The Grand Chamber, universal civil jurisdiction for torture and Naït-Liman v. Switzerland

By Corina Heri, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam

On 15 March 2018, the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber issued its first judgment of the year. The case in question is Naït-Liman v. Switzerland, and it concerns the right of a refugee to seize a Swiss court with a civil claim for damages resulting from torture allegedly suffered in a third State, Tunisia. Specifically, the Grand Chamber examined whether – as a forum of necessity or as a matter of universal civil jurisdiction – the Swiss courts were required by Article 6 § 1 ECHR to examine the applicant’s civil claim for compensation against Tunisia. Like the Chamber, the Grand Chamber found that this was not the case, and considered that the Member States are under no international law obligation to provide universal civil jurisdiction for torture. Continue reading

A Casualty of Formalism: The Application of the Six-Month Rule in Kamenica and Others v. Serbia

By Corina Heri, PhD candidate at the University of Zürich / Visiting Scholar at Ghent University

On 27 October 2016, the Court published the Third Section’s decision in Kamenica and Others v. Serbia. That case concerns the alleged ill-treatment of 67 persons who fled Bosnia and Herzegovina during the conflict that broke out there in 1992 and who were subsequently interned in a Serbian detention camp. The Third Section applied the six-month rule to the case, finding that it had been brought out of time. Its decision raises questions about the strictness of the six-month rule and the application of a statute of limitations to grievous alleged violations of Article 3 ECHR. Granted, the application of a rigid time limit for bringing applications to Strasbourg fosters certainty and ensures that the proceedings before the Court take place within a useful time frame. However, decisions such as this one indicate that, in certain types of cases – here, a particularly grievous one that stood to be investigated in a post-conflict scenario – the Court’s emphasis of a strict time limit can seem decidedly formalistic.

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The Cestaro v. Italy Case and the “Prohibited Purpose” Requirement of Torture

This guest post was written by Christina Kosin, LL.M. (Edinburgh) and Ph.D. student and academic assistant within the Network of Excellence for the Law of Civil Security in Europe at the German Police University in Münster, Germany. See also the post she wrote for EU Law Analysis.

The main argument of this comment is that the recent Cestaro v. Italy case shows (once again)[1] that the “prohibited purpose” requirement of torture is not the only decisive criterion in distinguishing the crime from other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This comment is a reaction to the presumption by some legal scholars that the prohibited purpose criterion, explained below, is the most important element of torture and the only element which distinguishes it from other ill-treatment. The comment provides a short introduction to the case and elaborates on the issue at stake. Then, the facts of the Cestaro case are presented followed by a brief summary of and commentary on the Court’s main arguments with regard to the material breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

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Landmark European Court Decision Sends Clear Message on Ending Impunity for European Complicity in CIA Torture

This guest post was written by Amrit Singh. Amrit Singh is Senior Legal Officer for National Security and Counterterrorism at the Open Society Justice Initiative and acted as counsel in al Nashiri v. Poland.

In the woods, about 160 kilometres north of Warsaw, in a village called Stare Kiejkuty, sits a Polish intelligence base that was used during World War II by German intelligence officials and later by the Soviet military. More recently, during 2002 and 2003, in a joint operation with the Polish authorities, the CIA secretly imprisoned, tortured and ill-treated Abd al Rahim al Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah on that base. There, in a secluded villa hidden from sight, CIA interrogators subjected our client, al Nashiri, to mock executions while he stood naked and hooded before them; to painful stress positions that nearly dislocated his arms from his shoulders; and to threats of bringing in his mother to sexually abuse her in front of him.

On July 24, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights became the first Court to adjudicate through two cases–al Nashiri v. Poland, and Husayn (Abu Zubaydah) v. Poland–the flagrant rule of law violations associated with this joint operation.

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ECtHR Rules that Police Officers Can Slap Suspects in the Face Without Contravening Article 3 ECHR: Bouyid v. Belgium

Recently, the European Court of Human Rights failed to condemn Belgium for two incidents in which police officers slapped suspects of foreign origin – including a minor – in the face during police questioning in relation to trivial affairs. The Court specifically ruled that a one-time slap in the face did not, under the specific circumstances of the case, meet the threshold for applicability of art. 3 ECHR. Although the Court condemned the police officers in moral terms, in terms of human rights law their behaviour was apparently completely acceptable. In this post I will argue that the unanimous ECtHR ruling dramatically falls short of what one might expect from a human rights court.

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New Article: ‘Conflicts between Absolute Rights: A Reply to Steven Greer’

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my article ‘Conflicts between Absolute Rights: A Reply to Steven Greer’ in the latest issue of Human Rights Law Review.

The article can be found here.

This is the abstract:

Can absolute rights conflict? Is it permissible to torture a person to save others from torture? And what can judges learn from trolleys? In this article, presented as a reply to an article by Steven Greer, I investigate the above questions in the context of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Drawing on Gäfgen v Germany, I construct a hypothetical case of conflicting absolute rights, which cannot be resolved by the existing strands of legal reasoning in the case law of the Court. Instead, I argue, recourse must be had to moral reasoning. In discussing one of moral philosophy’s deepest conundrums—the Trolley Problem—I rely on the distinction between negative and positive obligations and between direct and indirect agency to unravel the dilemma. Translating the moral argument into legal reasoning, I conclude that in cases of conflicts between absolute rights, negative obligations principally trump positive obligations.

Khodorkovskiy in a cage

In the case of Khodorkovskiy v. Russia the Court reaffirmed that placing a person in a cage during a trial if the person is not predisposed to violence or there are no serious security threats, is degrading and violates Article 3.

The Court noted that the practice of placing a criminal defendant in a sort of a “special compartment” in a court room existed and probably continues to exist in several European countries (Armenia, Moldova, Finland). In some countries (such as Spain, Italy, France or Germany) the accused are sometimes placed in a glass cage during the hearing. Such a practice has occasionally been examined in the context of the guarantee of the presumption of innocence under Article 6 § 2 of the Convention (see Auguste v. France, Meerbrey v. Germany). In recent years the Court has begun to examine the practice also from the standpoint of Article 3 of the Convention. Thus, in the case of Sarban v. Moldova the applicant was brought to court in handcuffs and held in a cage during the hearings, even though he was under guard and was wearing a surgical collar. A violation of Article 3 of the Convention was found in a case where the applicant was unjustifiably handcuffed during public hearings (see Gorodnichev v. Russia). Handcuffing of the applicant gave rise to a violation of Article 3 of the Convention also in a situation where no serious risks to security could be proved to exist (see Henaf v. France, Istratii and Others v. Moldova).

I was wondering whether the experience of a person when put in the cage is of such a degrading nature to be considered under Article 3? Continue reading