Veteran prisoner Jock Palfreeman says he sought reconciliation but was vilified 


Jock Palfreeman’s mother wanted to call him Winston. Given his left-wing activism it must have been a narrow escape . . .

Yet Palfreeman, now a decade into his sentence, has always sought to build bridges despite his reputation as a political firebrand. Even the incident that sent him to jail, and robbed the Monovs of their son, was one for which he sought reconciliation.

“Mrs. Monova is a legal secretary for the Catholic diocese,” Palfreeman told me in the visitors’ room at Kazichene, the prison a few miles east of Sofia to which he was transferred last June. “My family is Catholic. So we agreed that when the trial was over, irrespective of the outcome, we would appeal to the Catholic diocese and try to have some kind of reconciliation. That’s a very important part of Catholic strategy in Australia. Two different sides come and mediate. After all, the basis of Christianity is to forgive those who have trespassed us against us. By then, though, bearing in mind the Monovs’ statements in December 2009, we decided it was not viable. They described me as a ‘sociopath’ and they damned my father. So I was advised that attempting a reconciliation with them would be pointless.”

Time has strengthened his radicalism

During his first trial, he admits he was more amenable to towing the line. He came under pressure to de-politicise the case, in particular to avoid mentioning that, in his view, it was neo-Nazis attacking a Roma.

“For the first couple of years my dad (Dr Simon Palfreeman) didn’t want anything political. In court he advised me not to refer to ‘Roma’ because, if I did, it would become political. If I’d mentioned that, it would be as though I went to defend Roma against Bulgarians. And Roma are not popular in Bulgaria. In the first court I used the legitimate line of self-defence within the framework of bourgeois, liberal concepts of justice, without the need to criticise the Right. But, during the appeal, and when my 20-year sentence was upheld, I got angry.”

He had convinced himself that he’d get sentence of 15-16 years. In fact, he received 20 years. “At the second trial I said to myself – I’ve done what my dad wanted. I didn’t use the word ‘Roma’, didn’t call the attackers ‘Nazis’ or ‘fascists’. But it didn’t do me any good. So for the appeal I knew they would burn me anyway. My father was never optimistic as such, perhaps naïve would be a better word. We just had different tactics. So the words ‘pessimistic’ and ‘optimistic’ are not appropriate.” But certainly his father had more faith in due process and in Australia’s willingness to help. ‘‘My father was lied to by embassy staff in 2013  . . . they had told him that they had met the head prosecutor.” (The staff in question, he stresses, no longer work there.)

Jock says that his father doesn’t share his politics, preferring to see things from a moralistic viewpoint. “I don’t speak to him about politics as such,” he told me. “We speak about questions of morality and hypothetical political and social issues. What is the right decision to take in this situation? When we discuss things it’s from a general moralistic perspective.”

Disconnection from Australia

Perhaps more surprisingly, Dr Palfreeman has never even been granted a meeting with any of the four Australian prime ministers who have occupied the top position since 2007. On one occasion, Jock says, the Foreign Minister called his father. Yet the Minister in question was ousted soon after. Jock Palfreeman’s explanation for the extraordinary lack of state-level interest is simple: “I am not the son of a mining magnate. I’m not from a rich, oligarchical family. The way I see it, there are two ways of getting support. The first is connections – the ‘right-wing’ way. The ‘left-wing’ way is mass mobilisation, battling, arranging protests and petitions. But I don’t have the right connections and neither do I have the benefit of a mass movement.”

He speaks about Australia’s attitude with disdain and says he’s keener to talk about corruption and abuse of power in Bulgaria. “I don’t feel Australian. But, you know, every time this topic comes up, people complain that I’m complaining. But I only mention it when I’m asked about it.” He recalls an article by Australian journalists. “We spoke for over an hour about human rights abuses in Sofia Central Prison. At the end the journalist commented on how strange it was that I don’t get much support in Australia. She commented that the Left don’t support me because I was in the army. And they mentioned that even David Hicks, who was arrested for terrorism and spent time in Guantanamo, got more support than me. The one thing they used in the article was me complaining about the Australian government. When there is interest they keep talking about transfer. Flogging the same old dead horse. A month after that article a man was raped in Sofia Central Prison.”

For Palfreeman, it seems, Australia’s attitude is no longer his primary concern. Yet it still angers him. “All other embassies are doing more than Australia to free their nationals from Sofia jails.” He cites the case of an Australian man imprisoned in China. The Australian prime minister told China to be careful lest business relations with Australia were jeopardised. “But ‘my government’ – he articulates the quotation marks to emphasise his sense of (ironic) detachment – “has no business relations with Bulgaria and so cannot use that leverage”. Palfreeman says that he doesn’t want to return to Australia after release. But he accepts that Bulgaria would probably deport him and so he wouldn’t be able to stay anyway.

