Trapped in Bulgaria

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Except for the period in November when I was rearrested, from October 27th on I was allowed to stay with friends in Bulgaria under a form of house arrest after I was released from the Bulgarian prison. All of my travel documents remained seized. My name was entered into the border control computers and I was prohibited from leaving Bulgaria.

Stolen Credit Card

Since October 13th Interpol has held all of my credit cards, passport, and other ID cards. They were placed under seal and were to remain sealed until the final trial. My Diners Club is my back up credit card and I had only used it twice in the previous year. Despite it being held as sealed evidence, somehow on November 18th, three charges were made on my card in the United Kingdom.

One of them appears to be a physical swipe, which means my card has been cloned. I’m not familiar with card cloning, but I believe to clone a card it requires the physical card and not just the number in most cases. If my card has been in a sealed evidence room by Interpol in Bulgaria, how is it that my credit card has been cloned and is now being used in the United Kingdom? If the evidence has been tampered with, what else might there be? Will my computer now contain plans for a terrorist plot? At first I thought the use of my credit card was simple opportunism, but based on later experiences I believe it was an attempt to limit by ability to purchase an airline ticket by forcing me to cancel my credit cards.

More Charges Arrive

A hearing regarding the final decision on my extradition case is scheduled for November 24th. It is clear that my extradition should be denied if the law is followed, and the US Embassy is aware of this fact. We are anticipating this court date and quite excited.

On November 23rd, just one day before the hearing which should set me free we receive a call from the police. The timing of this is extremely suspect. My American passport has been seized by the US Embassy, but my other passport remains in police custody. It is this second passport which I traveled to and used to enter Bulgaria. The police officer informs us that there are new charges against me, and this time they are from Bulgaria. An investigation has been opened accusing me of using a fake passport to enter Bulgaria. The passport is not a fake, in fact it is a new high security type. The Americans know it is genuine and they even contacted the issuing government who has verified it is genuine. But someone has told the Bulgarian authorities that it is fake. They cannot tell us where the charge came from, but it is obvious that it came from the US Government.

The police investigator repeatedly refers to my passport as “his fake passport” as if he is already decided. If formal charges are filed, it will take months or possibly even a year to sort out. During this time I could be detained in prison.

Final Hearing

November 24th arrived and our final hearing was scheduled for 10:00am. We traveled to Sofia and met with my lawyer. This was the first time I had entered the courthouse through the front entrance, and I almost didn’t make it. The security requires identification of all visitors, but I had none. All of my identification cards were still being held by the Bulgarian authorities. After a quick exchange between security and my lawyer, security was convinced that I should be allowed to enter.

A little past 10:00 am, the hearing started. Kimberly Atkinson was present from the Embassy with a translator. There was a panel consisting of three senior judges. In the end they decide as we expected, according to the Extradition Treaty with the US, the crime I have been accused of is not extraditable. The US knew this from the start, yet detained and harassed me in Bulgaria for nearly 2 months. I’m not free yet though because the prosecution can appeal within 7 days. Because of this the items that were seized are not returned to me yet, and I still cannot leave Bulgaria.

Sargent Stadanko’s Bulgarian Brother

I never thought I would actually meet Sargent Stadanko. In fact, Stadanko might be a Bulgarian name. After the hearing we met with the lawyer and at 2:30 pm went to Police Station #1 in Sofia. What transpired easily became the weirdest event of the week, possibly the month. We were at the police station to meet with the investigator who was investigating my passport. Since we only heard about this yesterday, we had very little time to prepare supporting paperwork. Despite this, we have copies of an apostilled letter from the passport office and Department of Internal Security. We also have copies of Federal court documents proving my second citizenship. These documents counter act most of the investigators allegations. We had hoped he would look at the situation and decide that the investigation was a simple misunderstanding started for political reasons. Instead, he turns quite hostile. Evidently he has been trained by the FBI, or possibly Lance Woody.

We are in his office with my Bulgarian lawyer and a translator provided by Bulgarian Government. The translator has been involved in the case since the first court day and has become quite familiar with the case as he has been at hearing. The investigator refuses to give the name of his supervisor, or the prosecutor for this case to my lawyer. Even after she pleads and eventually forcefully requests it from him, he refuses and says we have no right to such information. He has a large folder of documents relating to me that is an inch thick. I can see it contains the extradition request and many other documents unrelated to the passport investigation. It also contains a CD, and documents that could only have come from the US Embassy.

I ask to inspect my passport to make sure it has not been damaged. Stadanko refuses. The passport is in a plastic bag sealed with a single staple. It could be easily taken out without bothering the staple, but he removes and restaples it every time he takes the passport in and out. He takes the passport in and out several times. Despite being presented with official documentation he continues to insist the passport is fake. He says the criminal process has already started and it will take at least 2 months to sort out, possibly even a year. My lawyer objects and informs him that the extradition has been denied, and that next week I will be free to travel but require my passport to do so. The investigator says that an expert has already looked at my passport and has said that it has not been altered. If it has not been altered, then the only possibility is that I found someone who looks just like me and was born on the same date and stole it? We ask him this question, but he refuses to speculate how this might be possible.

