Monday 30 March 2009

Amnesty and Torture

Should an amnesty for acts of torture be recognised by other states? Such was implicitly one of the underlying questions in a case decided on by the Court today. In Ould Dah v. France, the applicant - a Mauritanian army officer - complained that he had been convicted by a court in France for acts of torture committed in Mauritania. The acts were committed in 1990 and 1991 by the applicant and others when acting as guardians in a prison following ethnic clashes. Two years later, in 1993, Mauretania adopted an amnesty law which safeguarded the applicant against prosecution. In 1998, Ould Dah visited France as part of his military training. Following action by several human rights NGOs, he was arrested by the French authorities and prosecuted for torture. Eventually he was sentenced in proceedings in which France used the universal jurisdiction clause for acts of torture from the UN Convention against Torture (CAT).

The applicant's main complaint in Strasbourg was that France hasd violated the prohibition of retroactive punishment (article 7 ECHR), since he could not have foreseen that the Mauretanian amnesty law would be set aside to the benefit of French law. Today, the European Court decided that this complaint was manifestly ill-founded. The application of French penal law had been sufficiently foreseeable. It reiterated - and referred to ICTY case law - that the prohibiton of torture is part of ius cogens. Importantly, the Court distinguished the case from its judgment in Al-Adsani (2001), in which it held that states could provide procedural immunity in civil proceedings concerning torture. In the case at hand, Ould Dah, the Court held that by contrast the penal responsibility of an individual was at stake. The Court assessed that the exercise of universal jurisdiction of parties to the Convention against Torture would become devoid of all meaning if it could not be applied through national laws. Thus, giving precedence to amnesty laws of the country in which the torutre occurred would render the aims of CAT meaningless. The Court explicitly mentioned that it followed the approach of the UN Human Rights Committee and the ICTY in this matter.

Interestingly, the Court did not rule out that the necessity to prosecute instances of torture could clash with the will to achieve reconciliation in the society at stake, but it indicated that in the case of Mauretania no process of reconciliation had been started. In addition, it hinted that the Mauretanian amnesty law could be qualified as abusive udner international law,. The door for other solutions is thus kept open a tiny bit, but the Court in this case squarely and rightly positioned itself on the side of the precedence of the prohibition of torture over other legal rules.

The decision is available only in French, but a press release in English can be found here. for an original press release from 2005 on the applicant's conviction in France, click here.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

New Edition of a Classic ECHR Handbook

The eagerly awaited second edition of one of the classic books on ECHR law has been published this month: Harris, O'Boyle & Warbrick: Law of the European Convention on Human Rights. The book, published by Oxford University Press, has been revised in all its aspects as compared to the 1995 original. Two authors, Edward Bates and Carla Buckley, have joined the team of editors to compile this important new version which has been brought up to date to include ECHR case law until 2008. No small feat for the authors, since the years since the first edition have seen a true explosion of the Court's case law both in scope and in quantity. Strongly recommended, both for students, teachers, and practitioners!

Please note: although the Oxford University Press website indicates that the book is not yet published, it was already for sale in some UK bookshops last week!

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Article on Behrami and Saramati

Heike Krieger has published an article entitled 'A Credibility Gap: The Behrami and Saramati Decision of the European Court of Human Rights' which deals with one of the most debated decisions of the Court in the last few years. The decision of non-admissibility in Behrami and Saramati dealt with the accountability for human rights violations which occurred in the context of a peacekeeping operation (in this case in Kosovo) and the interrelationship between the ECHR and the UN system. The article has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of International Peacekeeping (vol. 13 Nos. 1-2, 2009), as the International Law Reporter reports.

Friday 20 March 2009

Article 6 Grand Chamber Judgment

Ms Anthi Gorou must no doubt be one of the most active and successful complainants in Strasbourg. Today, the Grand Chamber of Court issued its judgment in Gorou v. Greece (No. 2), reaching the same outcome as a Chamber of the Court had earlier done in 2007. Apart from this case (No. 2), Ms Gorou filed and won three other cases (Nos. 1, 3, and 4) against the Greek Republic, all dealing with the rigth to a fair trial in the context of defamation cases she started against various persons on the national level.

Case No. 2 concerned Ms Gorou's accusation of defamation against her employer (in the public sector). He had stated, in the course of an administrative investigation against her, that she failed to observe working hours at her job and did not get on particularly well with her colleagues. At the end of the criminal proceedings, to which Ms Gorou was joined as a civil party, the Criminal Court of Athens decided to acquit her meployer: the remarks had been truthful and had not been meant to defame. The core of her complaint in Strasbourg relates to what happened next: she formally asked the public prosecutor to appeal the case on points of law. This request was dismissed by him with a short handwritten note, stating that “there are no legal or well-founded grounds of appeal to the Court of Cassation”.

