A high-level European human rights body on Thursday sharply criticized Bulgaria for the treatment of its prisoners in the country's dilapidated and overcrowded prisons.

In a report, the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee said deliberate physical ill-treatment of detainees was on the rise. It highlighted the "ever-worsening state of dilapidation" of the prisons, and said "endemic corruption" was one of the major problems of Bulgaria's prison system.

The committee has made 10 visits to Bulgarian jails and prisons since 1995.

"This kind of public statement is made only on very rare occasions and can be considered a wake-up call for the country concerned," Council of Europe spokesman Panos Kakaviatos said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Since 1990, when the anti-torture committee started operations, similarly strong criticism has been made in just six other cases: three times for Russia, twice for Turkey and once for Greece.

Bulgaria's 13 prisons struggle to accommodate its 10,000 prisoners. The newest was built in 1983.

Justice Ministry official Rosen Zhelyazkov said conditions were particularly bad in the oldest prisons in Sofia, the capital, and the eastern cities of Burgas and Varna.

Some prisoners have to use buckets at night because of a lack of toilets close to their cells, Zhelyazkov said. He added that overcrowding leaves some prisoners with less than two square meters (21.5 square feet) of living space instead of the minimum requirement of six square meters (64.5 square feet).

The anti-torture panel concluded that "the whole issue of deprivation of liberty in Bulgaria should radically change."

Last week, two German courts refused to transfer three convicted Bulgarians to a prison in Varna, Bulgaria's third-biggest city, to serve out their sentences, citing inhuman conditions there.

Chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov warned that such refusals could turn into a trend and urged "immediate measures."