1988: Elina Zlatanova, the last woman executed in Bulgaria

1 comment March 8th, 2019 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)


With special thanks to Andrey for contributing this fascinating insight into Bulgarian justice during the Communist era. -RC

In the early hours of March 8th, 1988 in the town cemetery of Sliven in Southeast Bulgaria, “Elina Zlatanova” was executed by a single handgun shot to the back of the head for the murder of her two young sons. Ironically, the execution fell on International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day — a semi-official and universally celebrated holiday in Bulgaria. The symbolism was presumably not lost on the authorities

Background.

We do not know the actual (birth) name of the woman executed on this day. Elina Zlatanova was the name given to her in the mid-1980s by the Communist authorities as a part of the so-called “Revival Process” — the forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. She was a midwife and her husband, “Martin Zlatanov” (another victim of the forced renaming), was a doctor in the hospital of Kardzhali, a town of 60,000 with an ethnically Turkish majority.

Her father was a onetime Member of Parliament (this was not as impressive as it may sound — most of the 400 members of the Communist rubberstamp parliament were chosen pretty much at random from loyal party cadres and, of course, they were the only candidates on the ballot). Her family was well respected in the city.

And her marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Zlatanova had to wait hand and foot on her husband and his unmarried brother, was not allowed to leave the house except for work or to go to the nearest shop and was denied contact with her family. The last straw probably came when she heard rumours that her husband had a mistress. These rumours were substantiated when, three months after the murder, he moved back into the apartment where his children died with his mistress and eventually married her, emigrating to Turkey where they apparently live to this day.

The crime.

On January 19th 1986, “Midwives Day” in Bulgaria, Elina expected to be taken to a social function by her husband, but instead he came in late and didn’t even acknowledge her. After he left for work the next morning (20.01.1986), she took a 20-litre can of diesel fuel (essential because of frequent power outages), poured it all over the apartment and set it on fire. Her 10-month-old son, Elin, was asphyxiated in his crib; his older brother Neven (age 4), tried to escape and Elina stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Her intention, apparently, was to also perish in the fire, but when the flames got too close, she got out of the blazing apartment.

Trial.

At first Elina claimed that an unknown man in blue work coveralls had broken in and set the place on fire, but soon afterwards the stab wounds on the older boy’s body were found and she made a full confession (Bulgarian police at the time were rather too good at extracting confessions, but there is next to no doubt about the circumstances of this case).

At the trial she pleaded guilty to all counts and reportedly fainted any time the boys were mentioned. Her lawyer, the late Reni Tzanova, attempted a defence of insanity and, given Elina’s behaviour in and out of court during the trial, it came as a shock when she was found to have been fully aware of her actions and fit to stand trial. Elina seemed resigned to her fate, her last words in court were “I could not have ever been a mother. I do not deserve to live, but, if you let me, I will try to atone for my guilt.” The guilty verdict, even given the extenuating circumstance of her marriage, was preordained, but it was still unusual for a woman to get the death penalty.

Execution.

At this time, commutations and pardons were handled by the State Council, or rather by the State Council’s judicial secretaries. They routinely commuted female death sentences, especially after 1978 when life in prison was also made part of the Bulgarian penal code (until then the penalty for aggravated murder was 10 to 15 years imprisonment or death). For whatever reason, they declined to intervene in this case.

An elaborate shooting mechanism had been installed in the execution chamber of Sofia Central Prison in 1982, but, then as now, the only prison for females in Bulgaria is the one in Sliven. This meant that any arrangements for the execution were left to the discretion of the prison director there, his deputies and the district prosecutor. At one or two in the morning of March 8, Elina was taken from her cell, put in a van and driven to a pre-dug pit on the grounds of the local cemetery. She probably was made to stand on the edge of the pit and a volunteer from the prison guards shot her once in the back of the head. There are no further details of this execution but in an earlier one, due to nerves and/or the unlit ground, the executioner did not have a precise aim and the woman’s heart was still beating 16 minutes after the shot and she finally expired as the officers present were arguing whether to allow for a coup de grâce.