In Strasbourg, Ms Gorou complained that this very note had not been sufficiently reasoned. Departing from its earlier case law on exactly the same issue (but following the Chamber's ruling in the same case), the Court held by thirteen votes to four that there had been no violation of Article 6 ECHR on this account. This is what the Grand Chamber concludes in para. 42:

To sum up, the handwritten note placed on the applicant's request simply gives information about the discretionary decision taken by the public prosecutor. Seen from that perspective, and having regard to the existing judicial practice, the public prosecutor does not have a duty to justify his response but only to give a response to the civil party. To demand more detailed reasoning would place on the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation an additional burden that is not imposed by the nature of the civil party's request for him to appeal on points of law against an acquittal. The Court therefore considers that, by indicating that “[t]here [were] no legal or well-founded grounds of appeal to the Court of Cassation”, the public prosecutor gave sufficient reasons for his decision to reject the request.
For strongly disagreeing views, see the various dissenting opinions. For those interested in the scope of Article 6, the judgment also contains noteworthy elements.

The Grand Chamber also found, unanimously, that Article 6 para. 1 had been violated in another way: the proceedings had taken too long. The press release of the case can be found here. Considering Ms Gorou's active past, who knows whether this is to be continued...

Thursday 19 March 2009

Cinderella and Article 14 ECHR

Rory O'Connell of Queen's University Belfast has posted an article on the evolving role of the non-discrimination principle in the ECHR, which will appear in the forthcoming issue (2009, No. 2) of the journal Legal Studies. It is entitled 'Cinderella Comes to the Ball: Article 14 and the Right to Non-Discrimination in the ECHR' and can be found on SSRN. This is the abstract:

Article 14 ECHR has often been derided as a Cinderella provision, but during the last few years, this has started to change. This article examines how Article 14 has developed, and may live up to its potential as a powerful non-discrimination principle. The case law developments in relation to the "ambit" requirement in Article 14, the development of indirect discrimination case law, and the approval of positive action, all point to a more substantive conception of equality, which offers protection to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.
Considering that another Convention provision (Article 13 - right to an effective remedy) has been compared to Sleeping Beauty, it seems that the fairy tale metophor is popular among ECHR experts...

Wednesday 18 March 2009

New Articles EHRLR

The newest issue of the European Human Rights Law Review (No. 1 of 2009) contains two Articles which directly deal with the ECHR. The first is a contribution by Tamar Feldman, entitled 'Indirect Victims, Direct Injury: Recognising Relatives as Victims under the European Human Rights System'. The second was written by Andreas Dimopoulos and deals with 'Intellectually Disabled Parents before the European Court of Human Rights and English Courts.' The articles in this journal usually become available through Westlaw. Enjoy reading!

Monday 16 March 2009

Religion and Exemptions to Military Service

Two Jehovah's Witnesses won their respective cases last week in Strasbourg. In the judgments Gütl v. Austria and Löffelmann v. Austria, the operative parts of which are largely the same, the Court unanimously found a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 9 ECHR (freedom of religion). Both were active members of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Austria and performed official functions within the movement (preacher and deacon respectively). When they were called up for military service, they indicated that they were conscientious objectors. As a result, they were called up for civil service instead. They complained that the clergy of recognised religious groups were exempt from both military and civil service, whereas they were not. The Court held that the privilege accorded fell within the wider context of the unjustifiable difference in treatment by the authorities of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It had dealt with this in the case of Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v. Austria (July 2008) which concerned the recognition of the group as a religious society. On the latter case, see my earlier post here.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

ECHR Conference in Copenhagen

On 21 and 22 March the University of Copenhagen will be hosting a symposium entitled 'A Unique European Institution. The European Court of Human Rights after 50 Years'. Amongst others, the following themes will be addressed: the political context in which the Court is functioning; the Court's institutional orientation; and the Court and societies in conflict. Both legal scholars and experts from other disciplines will participate. The full programme can be found here.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Grand Chamber Judgment in Prisoner's Case

Today the Grand Chamber issued its judgment in the case of Paladi v. Moldova. In 2007, the Fourth Section of the Court had already decided in the same case. At the request of the Government, the case was referred to the Grand Chamber, but as has become clear today, the outcome is exactly the same: the Court found violations of Article 3 (lack of provision of adequate medical care during the applicant's detention) and of 5 para. 1 ECHR (continued detention in spite of the lack of a judicial decision authorising it). The Grand Chamber followed the findings of the earlier judgment.

The really interesting part of the case is the issue under the right of individual petition (Article 34 ECHR). The Fourth Section and the Grand Chamber both found a violation, since Moldova failed to comply with an interim measure of the Court. They transferred the applicant for four days from a neurology centre (the applicant was in very bad health) to a normal prison hospital in spite of the Court's order not to do so. Whereas the Section had found a violation by six votes to one (dissent by the British judge Nicholas Bratza), the Grand Chamber was much more heavily divided: nine votes to eight. Reading the dissents clarifies that one of the bones of contention was whether a failure to comply with an interim measure automatically means that the effective exercise of right to individual petition is hindered. Another important point was the degree to which national authorities - including the state's agent at the Court - should show due diligence in complying with it. I am sure this is not the end of the discussion, although it provides more details than any judgment on the issue so far.

