Thursday 6 October 2011

Hearing on the Katyń Massacre Case

Today history is featuring in the European Court of Human Rights. A hearing is currently being held on the aftermath of the Katyń massacre, a notorious episode of the Second World War. In 1940 the secret police of the Soviet Union murdered over 21,000 people, including many Polish army officers after the Soviets had occupied parts of Poland. When later on in the war the Nazis discovered the mass graves, the Soviets denied responsibility and continued to do so until 1990, when an official investigation was started, which was later taken over by the Russian Federation after the dissolution of the USSR. A few years ago a number of relatives of those murdered in Katyń turned to the European Court in Strasbourg to complain about the inadequacy of the investigation. This is what the Court's press release has to say about the case so far:

The investigations into the mass murders were started in 1990. The criminal proceedings lasted until 2004 when the decision to discontinue the investigation was made. The text of the decision has remained classified to date and the applicants did not have access to it. On 26 November 2010 the Russian Duma adopted a statement about the “Katyń tragedy”, in which it reiterated that the “mass extermination of Polish citizens on USSR territory during the Second World War” had been carried out on Stalin’s orders and that it was necessary to continue “verifying the lists of victims, restoring the good names of those who perished in Katyń and other places, and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy...".

The applications were lodged with the Court on 19 November 2007 and 24 May 2009
respectively. They were communicated to the Russian authorities respectively in
October 2008 and November 2009. The Court declared admissible, on 5 July 2011, the applicants’ complaint under Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, namely that the Russian authorities failed to carry out an adequate criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their relatives. At the same time, the Court joined to its examination of the merits of the complaint the issue of temporal jurisdiction, in other words, whether the Court could examine the adequacy of an investigation into events which had occured before Russia ratified the Convention.

In the same decision, the Court also declared admissible the applicants’ complaint that the way the Russian authorities reacted to their requests and applications amounted to ill-treatment under Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention.
From a legal point of view the case indeed raises important questions on the ratione temporis jurisdiction of the Court. For the relatives of the victims, one may hope the case will contribute indirectly to more clarity on what happened and who was responsible. A lot of historical works have been published on the tragic events of 1940, but a full official investigation by the Russian authorities is still lacking.

The hearing will be available online this afternoon here. The earlier partial admissibility decision of July 2011 can be found here.