best she could within her limits. This was the last Embassy visit from anyone though, and I suspect that after this they told her to cut contact to minimum required. Possibly she was even reprimanded for facilitating the call to my US Lawyer. I suspected this much, but later after I was released and the FBI threatened friends of ours, and tried to kidnap my son from a foreign country, I became convinced of this.
Vardo is sick of Radio Veronica too. He takes the chess board, and lines up 4 rows of 13 batteries and wires them together. 52 batteries. The radio works again! No more Radio Veronica!
Sat Oct 24 – Orange Peel Tea
Vardo’s radio stops working again. He reconfigures the batteries in 9 rows of 6 each. The radio works again.
Because on Tuesday there was a problem with the hot water in the shower, the guards let us into the shower room again. However, again there is no hot water. On most days, we shower over the toilet using several filled 2 liter water bottles warmed up to room temperature. One person hangs over the toilet, and another pours. That is also how we do laundry. Over the toilet, or if we have time in the shower.
I’m quickly losing weight. Which is not a bad thing to a certain point. Vardo tells me that when he entered the prison just over a year ago, he was 100 kg (230 lbs). He is now 70 kg (160 lbs). He also tells me a story of a German guy who was accused of something to do with a large quantity of drugs. He was huge, 150 kg (335 lbs) and lost weight in the months he was in the prison. However since they do not supply you with clothes, and the take your belt, he had to constantly walk around holding his pants up. Some prisoners made makeshift belts and shoelaces from plastic bags, but this only works in less extreme cases.
In the evening Vardo exchanges a few cigarettes to a guard for a run to get some warm water from the shower. We used the peel from an orange we split to make orange peel tea in an old water bottle.
Sun Oct 25 – Hillary Visits
Today was a real surprise. In one of the printed emails relayed to me by Deborah, my brother mentions that he or one of my sisters might come to Bulgaria to try to help. I assume that this may occur in a few weeks. But today my sister Hillary appears with one of my good friends from Bulgaria, Hristo. The Embassy told her not to come to Bulgaria, that there was nothing she could do. Fortunately she ignored them, and was persistent enough to pester the guards until they let her visit me. I find out that there was a hearing scheduled for last Tuesday, but that an appeal was filed and its been moved to this Tuesday. She also has found another, high profile lawyer to take the case. The lawyer has not committed yet, but she will know tomorrow. She promises to visit again tomorrow, even though she is staying a 90 minute drive away.
Vardo’s batteries have died again. Old batteries for some reason the guards collect even though we have a trash bag that we can give to the guards each Sunday. One of the guards gives Vardo 4 old C (the larger ones) batteries because they know he rigs up the old batteries. He rigs them up together, and the radio again works. Die Radio Veronica die!
Mon Oct 26 – Yes or No?
No one visits today, and I have no idea if the new lawyer has agreed to represent me. I found out later, this is because family is only allowed to visit two times a month. My sister arrived on the wrong weekend for family visits, but the guards made an exception yesterday, but cannot do it again. Although even in their denial, she says they were friendly and tried to help the best they could. Whatever I’ve said bad about this prison, I won’t say anything bad about the guards. I’ve complained to the Embassy about this place, they offered to take it up with the management. But that won’t help, the management isn’t the issue. I’ve lived in enough countries to know whats going on. Someone up top is skimming money off, combined with not enough money being allocated. The guards do the best they can with what they have.
I’ve been getting funny responses in Bulgaria when people ask me questions. I usually understand what they are saying, but out of habit I shake my head yes or no, even though I know the Bulgarian words for yes and no. People keep getting confused, and today I understand why. Up and down means no, and side to side means yes. Opposite most of the rest of the world. I had long ago heard there was some place like this, but always imagined it to be some far flung isolated mountain country. It turns out it is Bulgaria.
Today the guards came to the room and looked at everyone’s bed, and took one of my blankets. We are only allowed to have three. I only had three, and now I have two plus a small one given to me by the Embassy. I’m quite pissed off though, because I’m the only one without a extra cushion and that blanket I had folded up and stuffed into holes in the center of the bed where its broken.
Tue Oct 27 – Release
Today is the next trial. There are three judges, and its an appeals court. The new lawyer is there, as is the previous one. In Bulgaria you are allowed to appoint up to three lawyers. The lawyers argue that the facts stated are impossible and show evidence to demonstrate this. They also argue the previous points, but most importantly they argue that I should not be detained. I was detained on the charge of kidnapping, when I could not have kidnapped anyone. The judges recess, and after returning agree. However the treaty does not allow them to look at any evidence at all, they can only decide to extradite me or not. But they agree that the charge of kidnapping is too harsh and agree to allow me to stay in Bulgaria on a lesser charge. I promise not to leave Bulgaria until the next hearing. I am now allowed to go to stay with friends.
