Wednesday 25 June 2008

Crossing the Line

This picture shows the Greek-Cypriot Solomon Solomou who tried, in the summer of 1996, to climb a flagpole (with a Turkish flag on it) just across the ceasefire line in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus. He was killed by five bullets as he climbed up. This was the second episode in a series of events which left two people dead. A few days earlier, Anastasios Isaak, also Greek-Cypriot, was kicked and beaten to death during a demonstration against the occupation, at the ceasefire line. Solomou's action was apparently triggered by Isaak's death. Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights issued judgments in both cases and in each found violations of Article 2 ECHR.

The applicants in the two cases were the families of the deceased. Although Turkey disputed the facts and even the implication of Turkish military personnel in the killings, testimony of UN Peacekeepers and video and photo materials convinced the Court that Turkish soldiers participated in the mob that killed Isaak and that Solomou had been killed by bullets coming the guns of Turkish soldiers. The Court considered that in none of the two cases the violence had been absolutely necessary and thus found a substantive violation of Article 2. In addition, for lack of any investigation into the circumstances of their deaths, a procedural violation of the same article was found as well. High amounts of money were awarded for non-pecuniary damage.

Legally, the case is mainly notable because of the Court's detailed analysis of whether the killings could have been justified by the exceptions allowed under Article 2. The test is very strict, as should be expected for one of the most important rights in the Convention. The killings caused a lot of uproar and media attention at the time and even led to a condemnation by the European Parliament. Yesterday's Strasbourg judgments, almost 12 years after the facts, finally bring these cases to a close.

Ever since the start of the Turkish occupation of the Mediterranean island, the Strasbourg institutions have been used as fora of discussion and adjudication on some of the most difficult legal questions arising from that situation. Most famous perhaps is the Court's judgment in the (rare) inter-state complaint of Cyprus v. Turkey. Many other judgments have focussed on property issues. And a very recent case, also decided yesterday, focused on the freedom of expression (Foka v. Turkey). Foka, Isaak, and Solomou will certainly not be last judgments of the Court on the situation. As long as a political situation is not found, individual applicants will keep coming Strasbourg's way.

Click here for the judgment in the case of Isaak v. Turkey and here for the judgment in Solomou v. Turkey. The press release can be found here.

As an afterthought: with the upcoming ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in the Netherlands and some other parts of Europe as of 1 July, part of the Court's judgment in the Solomou case may serve as a consolation to some (para. 37): "The deceased was unarmed and had not attacked anyone; he was climbing a pole and smoking a cigarette, two actions which were not compatible with violent action against other individuals." John Lennon was not the last to connect smoking and non-violence in one person!