In Gäfgen v. Germany , the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was confronted with a difficult issue: can police officers threaten to torture a suspect if they believe this may save the life of an innocent child? The Court clearly answered that they cannot. However, it did leave what could at first sight be interpreted as an opening for such conduct: it held that the Convention had not been violated by the domestic decision declaring the evidence obtained as a result of the threat of torture admissible.
Gäfgen v. Germany concerned the following facts. A man had lured a child into his flat, killed him through suffocation and hidden the body. Afterwards he demanded a ransom of the parents who were unaware that their child had already been murdered. They paid the ransom after which the police followed and arrested the suspect. During his interrogation the police, acting under the assumption that the child was still alive, threatened the suspect with considerable suffering if he persisted in refusing to disclose the child’s whereabouts. The suspect subsequently confessed to the crime and disclosed the whereabouts of the child’s body. The German courts, having established that the confession of the suspect had been extracted under duress, did not allow it as evidence during the ensuing criminal trial. However, they did declare the evidence obtained as a result of the ill-treatment, including the child’s body and the tire tracks found at the dumping site, admissible. During the trial the suspect confessed again, despite having been made aware of his right to remain silent and of the inadmissibility of his earlier confession as evidence.
This case offers clear similarities to the ticking time bomb scenario that certain politicians, philosophers and lawyers use to claim that it is justified to torture one person, someone who is suspected of having planted a bomb somewhere, in order to save the lives of – possibly thousands of – others. This case also shows that too many factors of such a scenario are uncertain and that it can thus never take hold in reality.