I asked the investigator why he had not initiated a diplomatic request to the issuing country of my passport regarding its authenticity. Yesterday my wife contacted the Attorney General’s Office and they said that is what should be done if Bulgaria had any concerns about my passport. The investigator said that the police could not do this, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bulgaria, and that would take a lot of time.

Next he says that he is not sure that it is me in the passport photo. The photo is only 2 months old because I recently renewed the passport. It is obvious to anyone that the photo is me. I ask him to simply look at the picture and then at me. He says he cannot do that, an expert must do it. He says that I must be photographed and fingerprinted so that an expert can verify if it is me or not in the passport photo. I agreed to be photographed, but I told him absolutely under no circumstances would I consent to being fingerprinted. I had not been convicted of any crime, and despite much worse allegations, they had not fingerprinted me so far and there was no reason for him to do so. My passport does not contain my fingerprint, so what purpose would fingerprinting me serve? After all, where would these fingerprints end up next? Planted in some crime scene? After we overcame that objection, he said that by Bulgarian law people are required to carry identification. Since he had my passport, I had no identification so he needed the fingerprints to issue me a temporary Bulgarian identification card. I stood my ground and refused to be finger printed. He responded by saying “Well then the investigation will take longer because we don’t have your fingerprints.”

We went down to another office where a photographer took my picture. After the photo was taken, the photographer asked to see my passport. The investigator replied “It is sealed evidence, you can’t see it”. I guess that staple is some kind of official staple. Both my lawyer and the translator laughed at his response. We asked him how long it would take an expert to compare the photo with the one in the passport. He responded that he had no idea, it was up to the expert and that it could take weeks or months.
So now that I’ve been set free from extradition, somehow magic new charges have appeared to detain me in Bulgaria and prevent me from returning home. The investigator refused to say where the charges came from, but it is pretty obvious based on his behavior and other factors that someone is pressuring the Bulgarian police through unofficial channels to pursue this malicious investigation.

Two days later the investigator calls my Bulgarian lawyer and tells her that he has asked the prosecutor if it is okay to give the prosecutor’s information to my lawyer. He says he has initiated a formal request with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact the issuing country of my passport.

But then the weirdness returns. The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that they have no diplomatic relations with the issuing country and does not know how to contact them. We suggested I even offered them a phone number of the proper Government office and a specific person’s name. Surely someone could pick up a phone and make a call to find out at least who to talk to in this matter. Official diplomatic relations are not required for diplomatic communications, and I know for a fact there are protocols for communicating through another country’s Embassy which is in Bulgaria and who can represent my country in such matters. To be clear, there is no dispute between Bulgaria and my country, but Bulgaria and my country are not exactly neighbors and don’t have close economic or other ties. The two countries are friendly enough that my passport allows me entry into Bulgaria without a visa.

The Freedom Tease

The end of the business day of December 1 was the deadline for the prosecution to file an appeal regarding the decision which denied my extradition to the US. No appeal was filed, so the decision to deny my extradition is now final. However I am still stuck in Bulgaria. It will take another week or two to remove my name from the border control system which prevented me from leaving Bulgaria. The items which were taken from me also have not been returned, but should be returned next week. Well at least that is what should happen, but that is not what happened.

The Wizard of ID

I have no identity documents in my possession. My US passport has been seized by the US Embassy, and all my other ID documents are being held by the Bulgarian police. Now that the decision about my extradition is final, we inquire about receiving my items back. We are told that to start the process I must present identification to them. Bulgaria has bureaucracy, but this goes beyond bureaucracy. This is intentional stonewalling.
Without my passport I am unable to leave Bulgaria. Even if I succeeded in leaving Bulgaria there is no where I can go without a passport. They say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was able to send a proper query but has not received an answer yet. They also informed us that the lines of communication between the police and Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very slow and has to go through some sort of bureaucracy.

I entered Bulgaria on a standard 90 day entry. If I do not leave Bulgaria by early January I can be put into a detention center again. It appears that it is their plan to delay the return of my passport and then arrest me for overstaying in Bulgaria.

Transparency in Government

On December 11th we traveled to Sofia to receive my items excluding my passport. My passport was now being held in a different police station. The police captain provided a letter response to my complaint about my credit cards being used while they were in sealed evidence. He was visibly upset at the accusation and seemed glad to get this case out of his hair. He showed us how the evidence bags were sealed with wax seals. However we already know that the bags had been opened to remove my passport. And more to the point, the officers wrote my full credit card numbers on the evidence sheet which has been passed around numerous departments of both the Bulgarian and US governments. But here is the real kicker. The credit cards were stored in a sealed bag. However the bag was transparent and loose. I quickly demonstrated to him how you could slide the cards around and easily read any details off the front or back without unsealing the bag.

Finally we received my computer, MP3 player, family photos, credit cards, and many other items. But we still did not have my passport.

