A tribute to Rusi Stanev

I would like to say a few words, on behalf of all MDAC and on my own behalf, on hearing the news that our dear client, collaborator, friend and hero Rusi Stanev has died, at the age of 61. My heart goes out to people whose lives were touched by Rusi, to the Bulgarian disability rights movement, and to my colleagues who have kindly shared their memories and thoughts about what Rusi meant to them.

Rusi’s human rights horror story started in the year 2000 when a relative had him placed under guardianship behind his back. In 2002, an ambulance arrived at Rusi’s home. He was told to get in and was driven 400kms to an institution for men with “mental disorders” in the village of Pastra. He was not told why he was being taken there. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited the institution and found it unfit for human habitation. It was filthy and freezing in the winters. Rusi had to share a bedroom with several other men. He told us how he woke up regularly to find others dead. He spent eight years there.

A national NGO, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, met Rusi during one of their monitoring visits. We worked with the Helsinki Committee to try and get him out of the institution. In 2006 he escaped, but was arrested and taken back. His requests to leave were denied. We went to court, and the judges said as a person under guardianship he was a non-person before the law. Bulgarian justice having failed him, in 2006 we and the Helsinki Committee worked together to take his quest for freedom to the European Court of Human Rights.

There were two oral hearings in Strasbourg, and we brought Rusi and his lawyer Aneta Genova over both times. It was Rusi’s first time out of the country. We had to apply for a passport. It was his first time on a plane. It was his first time eating foreign food. He and I enjoyed the French wine. 

After six years of litigation, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued its judgment in 2012. Lawyers often describe their cases as ground-breaking, so don’t take my word for it – google the many commentaries and citations of this judgment that have appeared about this case in the years since. Stanev v. Bulgaria has been cited in numerous academic publications, and by courts around Europe. It was the first time the European Court found the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment had been violated in a disability case. It was the first time the Court found the right to liberty had been violated in a social care case. These two findings effectively changed the European law.

The case made a clear connection between the needless and brutal system of guardianship, and institutionalisation – two major priorities of the global disability rights movement, and two issues that MDAC has been working on since our inception in 2002. The judgment acted as a catalyst for change. Bulgaria ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The government initiated guardianship law reform efforts and invited NGOs to participate. Rusi, and we, worked with two NGOs, the Bulgarian Centre for Nonprofit Law and GIP-Sofia on these reforms. We took the lead in advocating at the Council of Europe, whose Committee of Ministers last year issued a strong statement to the Bulgarian government that they needed to take more action to make good the systemic human rights violations identified by the European Court of Human Rights in Rusi’s case.

Rusi was eventually able to leave the social care institution. But almost immediately, he was placed in a secure psychiatric hospital, and it seemed like we were back to square one. Only through the constant advocacy, support and legal actions taken by Aneta Genova, our incredible lawyer in Bulgaria, did he get out.

After that, however, he was effectively abandoned by the State. No support for the trauma he had suffered. No rehabilitation. Nowhere to live. At points, he became homeless. Rusi was grateful that he had survived and often talked about his guilt at leaving other people behind. This had always reminded me of Primo Levi’s work on the holocaust. Steadily, Rusi found his own voice and in recent years regularly spoke publicly about his battle for freedom, both in Bulgaria and around Europe.

My colleagues invested a huge amount of time and effort on Rusi and his case. They have chain-smoked with Rusi, danced with Rusi and despaired with Rusi. Rusi developed a friendship with many of us, and as much as he was grateful for what his lawyers did for him, all of us in turn were so grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with him. I will always be so proud of what my colleagues achieved for Rusi.

So as much as we went on a journey with Rusi, he underwent a transformation too. From human rights victim, he became a human rights advocate, speaking out in various audiences about his own suffering and demanding inclusion and equality for others too.

Our feelings of grief today are tinged with anger at the Bulgarian authorities who should feel a deep sense of shame. Rusi was continuously let down by the social care and the justice system. He was under guardianship until his death, despite our help representing him in Bulgarian courts. That we could not help him out of the shackles of guardianship is frustrating and painful.

Rusi brought the voices of people with mental health issues and other disabilities in Bulgaria to the national authorities and the international community. He forced people to open their eyes at the injustice facing people denied their autonomy and freedom, and open their imagination to a world in which people are treated as equals.

Many people met Rusi and have been touched by his story. They have been moved by his humour and inspired by his courage. Rusi was a kind man. Even though his life was tough, he found time to support his friends in every way he could.

Many of my colleagues – past and present – have worked very hard for Rusi’s rights. I want to pay tribute to them all. In particular, I want to recognise the huge contribution of Aneta Genova who has been Rusi’s lawyer in Bulgaria for over a decade. Aneta was in regular contact with Rusi and supported him in so many ways to manage his life. Rusi was sometimes a tough customer but Aneta never gave up on him. Her compassion and commitment to Rusi has been hugely moving, and we extend our deepest sympathies to Aneta as she mourns Rusi.

On the way to Strasbourg to attend the hearing before the Chamber in 2009, Rusi commented to Aneta about what his case meant to him. He said:

“I’m not an object. I’m a person. I need my freedom.”

Rusi’s beautiful statement about what it means to be a human being is an inspiration for those who care about the plight of others. Primo Levi might have said about Rusi that “his heart spoke the language of the good”.

The case that bears Rusi Stanev’s name will be remembered with aching pride by all of us who worked on it. It will be studied by law students for generations to come. It will be used by lawyers to get people out of institutions and into the community. And it will be used by the disability rights movement to reverse historic injustices.

But the greatest privilege of all is to have known him. Rusi taught us what it means to be human, to be quietly determined, to be courageous and to be kind.

We will draw strength from his commitment to justice. We will mourn him. And we will miss him.




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