SOFIA (Reuters) - The Bulgarian government released Australian Jock Palfreeman, who was convicted of murder in 2009, from an immigration detention center on Tuesday, more than three weeks after a court granted parole and caused political controversy.
Palfreeman’s parole angered nationalist politicians in Bulgaria and has prompted the chief prosecutor to ask for a review of the ruling by the country’s highest court, which now has two months come up with a decision.
The case has strained relations between Bulgaria and Australia, whose Foreign Minister Marise Payne has expressed “deep disappointment” that Palfreeman was still in custody after being granted parole.
The 32-year-old has served 11 years of a 20-year sentence since being found guilty of murder and attempted murder in the stabbing of two Bulgarian youths, one of whom died, during a street melee in 2007. Palfreeman has said he acted in self-defense.
“Palfreeman will be released from the center later today. He will have to show up at an interior ministry office once a week until a ban to leave the country, issued back in 2011, is lifted,” the head of the Interior Ministry’s migration unit, Nikolay Nikolov, told reporters.
Speaking in Bulgarian to reporters upon his release, Palfreeman said he would stay with friends and would not attempt to leave Bulgaria before he has the right to do so.
Looking in good health, the bearded Palfreeman said he did not fear for his life despite the protests and would prefer to live in Bulgaria if he had a choice in the matter.
“Maybe many think that I have had the support and protection from Australia in the past 12 years, but the truth is that all who have helped me were Bulgarians. I have big trust in the Bulgarian people,” he said.
Palfreeman was transferred from prison to an immigration detention center after being granted parole in late September because authorities said he lacked valid identification documents.
Palfreeman said Australia had issued him an emergency passport long before his release on Tuesday, but no one at the immigration detention center cared to ask him about it. Bulgarian officials said they were only officially notified by Australia about the documents on Monday.
His release followed an unprecedented statement by the head of Bulgaria’s highest court that urged the interior ministry to free Palfreeman immediately, saying his right to free movement was being breached.
On Tuesday police said they took Palfreeman’s passport during a search of his room at the center and will give it back if or when he is allowed to leave Bulgaria.
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Giles Elgood and Grant McCool