The press release can be found here.

Friday 6 March 2009

(Not) Being Informed of HIV/AIDS

For health law afficionados, I can recommend yesterday's Court judgment in the case of Colak and Tsakiridis v. Germany. Ms Colak complained about the fact that she had not been informed by her doctor that her partner was suffering from AIDS (a fact the partner had explicitly asked the doctor not to disclose). Only when the partner died, was it revealed to Ms Colak that he had died of AIDS. Not much later she was diagnosed as HIV positive. She did not receive any damages on the national level, amongst others because an expert held that it was probable that the applicant had already been infected before her partner told their common doctor. The Court assesed the case from the perspective of Article 2 (right to life), Article 8 (right to respect for private life), and Article 6 ECHR (right to a fair trial). No violations of the Convention were found.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

EU & ECHR: Uneasy Neighbours?

If the European Union's Lisbon Treaty will ever enter into force, the European Union will be able to accede to the European Convention of Human Rights. That would be a new chapter in the continuously debated relation between the Courts in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. The newest issue of the renowned Common Market Law Review (2009, vol. 46, no. 1) takes stock of this relation in two articles:

* Plate tectonics in Luxembourg: the ménage à trois between EC law, international law and the EuropeanConvention on Human Rights following the UN sanctions cases, by B. Kunoy and A. Dawes (p. 73-104).
* The European Court of Justice and its relations with the European Court of Human Rights: the quest for enhanced reliance, coherence and legitimacy, by G. Harpaz (p. 105-142).

For those interested in the matter from the perspective of the Court's case law, I can recommend a recent decision on non-admissibility of the European Court of Human Rights: Cooperatieve Producentenorganisatie van de Nederlandse Kokkelvisseij U.A. v. the Netherlands. In this decision, the Court re-emphasized its ruling in the (in)famous Bosphorus case (2005) stating that the mechanisms functioning within the EU are presumed to offer equivalent protection to the one that state parties should offer under the ECHR. In this particular decision, the Court held that the applicants had not been able to rebut this presumption in relation to the preliminary ruling procedure and the role of the Advocate-General in it.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Education Rights Violation in Turkish University

Today the Court found a violation of the right to education of university students in Turkey in the case of Temel and others v. Turkey. In 2001 and 2002 a group of 18 studnets had petioned their university, Afyon Kocatepe University (see photo), requesting the introduction of optional Kurdish language classes. The university reacted by suspending the students for two terms. The justification given was Regulation 9 (d) of the Disciplinary Regulations of Higher Education Institutions which provides that a person who engages in activities which give rise to polarization on the basis of language, race, religion or denomination is to be suspended from the institution in question for either half or a whole term. Initially, when the students applied to national courts to have their suspension lifted, those courts rejected the applications with the same argumentation. Later, the Supreme Administrative Court quashed those lower judgments. When a lower court re-examined the case, it found that the students had not violated any regulation. By then, the students had missed one or two terms of study.

The European Court found that the disciplinary sanction had not been reasonable or proportionate. Specifically, it considered that the students had not resorted to violence or breaches of the peace and that their request for Kurdish language classes could not be seen as leading to polarization within the university. Thus, it unanimously concluded that Article 2 of Protocol 1 ECHR (right to education) had been violated.

In a separate opinion judge Cabral Barreto indicated that he would have preferred that the case would have been dealt with under article 10 ECHR (freedom of expression) and by the Grand Chamber.

The press release can be found here.

Monday 2 March 2009

Judgment on Dismissal of Judge

Last week, the Court issued its judgment in the case of Kudeshkina v. Russia. With a very narrow margin of four votes against three it found that the Russian Federation had violated the freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR) by dismissing a Moscow City Court judge.

Olga Kudeshkina had been the judge in a criminal case directed against a police investigator. During the proceedings, she was removed from the case - according to herself withotu any reason, according to the state because she had been delaying the case. A few months after this, she gave interviews to the media indicating that she had been put under pressure by the President of the City Court and that this was part of a wider pattern of manipulation within the judiciary. She also complained to High Judiciary Qualification Panel about the pressure, but no disciplinary proceedings were brought agianst the Court's President. Eventually, Ms Kudeskina was dismissed after the Court President had accused her of insulting the court system and individual judges.

The European Court held that Kudeskina had raied an issue of high public interest and found her statements to be fair comments, even though they generalised and exaggerated matters somewhat. The dismissal lacked sufficient procedural guarantees, since it had been decided upon by the very City Court about which Kudeshkina had complained. The penalty imposed, finally, could have a "chilling effect" on judges who wished to participate in the public debate on the judiciary. Thus the European Court found a violation of the ECHR. Make sure to read the dissenting opinions, amongst others of the Russian judge, who all emphasize the importance of responsibilities of the judiciary under Article 10.

Ms Kudeshkina herself is (not surprisingly) very pleased with the judgment and hopes to be re-instituted as a judge, although her lawyer expects that Russia will ask the Court to have the Grand Chamber review the case, as the Moscow Times reports. The Court's own press release can be found here.