Petukhov v. Ukraine No. 2: Life Sentences Incompatible with the Convention, but only in Eastern Europe?

Lewis Graham is a PhD Student at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

Life sentences – that is, indefinite detention without any opportunity for release – is a thorny issue, and the involvement of the European Court of Human Rights in this field, particularly in cases concerning the United Kingdom, have recently courted great controversy. After a relatively quiet period, the Court has recently handed down a new judgment on these sentences – the first in two years – this time concerning Ukraine.

Like a number of other European states, Ukraine operates a fairly strict regime when it comes to life sentences. Any prisoner serving such a sentence who seeks release must rely on one of two routes to obtain it: they must prove that they have a serious, life-threatening illness or rely on a presidential clemency mechanism. The applicant in Petukhov v Ukraine (No 2), handed down 12 March 2019, challenged the Convention-compatibility of this scheme, in light of current case-law which suggests that life sentences will breach Article 3 ECHR if they do not include some “real prospect of release” (see e.g. cases against the UK, France, Hungary and many others).

It is well-established that allowing the vacation of a sentence on grounds that the prisoner is suffering from a serious illness is not, in itself, a legitimate mitigation of a sentence. Thus,  the main focus of the case at hand was the clemency route. The Court therefore analysed whether the applicant in this case had at his disposal a real “prospect of release” through the opportunity to obtain presidential clemency. Ultimately, it found that he did not, and found that Ukraine had breached Article 3 as a result. Continue reading