The penalty of life imprisonment when there is no prospect of release of the detainee and the possibility of re-examining the sentence constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment
Petukhov v. Ukraine 12-3-2019(n. 2) (no. 41216/13)
The case mainly concerned a prisoner’s complaint that Ukrainian law did not provide for release on parole for life prisoners. Mr Petukhov, the applicant, has been serving a life sentence since 2004.
The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights because Mr Petukhov had no prospect of release from or possibility of review of his life sentence.
In particular, presidential clemency, the only procedure for mitigating life sentences in Ukraine, was
not clearly formulated, nor did it have adequate procedural guarantees against abuse. Furthermore,
life prisoners’ conditions of detention in Ukraine made it impossible for them to progress towards
rehabilitation and for the authorities to therefore carry out a genuine review of their sentence.
Given the systemic nature of the problem, the Court held under Article 46 (implementation) that
Ukraine should reform its system of reviewing whole-life sentences by examining in every case
whether continued detention was justified and by enabling whole-life prisoners to foresee what they
had to do to be considered for release and under what conditions.
The Court also held, unanimously, that there had been a further violation of Article 3 of the
European Convention because Mr Petukhov had not been provided with adequate medical care for
tuberculosis since July 2010.
The applicant, Volodymyr Petukhov, is a Ukrainian national who was born in 1973. He is currently
serving a sentence of life imprisonment following his conviction in 2004 of a number of serious
offences involving organised crime.
Between 2010 and 2014, suffering from tuberculosis, he was regularly examined by doctors and
given various screening and laboratory tests. He had a relapse in in July 2010 and was transferred to
a prison hospital in Kherson specialising in the treatment of TB. He was certified as having a
third-degree disability (the mildest) on account of his tuberculosis and some other health conditions.
Then his TB spread beyond his lungs and in 2011 he was diagnosed with genito-urinary TB, before
being told by doctors in 2013 that he had developed resistance to most anti-TB drugs and was
placed under palliative care. His health stabilised and in 2015 he was transferred to the Kyiv Pre-Trial
Detention Centre where he is still currently serving his sentence.
He complained to the prison authorities of inadequate medical care during that time, in particular
about shortages in the required drugs. In response, the prison authorities acknowledged in 2010,
2011 and 2012 that there was a shortage of anti-TB medication in Kherson prison hospital.
He also made several unsuccessful complaints between 2010 and 2015 to the prison and prosecuting
authorities, as well as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights, about the allegedly
appalling conditions of his detention in the prison hospital as well as in another facility in Kherson
where he had been detained for a few months in 2014.
The European Court has already found a violation of Article 3 of the Convention in another
application brought by Mr Petukhov (no. 43374/02) concerning inadequate medical care during the
period of his detention not covered by the current case, that is before July 2010 when he was
transferred to the Kherson prison hospital.
THE DECISION OF THE COURT
The Court found that Mr Petukhov had not properly substantiated his complaints concerning the
conditions of his detention and rejected them as inadmissible.
Article 3 (medical care in detention)
The Court disagreed with the Government that Mr Petukhov’s health had been satisfactory. On the
contrary, his TB had irreversibly deteriorated during his detention and became “incurable” in 2013
when he developed resistance to most anti-TB drugs.
As concerned the prison hospital, the authorities had even acknowledged on several occasions that
there had been a shortage of anti-TB medication. Furthermore, he had been administered with the
palliative care drug, isoniazid, despite having developed a resistance to it, making it ineffective, even
toxic for his body.
As for the facility where he is currently detained, the Government had not shown that any particular
medical arrangements had been made there for him.
Bearing in mind a number of other cases against Ukraine in which the Court had already noted
inadequate medical care for tuberculosis, it held that there had been a violation of Article 3 on
account of the authorities’ failure to safeguard Mr Petukhov’s health in detention since his transfer
to the prison hospital in July 2010.
Article 3 (whole-life sentences)
The Court noted that, for a life sentence to remain compatible with Article 3, there had to be both a
prospect of release and a possibility of review. The only possibility for mitigating life sentences in
Ukraine was presidential clemency.
The guidance under that procedure’s regulations was that life prisoners “may be granted clemency
in exceptional cases and subject to extraordinary circumstances”, without any explanation of exactly
what those terms meant. Whole-life prisoners did not therefore know from the outset what they
had to do in order to be considered for release and under what conditions.
Furthermore, there were inadequate procedural guarantees against abuse under the system.
Neither the Clemency Commission nor the President had to give reasons in their decisions regarding
clemency requests. Providing reports on the clemency authorities’ activities would compensate for
that lack of transparency, but, apart from an isolated media briefing in 2016, no such information
had been made public in Ukraine. That situation was further aggravated by the lack of any judicial
Moreover, for the review of a life sentence to be genuinely capable of leading to its commutation,
remission or termination or to conditional release, States had a duty to make it possible for life
prisoners to rehabilitate themselves. The Government had, however, failed to explain how life
prisoners could progress towards rehabilitation in conditions where they were segregated from
other prisoners and spent up to 23 hours per day in their cells, with few organised activities. The
Court therefore found that the current regime for life prisoners in Ukraine was incompatible with
the aim of rehabilitation.
Indeed, in practice the chances of a life prisoner being granted clemency were negligible. Since the
introduction of life imprisonment in 2000 only one clemency request from a life prisoner had been
Given those circumstances, the Court concluded that there had been a violation of Article 3 on
account of the fact that Mr Petukhov had no prospect of release from or possibility of review of his
The Court held, by five votes to two, that it had examined the main legal questions raised in the
present application, and that it was not necessary to give a separate ruling on the applicant’s
complaint under Article 8.
Article 46 (implementation)
The Court held that the case disclosed a systemic problem concerning life imprisonment in Ukraine.
There were already over 60 similar applications pending before the Court.
For the proper implementation of the judgment, Ukraine would therefore be required to put in place
a reform of the system of review of whole-life sentences to guarantee the examination in every case
of whether continued detention was justified on legitimate grounds and to enable whole-life
prisoners to foresee what they had to do to be considered for release and under what conditions.(echrcaselaw.com).