‘Crime’ and Punishment

Palfreeman still thinks deeply about the incident that led to Andrei Monov’s death. I ask him if, 10 years on, he regrets his decision to intervene and what ensued.

“This hypothetical question is a bit silly. Because it’s like – would you keep repeating something the same way after you have made a mistake? Why would you keep repeating the same actions, leading to the same mistake? The moral decision to defend someone doesn’t need to change. But something has to change because I never wanted Andrei to die. This is a subject that’s difficult to talk about because it’s never even been proven it was me. I don’t remember doing it. And, if it wasn’t me, then what could I have done to change it?”

It has never even been established conclusively that it was Palfreeman’s knife that was used to stab Andrei Monov. For clarification, Palfreeman’s knife was a single-sided one, whereas a court expert said the knife used to stab Monov was double-sided.

When Palfreeman speaks of redemption and rehabilitation it’s in more general terms. “The one thing everyone agrees on is that Andrei shouldn’t have died. That was not supposed to happen. The bad thing about prison is that there comes a point where prison works as a way of helping prisoners reflect and repent on their mistakes. But then there is a border and a very thin one – and, of course, I admit that there are psychopaths – between prison being a time to reflect and repent and then the point whereby the sentence becomes a greater punishment than you believe your ‘crime’ merits. There’s a thin border between it being a rehabilitative process and it being counterproductive. Another prisoner said to me recently: ‘There was a time when I knew I’d made a mistake. Now I’m the victim.’”

Conditions at Kazichene

A decade inside has, of course, marked him. He jokes that an Australian all-male boarding school was excellent psychological preparation. “Once you learn the psychology of mob mentality, once you’ve learned how to navigate it, then it gets easier. Just one decision you make can define how people treat you for years afterwards.”

He says he’s better off in the open prison at Kazichene than he was at Sofia Central Prison. “It used to be a military academy but it reminds me of one of my high schools. It has a concrete square, basketball court and three blocks. One is a warehouse. There are two blocks for prisoners, as well as a kitchen and gym connected to the kitchen. Every year an article comes out saying that prisoners have pools and a Jacuzzi. So every year I get asked if I have a Jacuzzi in my room!” He rails against the ‘yellow press’ for their lies, citing Blitz and Frog News as the worst examples.

He shares his cell at Kazichene with one other prisoner – a drug trafficker from Turkey. Jock likes going to the communal dining room for meals. “All the others complain but I like it.  It gets me out of the room and out of the block. People get to meet. It’s a social time. Sometimes people take their food to their rooms but I like the communal area because it has a big window and a large table. The food before 2013 was so bad. All the prisoners complain about the food but when they hear me say ‘it’s better now’, they hit their heads. But, of course, it’s all relative. At one point it was always liver – either liver with rice or just one piece of boiled liver!”

At Kazichene most prisoners work outside the prison. Palfreeman explains: “We have 250 people here and many prisoners leave for work every day at 7am and come back at 5pm. They do a variety of jobs. They’re employed by private companies. They get paid and the prison takes 60 per cent of their wages.”

He says that Kazichene is much colder (our interview takes place in January) because the block is exposed. “It’s a pay-off, though, because the view is amazing. In Sofia Central Prison the corridor is locked. Here you’re only locked in your room overnight. You can go to the gym or dining hall when you want.”

Palfreeman always seem so exuberant that it’s easy to assume that he’s more ‘content’ than he really is. He is ‘happy’, of course, to get visits from friends and trusted journalists, but, he says, people shouldn’t be deceived by his elation at that moment. “This (our interview) is like a visit for me, hence the misconception. People come to visit me and they think I’m happy. But all my long-term prisoner friends have gone, including my good friend Hamza, now back in Germany, and Salvatore, now back in in Sicily.”

Palfreeman thinks that, realistically, he will be in prison for another 6-7 years. Sadly, due to rampant corruption and pressure from the current Prison Director, Peter Krestev, he says that there are now no empirical, objective standards to measure a prisoner’s progress. It’s clear that no one seriously believes he’s dangerous. He believes that – Krestev’s hatred for him notwithstanding – a good judge would release him based on proper data. But he doesn’t expect it.

As it is, he feels it’s now his duty, indeed his lifelong vocation, to use the knowledge he has acquired to help others in the penal system. “I’ve learnt so many things in 10 years that it would be a waste not to take what I’ve learnt in order to continue helping people.”