Pretrial Abuses Dominate at the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has over the past three months issued around 75 judgments dealing with human rights violations at the pretrial stage of the criminal justice process. Together, these pretrial-related cases make up roughly two thirds of all the judgments issued by the court, and involve violations of three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 5 (the right to liberty and security) and Article 6 (the right to a free trial). The cases ranged across Europe from the UK and France to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Turkey.

Together they demonstrate that problems with fair trial and arrest rights and with pretrial detention conditions  remain a significant issue in Europe. Turkey, Ukraine and Russia headed the list of countries where violations were determined, reflecting the geographical pattern seen in applications to the court filed during 2011

The cases covered a wide range of situations.  The court found that France had violated the rights of five people held on suspicion of involvement in terrorism by holding under investigation for several years; two cases brought against Ukraine (Korneykova and Smolik) involved holding juveniles for a period of a few months.

The Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice has highlighted the extent to which pretrial detainees are at risk of torture, an issue underlined by three ECHR rulings involving the use of torture by police to extract confessions  (Petrov v. Bulgaria, Staminirovic v. Serbia, Teslenko v. Ukraine).

In Petrov vs. Bulgaria, the court found additional violations.  The suspect was tortured in police custody on several occasions after which he was examined by doctors who confirmed injuries and bruises caused by beatings. Despite this evidence, his appeals to the local court were disregarded during his trial and re-trial. In addition, he was held in "unhygienic, infested with cockroaches and rats” in cells with no running water or toilets, and held for ‘the first five years in almost total isolation, with no specific reasons given for such arrangement’ (a violation of Article 13). Finally, the correspondence with his legal representative has been monitored and copied by the prison staff, in a violation of Article 8.

Staminirovic vs. Serbia case was unusual because it dealt with alleged torture that occurred in 2001, prior to Serbia signing the European Convention in 2004. The court concluded it could not make a decision related to the torture claims, but it confirmed the violation of the suspects fair trial rights, because of evidence obtained under duress during the earlier period.

Our campaign has also focused on the threats to health that frequently arise from unnecessary pretrial detention, an issue made distressingly evident in the ECHR judgments in  Todorov v. Ukraine, Arutyunyan v. Russia, Sakhvadze v. Russia and Vasilyev v. Russia,  among many others.

Todorov spent five years in pretrial detention despite several medical conditions.  As a result of the lack of medical care both before and after his conviction, he claimed that at least one of his pre-existent illnesses worsened, leading to him losing his eyesight.  Arutyunyan claimed he was held in pretrial detention for 17 months in inadequate conditions given his health problems: he has very poor eyesight, a failing kidney transplant, obesity, diabetes and he depends on a wheelchair. He was placed in a cell on the fourth floor of a building with no lift, when the medical facilities were all on the ground floor, which also led to him being denied outdoor exercise and fresh air.

In one of the many Russian cases on poor conditions linked to overcrowding, Ananyev v Russia, the court identified the primary cause of overcrowding as the excessive use and duration of pretrial detention without proper justification. It observed that remand in custody should be an exception rather than the rule at the pretrial stage, and set out detailed recommendations to remedy the problems at the heart of the specific case, which would if implemented resolve 250 other similar pending cases.

At a time of concerns over the volume of applications coming into the ECHR, the number of applications regularly arising from pretrial detention issues is striking. It is clear that proper implementation of the court’s judgments on these issues would significantly reduce the burden on the ECHR, as well as significantly improving pretrial detention conditions in Europe that remain inadequate, or at their worse, inhuman.

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