Australian jailed for four years for terrorism offences
AUSTRALIAN man John Zahariev has been found guilty by a Bulgarian court of terrorism offences.
The Sofia Special Criminal Court has found Zahariev, 21, guilty of training as a terrorist with the intention of carrying out a terrorist act.
He was ordered to spend four years in a Bulgarian jail - half the maximum eight-year term he had feared.
The former Catholic schoolboy, who attended Waverley College in Sydney's affluent eastern suburbs but later converted to Islam, had strongly denied the charges.
But after a seven-month trial, he was last night convicted, and the court also ordered him to pay a fine amounting to $7800.
His mother Anne Ngo, who is fighting cancer, was in court and sighed heavily when the verdict was handed down.
An agitated Zahariev lashed out after the verdict, saying he had been subjected to a show trial, and no evidence had been found connecting him to Islamic State or Daesh.
"What more could I have expected from a country with show trials?" he asked.
"I will be discussing with my lawyer perhaps some appeals, and we'll see if the prosecutor wants to appeal. I also think it would be a waste of time, I mean what's the point of going to another show court for another show trial?"
Zahariev was convicted after being arrested on September 20 last year in the capital Sofia by Bulgarian authorities acting on a tip-off from the Australian intelligence agencies.
His seven-month trial, held without a jury, hinged on trips he made to shooting ranges in Bulgaria, where the prosecution alleged he followed instructions to learn to shoot a Kalashnikov weapon with the purposes of using one in a terrorist attack.
Zahariev strongly denied it and said he had been set up by police provocateur. His supporters said he had been snared in a "honey-trap" set by glamorous blonde shooter Kristina Georgieva, who accompanied him on one of his trips.
He has spent the past nine months in the bleak Sofia Central prison, where another Australian, Jock Palfreeman, is currently serving a 20-year jail term for murder.
"Prison? That place is the heart of darkness, nobody goes into that place and stays for longer than a year without having … some sort of psychological trauma," he said.
"I believe Sofia Central was never designed to rehabilitate people, it was designed to break people down completely."
Zahariev once again denied being a terrorist.
"I went shooting five times and this country claims to be a democracy so what's wrong if I am in possession of a few religious books?" he asked.
"My … advice would be don't go to Bulgaria, you can end up being arrested, subjected to a show trial and locked up for nothing like me and Jock Palfreeman."
Zahariev admitted travelling to Syria in 2013 but said it was for humanitarian reasons and he was supporting the secular Free Syrian Army opposition.
He has told the court that while he converted to Islam, he later renounced it, criticised extremism and he offered to help ASIO and the security agencies, saying he had valuable information.
His defence lawyer, Hristo Botev, said they had 15 days to decide whether to appeal to either the specialist appeals court or the Supreme Court.
He said his client could be released from prison after serving half his sentence, and repeated the offer to work with the Australian security agencies.
"This guy can be very useful for the security services, the Australia security services, because this guy knew how to get there, he could say, 'these are the websites, this is the way somebody can go. Chase the people who are going there and you can probably stop some of them'," he said.
Mr Botev said it was a "bad verdict" with no evidence to back it up.
Earlier, Zahariev had made his final plea to the court, saying he hadn't seen a single piece of evidence that proved his guilt.
He said the fact he had gone shooting only five times in Bulgaria showed he was not training.
"Because training is something you do over a long period of time, not something that is done a few times and then stopped," he told the court.
He said the evidence against him could be summed up as a trip he took to Syria four years ago and his possession of some religious books found when his father's flat was raided.
"As for having religious books, Bulgaria is a democratic country," he said, adding that an expert witness had deemed the normal religious material.
"It is not pro-ISIS or pro-jihadist," he said.
"Taking all this into consideration, I ask the court to find me not guilty. However, if the court finds me guilty, I ask the court doesn't give me eight years because of my young age, the fact this is my first time in prison and also take into consideration my father (Svetlomir Zahariev) died during my time in prison and that my mother is having serious problems with cancer which means she is also seriously unwell.
"If I am going to spend eight years in jail, most likely she will die from this disease, so this my request from the court and I thank you."
Ms Ngo declined to speak to News Corp. She and her son were visibly anxious throughout the hearings.
The court heard yesterday three witnesses who could not be found were being deleted from the file.
In final submissions yesterday, prosecutor Evgeniya Stankova said the evidence showed Zahariev was training as a terrorist with the intent to return to Syria and carry out attacks.
She said the goal of the visits to the shooting ranges was to train him as a terrorist, and train him to shoot with Kalashnikovs.
Ms Stankova also said that the reason Zahariev returned from Syria after just eight days in 2013 was because he was not well-trained in combat.
She said he had returned initially to Australia but discovered shooting there was expensive, so came eventually to Bulgaria to continue his training.
Ms Stankova said Zahariev had visited the Levski range in Sofia and the 360 Degrees range outside Plovdiv between July 4 and August 19 and "evidence shows that he was very interested in shooting with Kalashnikovs and he was trained to shoot with Kalashnikovs."
She also referenced the witness Kristina Georgieva, a crack recreational shooter who took Zahariev shooting at the 360 Degree range, saying Ms Georgieva had said Zahariev told her he loved Bulgaria because it was so cheap to learn to shoot.
Zahariev's supporters had accused Ms Georgieva of setting a "honey-trap" to ensnare him at the behest of Bulgarian authority, a claim the striking blonde denies. Ms Georgieva had told the court she met Zahariev outside a tourist hotel "by chance" and discovered a shared interest in shooting as they chatted.
Ms Stankova said the evidence of the witnesses was consistent and "they prove intention to commit the crime and to instil fear in people, which is the definition of terror."
She requested Judge Bilyana Vrancheva hand down the maximum sentence of eight years.
Mr Botev had asked once again for the court to accept a letter containing evidence that his client was not a jihadist, but the prosecutor did not agree with the request and the judge rejected the request, which had been made before.
Judge Vrancheva did allow Mr Botev to provide a reference from the Orthodox Church in Sydney or behalf of Zahariev. She also accepted evidence that Zahariev's mother Ms Ngo was seriously ill with cancer.
Mr Botev said evidence had been gathered since his client was charged on September 20 which proved the allegations were groundless, and invalidated the indictments.
He said the "key to John's story is his visit to Syria in 2013" and that the Bulgarians had no evidence about that other than what they copied from Australian intelligence officials.
Mr Botev said Zahariev had "explained very logically that he was on humanitarian mission for humanitarian purpose in Syria and there is no evidence he was trained in combat or shooting in Syria or even that he touched a weapon."
He said the indictment claimed his client had visited Islamic State-controlled territory but said the two groups which supposed controlled the territory had not been black-listed until 2014 and 2015.
Further, Mr Botev said the people Zahariev had contacted during his visit to Syria had nothing to do with terrorism.
He said there were no known cases where a person had been sent to Europe to train to go back to Syria.
Mr Botev also said Zahariev had worked in a hostel in Brazil after his Syrian trip, and he questioned whether the Australians would have allowed this to occur if his client was dangerous.
"He came to Bulgaria not to obtain Bulgarian citizenship to commit a crime but to look after his father," he said.
He denied his client had specifically gone looking for a place to shoot Kalashnikovs and said one of the men who had taken him shooting was one of the witnesses who could never be found.
Mr Botev said pictures of Zahariev on his social media accounts posing with firearms were "nothing strange."
"Because on social media people want to brag of their skills and this is why they want to show everything," he said.
Mr Botev said Ms Georgieva's evidence she had met his client by chance was "absolutely insane."
Additional reporting: Milena Hristova