Monday 14 July 2008

Shipping News

On 10 July the Court issued a judgment in the case of Medvedyev and others v. France on the length of legal detention under exceptional circumstances. The case related to the apprehension of the Winner, a cargo ship, by the French authorities on the high seas near the Capeverdian islands. The crew was arrested on suspicion of drug-trafficking. The ship was towed to the French harbour of Brest, its crew being held on the ship. This took thirteen days. Subsequently, the crew members were brought before a judge two or three days after the ship's arrival.

The Court unanimously held that Article 5(1) had been violated for lack of a legal basis for the detention. Although France had received the authorisation of Cambodia (the flag state) for the pursuit of the ship, a clear legal basis was lacking under international law. In addition, the procedure under national law did not include an assessment by a "competent legal authority". The other contentious point in this case was whether the applicants had been brought "promptly" before a judge, as required by Article 5(3). Normally, the Court does not accept durations of more than a few days, even in the fight against terrorism. In this case the duration had been fifteen to sixteen days. In an earlier comparable "naval" case, Rigopoulos v. Spain, the Court had reiterated that only wholly exceptional circumstances may justify longer durations and that physical impossibility falls within that category. The Court held the Medvedyev facts to be sufficiently comparable. With a very small margin (four votes against three) no violation was found. The dissenting opinion focuses on the two or three days after the arrival of the ship.

An interesting aspect is that it was not disputed between the parties that the crew members came within the jurisdiction (within the meaning of Article 1 ECHR) of France as soon as they were arrested on the ship.

The judgment itself is only available in French, but the press release in English can be found here. And here is a webcast of the hearing in the case.