I still have to go back to the prison first. On the way back some idiot among the bunch pisses off one of the guards and they shove eight of us in the back of a van. Six would be crowded. I’m last in, and have to adopt some kind of half standing while handcuffed to another person.
We arrive back at the detention center and I start to give away the few items I have. The book I read, The Bible, a sweater, toilet paper, blanket, etc. Vardo has a fleece with Switzerland on it. He knows how much I love Switzerland and he gives it to me. I really appreciated the gift. I would never have asked him for it or anything, especially because I am being released and he is still there. About an hour later the guards come for me and release me.
I walked out of the building and facility but could not find my sister or Hristo. Finally after a few minutes they appear. They had been waiting hours, but finally the call of nature was overpowering. I was shaking from malnutrition so we head to get some hot tea and let me settle down.
We went to a nearby convenience store and I bought some drinks and food. I was shook uncontrollably for hours. We drove to Plovdiv which is about 2 hours by car and went to a hospital. At the hospital they ran various tests. They could not find anything specific, but said that my neural system was an unusually elevated rate. I suspect malnutrition and cigarette smoke were the cause. I’ve always been affected by cigarette smoke, and being contained in a box with chain smokers for two weeks certainly was not good.
Thu Nov 12 – Plovdiv Detention Center
Around 6:00pm the police showed up to arrest me again. They had no idea what for, they only had papers from Sofia instructing them to arrest me again for “International Parental Kidnapping”. The said that I was being detained for 72 hours and asked me to gather my “main things”. Knowing the likely conditions, I went through my items and packed everything possible except for items I knew they would not allow in a cell. I also packed a radio, batteries, toilet paper, cucumbers, tomatoes, cookies, and several kilograms (a few pounds) of other food on hand. The police were polite and waited for 30 minutes while I packed. About 6:30pm we left and they took me in a car to a detention center in Plovdiv.
One thing was immediately obvious, this detention center was in much better shape and newer than the one I had previously been detained in at Sofia. I went through the intake procedure again. The officer spoke no English, but slowly spoke some Russian. He took my radio and said that I would receive it after they were able to check it.
After some time I was taken to cell 218 on the second floor. The room was very different. The room was 12.5 sq meters (135 square ft) and there were only two beds. It was about the size of a hotel room.
It was another room dedicated for foreigners and there was one person in it already. He didn’t speak English or Russian. By this time my Bulgarian had become very basic, and many Bulgarian nouns are very similar to Russian. I also remembered a bit of Turkish from when I lived in Turkey. Speaking TurBulRuski, he and I were able to communicate basic ideas. He was Turkish and his name was Feda. He was 50 years old was married to a Bulgarian woman. He had been in this facility for 20 days now. I was never able to understand what why he here. Feda smoked, but only occasionally. The room also had very high ceilings, and a window which opened enough to allow fresh air. Because of this, his smoking was tolerable.
Many of the details I will describe may seem minute. However they are in great contrast to the Sofia detention center, and collectively constituted at least a more humane way to detain accused people. The window was huge, and transparent. It was high up, but you could see the sky, birds, and stars. If you stood on the bed, you could see trees and other buildings. It was also double paned, so when closed it provided insulation from the cold weather. There were hooks to hang and dry clothing. Each bed had a small locker underneath for personal belongings, and there was a shelf near the sink. None of these basic items existed in Sofia.
The table was of adequate size to allow two people to eat, and there were two stools. The stools were circular again, but large enough that you could actually sit on them with both butt cheeks. In Sofia the single stool was tiny and only appropriate for a small child. The room had sufficient room to move around. The room had heat, and there were no roaches.
The beds had mattresses. They were not luxurious, nor even what I would call comfortable. But they were about 8 cm (3 inches) thick and tolerable. This was very welcome, because even weeks later I still had sores on both sides of my body from the bed in Sofia. They even gave me a pillow case, although I had brought my own pillow and case having expected the same conditions as Sofia.
The bathroom area contained a pit style toilet, and it was right in front of the sink. To use the sink, you had to straddle the toilet. There was no mechanism to flush the toilet, so we had to fill a bucket from the sink, and then dump the water into the toilet. In the mornings, warm water was turned on for about an hour and you could wash up. Feda left on the hot water tap at night, and in the morning when it came on it would wake us up. It was not hot, but was lukewarm. It made washing clothes and ourselves a lot easier than having to use freezing cold water, or room temperature water in bottles. There was a mirror, and we were allowed nail clippers, disposable razors and other items that were prohibited in Sofia. We were also allowed to keep our belt, and shoe laces.
The room contained a fluorescent light on the ceiling which provided much better lighting. This was great for reading late at night, but made sleeping more difficult as it was left on 24 hours as well. I was not able to understand from Feda how often family was allowed to visit, but it seemed that it was more frequently than in Sofia.