Comment.

In Communist Bulgaria, murders and executions did not happen — at least, according to the official press. The information, therefore, is usually at least, somewhat based on rumours and speculations. In this case, the speculation of Andrey is that what ultimately cost Elina her life was the fact that she was Turkish and her crime took place in a predominantly Turkish city. By the late 1980s even the true believers could see that you cannot make Turks into Bulgarians at gunpoint, and so those who resisted assimilation (the vast majority of Bulgarian Turks) had to be driven out of Bulgaria.

The resistance often took a human toll — between 1983 and 1989 at least nine men were executed for various terrorist attacks and acts of armed resistance that left at least 16 dead and many wounded. Later, from May to August 1989, when borders were temporarily opened, 40% of the Bulgarian Turks (about 360,000 people) left their homes and sought refuge in Turkey in the so-called Grand Excursion (since they were on tourist visas). Quite a lot of those did not leave willingly, but their hand was forced through mass workplace firings, forced evictions from state-owned property, seizure of property and various other suppressive methods.

Elina’s case was not in any way political, but its notoriety among Kardzhali’s 50,000 Turks made the authorities think she should be made an example of “the awful majesty” of the state. The murder of the two boys was a horrific act which met four of the eight criteria for aggravated murder in the Bulgarian penal code, any one of which could result in a death sentence — and yet other similar murders did not result in execution. Once Elina’s fate was known, many among those who knew about the case (who were predominantly Turkish) would have been aware of this double standard. Essentially, Andrey speculates that her execution was a part of a campaign of terror, waged by the Communist Bulgarian state against its Turkish population, designed to either to cow into submission or drive out in terror those who resisted the “Revival process”. Around 200,000 thousand didn’t return after the “Grand Excursion”, and many of those who are still in Bulgaria have deep mistrust of the authorities, so unfortunately this campaign may have been successful.

Executions of male prisoners in Sofia Central Prison.

The shooting mechanism referred to above consisted of two Makarov pistols with their handles and triggers removed, placed on two separate adjustable stands. Instead of a traditional trigger, they were wired so that the firing pins were activated electrically. They were operated by flipping a switch and pressing a button. The second gun was on a separate circuit and was not supposed to fire unless a sensor did not detect the report of the other gun within a set amount of seconds.

Usually guards burst into the cell of the condemned prisoner around 22:30 in the evening, and apparently they almost always informed him (between showers of expletives) that his pardon has been granted, helping him gather his personal belongings for transfer to another cell or prison — even though most prisoners were aware of their impending doom, the charade was kept until he was pinioned.

After certain preparations, the condemned was lead down a corridor to a small room, which on two sides had crimson floor length curtains instead of walls. The prisoner was secured in a fixed chair with his back around 60 cm from one of the “curtain” sides, his verdict was read to him and the guards and officials left the room, leaving the prisoner looking at the mirrored wall directly in front of him (which was, in fact, a one-way mirror). The curtains were designed to conceal the gun nozzle from the condemned and the most credible account has two guns (main and spare) on two separate stands in the corners behind the prisoner, aiming for the temples. There are differing accounts about the procedure, as well as over-elaboration, which is one of the reasons that this mechanism was seldom, if ever, used. Interviews with at least a dozen people who worked in the prison at the time revealed that none had firsthand accounts of executions performed with the machine, while some had vivid recollections how Capt. or Lt. so-and-so “blew X’s brains out” with his pistol

The last execution in the prison took place on November 4th, 1989, six days before the fall of the Communist regime. In 1991 the mechanism was still there, but by 1994 it had vanished (it is presumed that some of the guards decided to supplement their salaries by selling it for scrap). Since the death penalty was not formally abolished until 1998, had the moratorium been lifted, any executions would have taken place in the “traditional” manner. The death chamber is used as a storage room today, with very little left to remind of its former use.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Shot,Women

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