A Bulgarian presidential candidate has been arrested after leading an attack on a transgender event at an LGBTQ community center.
On Oct. 30, Boyan Rasate, a far-right nationalist, led about a dozen supporters into the Rainbow Hub Community Centre building in Sofia, where they spray-painted walls, destroyed furniture, and assaulted human rights activists, LGBTQ Nation reports.
Rasate faces up to five years in prison after being charged with hooliganism and causing minor bodily injury, after allegedly punching a woman in the face and brandishing a knife.
Manuela Popova, communications manager for Bilitis Foundation, which helps run the Rainbow Hub, told Vice she arrived about 15 minutes after the attackers had left.
“The first girl I saw was crying so hard, she collapsed on the floor and said ‘It was my fault, I opened the door to them,’” Popova said. “I had to hold her in my arms for several minutes just to try to calm her down. Everybody was so scared. It was heartbreaking to see your friends and your community like this.”
Gloria Filipova, the woman Rasate allegedly punched in the face, told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service that Rasate “hit me and just kept coming” after she tried to stop the mob from entering. “Everyone else followed him in.”
“They just started throwing and breaking things, destroying kitchen cabinets, while shouting that we were corrupting children,” said Filipova, the Rainbow Hub’s project coordinator. “He stopped in front of me, and that scared me because he had already hit me once and I didn’t know if he would strike me again.
“I told him they had done their job and could leave. He said, ‘No, I still have one more job,’ and pulled out a knife. Luckily, he didn’t use it to harm any of us,” Filipova added.
Simeon Vasilev, chair of Gays and Lesbians Accepted in Society, the other group that operates the Rainbow Hub, told VICE World News that he hadn’t “seen a crime like this before” and “never imagined they would go this far.”
“It’s not just the physical thing — we will repaint, we will rebuild,” Vasilev said. “But this is something that will leave long-lasting damage. Everyone is feeling insecure, everyone is feeling afraid.”
On Tuesday, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, tweeted that the attack was “another worrying example of mounting threats against NGOs working for #equalrights for the LGBTI community.”
Rasate, known for his anti-gay and anti-immigrant rhetoric, is the founder of the Bulgarian National Union party, which no longer remains under his control. All of the country’s major political parties, including politicians from across the spectrum, have condemned his actions.
After participating in a television program about the upcoming Nov. 14 election, Rasate was arrested late Tuesday and charged with hooliganism and inflicting an injury on Filipova.
Bulgaria’s Central Election Commission removed Rasate’s legal immunity, which he held as a presidential candidate, hours after prosecutors announced on Nov. 1 that they’d found enough evidence to charge him with “acts that grossly violate public order.”
“The crimes committed stand out with their extreme audacity and disrespect for the democratic foundations of the state,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Ambassadors from several countries have condemned the attack on the Rainbow Hub.
“LGBTQI+ rights are basic human rights, and like many Bulgarians we reject violence and intolerance, which have no place in any democratic society,” the U.S. Embassy in Sofia said in a statement.
— U.S. Embassy Sofia (@USEmbassySofia) November 1, 2021
ILGA-Europe, an NGO advocating for LGBTQ people, urged Bulgarian authorities “to publicly condemn the attacks, investigate, and sanction the attackers.”
Rasate, who has been arrested several times for disrupting public order and making racist and xenophobic remarks, declined to confirm whether he was involved in the incident.
“Whether I participated or not, as I told other colleagues of yours, we are currently in an election campaign and I will not give an answer,” he told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service.
The attack has drawn attention to the discrimination that the LGBTQ community faces in Bulgaria, with Amnesty International saying in a statement, “This appalling incident has exposed the shortcomings of Bulgaria’s laws and justice system,” namely that homophobia is not classified as a hate crime.
The Bilitis Foundation said it recently filed a petition with more than 8,000 signatures demanding the country’s criminal code include hate crimes on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“For years, we have been trying to bring about changes in legislation that addresses hate crimes caused by homophobia and transphobia. Unfortunately, these attempts for almost 15 years have so far been unsuccessful,” Filipova said, expressing her hope that Bulgaria’s political establishment will now realize how serious homophobia is.
Vasilev, the GLAS chair, noted that “what we’ve been missing so far is the political support.”
“This horrible incident is perhaps going to be a tipping point where, I hope, the next parliament will support us in changing the criminal code,” he told Vice. “Society is acknowledging this is something really bad.”
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