On the wall was a 12 volt socket like a car cigarette lighter, and an antenna jack. I asked Feda if it worked, and he said yes. His wife was going to bring him a TV on Monday. Televisions and other small appliances were allowed. There was no clock, so it was very hard to know what time it was other than by the amount of sunlight outside.
I had not eaten dinner, and evidently I arrived after it was served in the detention center. Some of the food I brought was perishable, so I decided that it should be eaten first. I ate snezhanka (snow) salad. It is one of my favorites. I offered Feda some of my food, and he chose a large container (250 ml, 16 oz) of yogurt that I had. He seemed hesitant at first, but he easily downed the yogurt in just a few seconds. He seemed very pleased and thanked me profusely. He said that was the first yogurt he had in almost a month.
Being in prison, you have a lot of time to think and notice small details. I noticed the pants I bought last week were from a store called “New York”. The tag on my pants read this, as well as their brand. The brand name was SMOG. How fitting. I read for a bit, and finally went to sleep. The night passed very slowly. I felt like I slept for a very long time. Each time I woke up I thought it should be very late morning, but it was still dark.
Fri Nov 13 – To Sofia and back
The door had a small door in it that the guards could open to give us messages, and serve food. It opened and closed silently. This was actually very welcome, because in Sofia to open the doors required a lot of locks and bars to be moved around, and it was very loud. If the guards opened your door, or even any door near you it woke up everyone. Breakfast arrived, and was a quarter loaf of bread and 50 grams (2 oz) of salty cheese. I shared more food with Feda, and he shared some yellow cheese that he had. From my stock of food, we had bread (my bread was better than the stuff from the prison), cream cheese, bananas, and bean salad.
Without a clock, its very hard to tell what time it is. I did not even know what time we woke up. I hoped that soon the radio would arrive, so we would have music, news and time.
The guard came and took me to see the doctor. The doctor spoke good Russian and did a basic check up. I saw from his watch that it was 10:00 am. The guard took me back to room 118, which was wrong, and then to the proper room, 218. This guard spoke a little Russian and asked me why I was here. I tried to explain it, but his Russian was not advanced enough to understand what I told him.
When I returned, Feda said that I if I saw a doctor, that I would be staying here and not going to Sofia. At this point, I had no idea what was going on. The initial detainment was only for 72 hours, which means that I would be released Sunday evening, or detained further. But today was Friday, so anything that would occur had to happen today. Would they have hearing without me? The case was in Sofia, and I was 2 hours away in Plovdiv. The courts usually finish about 4pm, so if they were going to move me it had to be soon.
I settled in for a bit and talked with Feda more. I was very interested in the conditions in this facility. I had seen fenced in areas so I asked if we were allowed outside at any time. He said only on the roof in a small room for an hour a day around 2pm.
Around 11:00 am the guard came and told me to get ready, I was being transferred to Sofia. I quickly packed my items and left a few food items with Feda.
I was taken outside where a large greyhound style bus covered in metal grates was waiting. Inside the bus were individual cages that held about 4 people each and had a wooden bench. The bus proceeded on rural roads towards Sofia at a high rate of speed. The driver constantly over took farm machinery and cars. Somewhere between Plovdiv and Sofia the bus stopped at another facility. Some prisoners were offloaded, and others were taken on. From there we proceeded towards Sofia and eventually moved on to the main highway.
In Sofia we arrived at one of the main prisons. We were offloaded and then moved into some crowded holding rooms. We were allowed to use the toilet and prisoners began to smoke. Guards would come in, call a name and take a prisoner. Finally someone called my name. Instead of going further into the prison like the others, they took me outside to a waiting transport van with a driver and guard. I wasn’t really sure what time it was, but it was late afternoon, probably after 4pm. I was able to speak to the guard through the grate and he spoke Russian. I asked him where we were going, and he said to the court house. I asked him if there would be a hearing today because it was getting very late, and he said yes it would be today. He didn’t have very much information other than his orders to escort me to the court house, so we chatted for a while.
We arrived at the court house and I was put into a holding cell in the basement again. This time I was alone as all the others had already been taken back to the detention centers. The guards by now knew me pretty well. Not only was I in the court house far more frequently than most, but I was a foreigner. They cheerfully welcomed me back and asked how Osama was, and asked if I liked Obama. One of them said something really crude (and true) about Bush.
After some time I was taken upstairs to a courtroom where my friends were waiting. The new extradition documents had arrived in Bulgaria and the prosecutor said he was obliged to detain me again. I don’t know if this is true or not, but while looking at the new documents we see that the US explicitly requested that I be detained again. A judge appeared and after reviewing the case again released me to stay with friends. But I was not free to go quite yet, procedure had to be followed. Worse yet, it was Friday night and most of those who push the paperwork had already gone home for the weekend. The judge said he would see what he could do, but that I might have to go back to the detention center until Monday when paperwork could be made to do whatever it is that paperwork does.