The Passport Paradox

Last week the prosecutor requested a certified copy of a specific document from the issuing government of my passport. However until then I remain without identification which is an offense in most countries. Not only can I not stay in any hotels, but if I am stopped on the street I can be taken to jail. Realizing this, the prosecutor requested the police who are investigating my passport to issue me a temporary ID card. The police replied to him with a nasty letter stating that since they believe my passport is fake, they have no way to issue me a temporary ID as they cannot prove who I am. This is quite amazing, considering they felt there was no question of my identity when they arrested me. I’ve stated previously that there was unofficial pressure being placed on someone in the police station by the American authorities, and this seems to confirm it.

Christmas was approaching and although we had delivered the documents the prosecutor requested no news had been received regarding my passport. My deadline to leave Bulgaria or be detained for overstaying my allowed 90 days was quickly approaching. On December 23rd we travelled again to Sofia. This time to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to try to extend my visa. We had tried this before, but they refused to do it without my passport. This time we tried with letters from the lawyer. We were not successful. We asked to speak to a supervisor, and the reply we received was that they could not issue an extension without my passport, and that the supervisor was already aware of my case.

We also went to the airport. I now had some identification including my national identity card. Other countries would not accept it, but my home country would. If I could get out of Bulgaria, I might be able to travel home using it. Unfortunately passport control told us that there was no way I could leave Bulgaria without my passport.

On Christmas eve we learned that the prosecutor had received the documents and the official translations that they had requested, but that the prosecutor was now on vacation until January 11th. This too seemed suspicious as my deadline to leave Bulgaria or be detained was January 9th. We asked if any other prosecutor or staff could act instead as now it seemed just to be a matter of paperwork. We were told that in fact another prosecutor in the same office legally could act, but when we contacted them they explicitly refused to act. We were told to wait until the original prosecutor returned from vacation.

In Eastern European countries, although many government offices remain open between Christmas and New Year Day, many of the supervisors take their vacations leaving the workers to themselves. The workers often go home early, and drink heavily on the job. I’m not making a derogatory statement about Bulgaria, its common in Russia and other countries as well. The main point being – not much gets done between Christmas and the second week of January.

We began to consider which of our back up plans we should execute, or if we should wait and see what happened on January 10th and 11th. Then the day after Christmas something unexpected occurred. We received a call from someone who we had no previous contact with. This person told us to proceed to Sofia again as soon as possible and gave us an address where we should go to get my passport. We questioned the person a bit, but not much information was forthcoming. All we could glean is that this person was somehow connected to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the prosecutors office.

The next day we drove to Sofia again. We located the address and took the elevator to the floor of the office. A small hallway led behind the elevator bank to some toilets. Behind the toilets was another small room with a glass window. A few people worked behind the glass window and they had my passport in the officially stapled plastic bag. Within just a few minutes they released the passport to us and I was able to remove the official staple. We inquired again, but aside from the fact that this office was somehow connected to the prosecutors office and that they have been given instructions very recently to release my passport, they knew nothing. We thanked them, took my passport and left.

Who or why this person called on the day after Christmas remains a mystery. From what we can gather, it was someone who was familiar with the case and saw what was going on. They appear to have stepped in and acted quickly. Whether or not it was someone in authority, or someone who acted in a time where most others were drunk or on holiday, I don’t know.

Leaving Bulgaria

My next step was to get out of Bulgaria. That might seem easy now that I had my passport, but it wasn’t. There were no direct flights to my home country and I had to transit several other countries. The Bulgarian border control already had my name, and there was a good possibility that the US would be informed of my departure or any airline itineraries.

We returned to Plovdiv and began to make plans for my departure.

Living in Bulgaria

We spent a lot of time going back and forth so Sofia. I also spent a lot of time dealing with legal documents, lawyers, and trying to spread my story abroad. But in total I was in Bulgaria just shy of three months. This left a lot of time to pass.

I stayed with a family who I knew in Plovdiv. I knew other people in Plovdiv as well and had visited both families several years ago. I slept in the kitchen of a family who had a young son and daughter. For the time I was there I became a part of the family and the daughter took an immediate liking to me and called me Uncle. We did what families and good friends do. Watch TV, cook meals, go to the mountains on the weekends, and so forth. We celebrated Christmas, birthdays and so forth. I am eternally grateful to my friends in Bulgaria who allowed me to intrude on their daily life and live in their kitchen.

On the weekends we went to the mountains and often visited historic monasteries. We also had several trips to the Black Sea which I will detail in a later chapter. It was winter though, so the Black Sea was cold and grey.

During the week though I was a bit constrained. In most of Europe, and especially Eastern Europe police can stop you on the street and demand identification. Its not a frequent occurrence, but if it happens and you are a foreigner without ID it can lead to a lot of trouble. I had no identification, so going out was risky. During the days though I often did walk nearby to the grocery, to the mall, or around green areas. But I had to be cautious and stay close to home.

Some might assume that my experience has left me with a bad feeling about Bulgaria, but quite the opposite is true. What happened in Bulgaria was not any fault of the Bulgarian Government, but instead their obligations to treaties which are forced on them by the US Government. Bulgaria has issues like any other Eastern European country which spent its recent history under Communism. But I liked Bulgaria a lot and if I am ever free to travel would readily return to visit. If I could have secured residency and moved my family to Bulgaria we would have as we would have been safe there after my extradition was denied.

Bulgarian Prison

Missed my Bulgarian prison story? Check it out here.