Australian held in Bulgaria over terrorism charges

An Australian man is being held in a Bulgarian jail on terrorism charges, according to Fairfax Media.

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Twenty-one-year-old John Zakhariev has been in custody in the eastern European country since September, with authorities claiming he tried to join a terrorist group in Syria in 2013.

Bulgarian officials say he attended shooting ranges and had “jihadist material” with him.

Mr Zakhariev grew up in Sydney’s inner west, graduating from Waverley College in 2012.

The school has expressed its sadness at the allegations.

“Young men often have questions and challenges they go through and sometimes they make choices that we don’t understand,” a statement released by the college reads.

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His family says they fear his case is being used by Bulgaria to show their “tough stance” on terrorism.

His sister Nevena Zakhariev has also accused the Australian government of offering little help, and of largely ignoring her brother’s plight.

“He’s not really being supported at the moment,” she told SBS News. 

“They visit him now and then just to check how he’s going but that’s all they can do for him at the moment.”

Ms Zakhariev said there was no evidence supporting the terrorism charges and she and her family were concerned he would not get a hearing in Bulgaria’s legal system.

“It’s a little bit ridiculous because the evidence they actually have against him is that he’s been to a shooting range, maybe less than a handful of times in his entire life,” she said.

“The jihadist material that they found on him was a book on the history of Islam, which I do not think is jihadist material at all, it’s just a history book, and another suspicion was that he went to Syria in 2013.

“But since he went to Syria in 2013 he’s also travelled to South America, he worked in Brazil at a youth hostel, he’s been to Morocco and he studied in Lebanon as well, so it just doesn’t add up why they would pick on that one time he went to Syria for eight days … to work in a refugee camp.”

She also condemned people who had called for her brother to be deported, saying he had grown up in Australia.

“I don’t understand why there’s all these uneducated comments about sending him back to where he came from, deporting him, and having all these really uneducated opinions about an issue they don’t even know,” she said.

“Not everyone should be so quick to judge just because there’s a boy on terrorism charges that he’s automatically guilty. I don’t think that’s how anyone should handle a situation like this.” 

Mr Zakhariev is being held at the same maximum security facility as Australian Jock Palfreeman, who is serving 20 years for murder.

Ms Zakhariev said her brother was occasionally able to speak Palfreeman and a few other English-speaking prisoners in the foreigners’ wing of the jail.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed to AAP it’s providing assistance to “an Australian man detained in Bulgaria”.

It’s also believed the Australian ambassador in Bulgaria and another official have visited Mr Zakhariev in prison.

Mr Zakhariev faces eight years if convicted.

– with AAP

Watch: The Feed’s investigation into the case of Jock Palfreeman

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