I was taken out of the court room, but not to the basement. Most of the guards had gone home and I was the only prisoner left. The basement was cold and not the most comfortable place for the guards. There was a small room between the hallway and the stairs that led to the basement detention area where there were always a few guards. There was a TV, radio, a computer, and heat. There was also a very large faded wall map from before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The guards took me to this room and said we needed to wait for paperwork. They said they had found someone who was working late but that it would still take some time to process. We talked for a while in Russian about my situation. One of the guards had a dislike for the American Government and we got along quite well. After a while he said he couldn’t stay any longer and that his wife was waiting. He wished me well and left me with the remaining guard.
Finally the paperwork was ready. My friends were still in the courthouse waiting, but they told me because of procedure they could not release me here. They had to transport me back to the Sofia detention center and I would be released from there. I was taken through the basement again and to the back courtyard where the transport vans waited. The van took me back to the Sofia detention center, a trip of about 30 minutes.
After a brief stay in a holding cell at the detention center one of the senior guards came out. He took me to a small desk to fill out and sign some paperwork. It was the guard with a Russian wife, and he spoke excellent Russian. He wished me well, and I asked him to say hello to Vardo, Ivitca and Nikolai for me.
From there I met my friends again outside of the compound and we travelled again back to Plovdiv.
I told the judges about the prison. I told the lawyers. Everyone responded “everyone knows”. If that is the case, that must mean “no one cares”. The lawyer told me that there are already several cases filed at the European Court of Human Rights against this facility.
Vardo has been to Russian prison before, and they all evidently know what a normal Bulgarian prison is like. You can walk around, there is a common TV. Three meals a day. Outdoor time. They all dream to go to prison. How bad must a place be when people dream to go to a prison? Ivitca was in a prison in Serbia for 6 years and he showed me pictures. Even by American standards it seemed a dream. He got to go home on weekends. He had a TV, DVD player and microwave in his room. It wasn’t luxury, but it certainly looked reasonably comfortable albeit still boring. How can Serbia provide such things and an EU country like Bulgaria treat people worse that most countries treat pound animals?
After my release I found out that there is a new detention center and that I was in the old one. I have no idea what it is like, but it certainly must be better. Why did the Embassy make no request for me to be placed there or moved? Is it yet more intimidation? Were they instructed to let me stew there so that I might consider going voluntarily to the US just to get out of such a place? I don’t know. But I suspect if I was Swiss, German, or Canadian I would have been placed elsewhere, moved, or released on home arrest to a hotel. Possibly the new center was full, but there was no effort by The American Embassy to complain about the conditions aside from raising it with management, who is powerless to do anything.
Nikolai had several large swastikas tattooed on him. The first time I saw them it worried me. I can only assume that when he was younger he may have been a skinhead. I estimate he was only 25 now, but he showed no signs of aggression or hate while in the prison. He made a few crude jokes about a black prisoner from Africa, but didn’t seem hateful to the prisoner. In fact I found Nikolai to be extremely kind for a person of his age. I guess people change. He also had a creative way to work out. He built dumb bells by filling several empty 2 liter bottles and binding them together with plastic bags.
Vardo faked some bank documents worth about 30,000 Euros because his mother needed money. Nikolai robbed a professor’s house and “cleaned him out”. Ivitca was accused of shooting a police officer. However he had security camera footage from various stores showing him clearly in a city over an hour away from the site of the shooting.
Vardo has been in the detention center for more than a year. Ivitca for about 2 months, and Nikolai for 3 months. They told me I had the lucky bed, because I was the sixth person to come and go in the last 3 months. The point I wish to make is that the conditions in this detention center are not humane. Whatever you think of violent criminals, only one of my roommates was accused of a violent crime, yet our conditions were worse than many violent offenders receive. This is also a facility designed for very short term detention, yet most people spend several months in these conditions. It is a detention center, for people accused of a crime, not convicted prisoners. If people are innocent until proven guilty, and especially for non violent ones, how can such a harsh treatment be justified?
Television teaches us that criminals will always say “I didn’t do it”, but that’s not true. Maybe when they are first caught, or in court they say that, but between prisoners it was not that way. The ones I met clearly said they did it, or they didn’t. While waiting for various court hearings in the basement, I had a chance to talk to many of them in half Bulgarian, half Russian. Given that these are just accused people, I estimate that about 30% of them are probably innocent.
I consulted with a civil rights lawyer and he assured me that we could win a judgement as so many had been won already. But the result would not change anything. I decided to go forward on principle, but then bigger problems arose and I had to focus on them instead.
The Story Continues…
I was eventually released from prison, but was still stuck in Bulgaria and could not leave. Another amazing adventure! Read it in Trapped in Bulgaria.