By Eva Brems
In a recent case, the Court found a violation of article 3 ECHR on account of the defective investigation into a serious incident of racist violence that occurred in Athens in 2009. In addition, the detention conditions imposed upon the victim (sic!) also violated article 3. The judgment explicitly recognizes the structural character of the problem of racist violence in Athens and expects the Greek authorities to do the same. However, when it comes to structural solutions, an obvious one is overlooked.
Facts and context
The applicant is an Afghan man, living in Athens without a legal residence status. In the summer of 2009, he was attacked in the centre of Athens by a group of masked persons, who beat him up with wooden and iron bars and stabbed him repeatedly in the sternum. Another Afghan man who was present at the scene, alerted the police, who took his statement and organized the applicant’s transfer to a hospital. When the applicant left the hospital three days later, he was immediately taken into police detention on grounds of his illegal residence status. An order to leave the territory was issued the same day. In the meantime, the witness had become the subject of a criminal investigation on grounds of illegal entry on the Greek territory. Ten days later, the applicant was released from detention and served with this order to leave the territory. The applicant did not leave the territory. The investigation into the facts was closed in 2012 without any result.
Between 2012 and 2013 at least three detailed reports (by the Greek Ombudsperson, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), that are cited in the judgment, documented the rise of extreme racist violence in certain neighbourhoods in the centre of Athens, committed by right wing extremist activists, and linked this to the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn party. The assault on the applicant fits the pattern described in these reports.
Reasoning of the Court
In addition to overcrowding and bad material conditions overall, the finding of a violation on account of the conditions of detention in the police station was based upon lack of appropriate attention to the applicant’s medical condition. Indeed, upon his release he was wearing the same blood-stained clothes he had worn upon his arrest. He had not been offered clean clothes, nor had he been given the opportunity to shower or take care of his wounds.
The finding of a procedural violation of article 3 ECHR is based on shortcomings with respect to the gathering of evidence and several other flagrant shortcomings. The most interesting part of the Court’s reasoning is where it states (in paras 70-72) that the context in which the facts took place is of particular relevance. The Court refers to the above-mentioned reports on patterns of racist violence in Athens, finding that they concur on two central issues. One, since 2009 there has been a clear rise in incidents of racist violence, following the same pattern and taking place in the same areas. Two, the reports document serious shortcomings in the police response to such incidents, both in their interventions at the time of the incidents, and in their subsequent investigations.
The Court blames the Athens police for treating the facts as an isolated case and neglecting to put them in the context of this pattern of similar incidents. The Court states that the authorities should have looked for potential links between the pattern of racist incidents, and the assault on the applicant.
This reference to the racist context of the case is fairly muted. It is regrettable that the Court has not made explicit reference to the procedural obligation to investigate a potential racist motive: ‘when investigating violent incidents, State authorities have the additional duty to take all reasonable steps to unmask any racist motive and to establish whether or not ethnic hatred or prejudice may have played a role in the events’ (Bekos and Koutropoulos v Greece, para 69).
Yet I was struck mostly by the absence of any reference to the feature of this case that is probably most crucial in generating a perception of injustice; i.e. the fact that the reaction of the police, instead of going after the perpetrators, was to go after the victim. The applicant – victim of a horrible crime – was detained in degrading conditions, and was served with an expulsion order. Such reaction by the police contributes enormously to the vulnerability of undocumented migrants to all kinds of abuse, as it acts as a potent deterrent for them to submit any complaint. In its report on racist violence in Athens, Human Rights Watch has documented this chilling effect:
Police behaviour towards undocumented migrants who are the victims of racist attacks nurtures the lack of faith in the authorities and fear of arrest and deportation that deter so many others from even considering seeking assistance from law enforcement agencies. Hassan Mohammed was told bluntly at the Aghios Panteleimonas police station that he would be arrested if he tried to file an official complaint. … Indeed, the majority of undocumented migrants we interviewed did not report an attack to the police. Deeqa Ibrahim, a 19-year-old Somali, explained she did not go to the police “because lots of people get attacked and the police take them to the hospital and then don’t do anything. And they would ask for my papers and put me in jail …”
Human Rights Watch therefore recommends:
(to) Adopt and disseminate a clear policy providing that undocumented migrants who are victims of crime will not be subject to detention. A special streamlined procedure should be established to ensure that such victims are informed of and can avail themselves of mechanisms to remain in the country legally, at a minimum for the duration of the judicial process associated with their complaint.
It would be uncharacteristic for the European Court of Human Rights to give such detailed instructions to the state, especially in the sphere of immigration policy. Yet it could have recognized this factor among the causes of specific vulnerability of individuals in the applicant’s position. And it could also, among the positive obligations under article 3 ECHR, have formulated an obligation of result, without detailing the means, for example an obligation to create legal and human conditions that encourage victims of serious crimes of racist violence to report the facts to the police.