Police violence during the arrest of Roma suspects. Inhuman and degrading treatment. Ineffective research
R.R. and R.D. v. Slovakia 01.09.2020 (app. no. 20649/18)
Police violence. Inhuman and degrading treatment. Right to an effective investigation.
The applicants, belonging to the Roma tribe, were arrested during a police operation in an area of their camp and severely beaten on the grounds that they had resisted. The Constitutional Court rejected allegations of inhuman and degrading treatment or discrimination.
The Court reiterated that Article 3 of the Convention strictly prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, regardless of the victim’s conduct. The ECtHR found that the applicants’ conduct was not such as to require the use of exhaustive coercive measures and considered that the use of force during their arrest was excessive, thus violating Article 3 of the Convention in its substance.
In addition, the ECtHR found that the investigation was delayed, no eyewitnesses were examined, the forensic report was based on photographs of the injuries and the general practitioners’ diagnoses, and no on-site investigation was carried out. It also considered that there had been a breach of the procedural part of Article 3 of the ECHR.
The ECtHR subsequently found that, although the applicants did not put forward strong arguments for the alleged racial discrimination, the lack of a proper investigation into the existence of a racist motive for the attack was incompatible with the defendant State’s positive obligation to comply with Article 14 of reasonable measures to determine whether there is a national bias. It therefore found a violation of Article 14 of the ECHR in relation to the investigation and a non-violation of Article 14 with regard to racial discrimination.
The ECtHR awarded EUR 20,000 to each of the applicants for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 6,500 jointly for costs.
The applicants, R.R. and R.D., are Slovak nationals.
The case concerned their complaint of police ill-treatment, lack of a proper investigation, and
discrimination on the grounds of their Roma origin.
On 19 June 2013 a police operation was carried out at Budulovská St in the town of Moldava nad
Bodvou, which is in eastern Slovakia, with the declared purpose of searching for wanted persons and
objects originating from criminal activities. The operation on the street, which is home to a Roma
community, involved 63 officers, of which 15 were from the rapid-reaction force, and 23 vehicles.
The first applicant, R.R., submitted that he had been handcuffed, dragged outside his house and
beaten with truncheons. He had also been kicked by police officers and struck with an electroshock
weapon. A police report on his detention stated that he was suspected of having committed a minor
offence by disorderly conduct, that he had resisted being taken to the police station in connection
with it and that officers had used lawful force, such as holds, grabs, blows, kicks and handcuffs.
A forensic report of August 2014 found, among other things, that he had suffered a fractured rib and
had probably been hit by a baton on the back.
The second applicant, R.D., submitted that police officers had beaten him and struck him with an
electroshock weapon. He had also received blows from a baton on his right shoulder, back and the
left side of his legs. A police decision on his detention stated that he had resisted arrest aimed at
taking him to the police station in order to be investigated over a suspicion that he had also behaved
disorderly in the course of the operation and that force had been used on him according to the law,
consisting of holds, grabs, blows, kicks and handcuffing.
A forensic medical report of August 2014 found in particular that injuries on him had been caused by
a blunt, flat and oblong object, probably a baton. The injuries had been minor, and had not
necessitated any sick leave and any treatment longer than seven days.
In two consecutive procedures, the eastern unit of the Office of the Inspection Service of the Section
of Inspection and Audit of the Ministry of the Interior and the central Slovakia unit of the Inspection
Service carried out investigations into allegations by the applicants of ill-treatment, dismissing their complaints. The central unit’s findings were subsequently upheld by the Prešov regional prosecutor’s office.
In April and July 2016 the applicants lodged complaints about the termination of the proceedings
with the Constitutional Court. They alleged violations of their rights under Articles 3 (prohibition of
torture or inhuman or degrading treatment), 13 (right to an effective remedy) and 14 (prohibition of
discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights and their equivalents under the
Constitution and other international instruments.
They argued that the true aim of the operation had been retaliation for an earlier incident involving
the throwing of stones at a police car, with a view to intimidating their community and thereby
curbing the crime rate, rather than the stated aim of searching for wanted individuals and objects.
The investigation had also been lacking in promptness, effectiveness, and independence. Nor had
investigators examined independently the lawfulness of the use of coercive measures against them
and a possible racist motive, in particular as regards the planning of the operation.
The Constitutional Court declared the complaints inadmissible in September 2017. Among other
things, it noted the extent and intensity of the investigation by the central Slovakia unit of the police
inspection service, under the control of the Public Prosecution Service, upheld its effectiveness and
independence, found that the applicants’ allegations of abuse had either not been established or
had corresponded to a legitimate use of coercive measures, and that no discrimination had been
established within the scope of its jurisdiction.
The applicants complained of a violation of their rights under in particular Article 3 of the European
Convention as they had been mistreated by the police and the respondent State had failed to
protect them from that mistreatment by conducting an effective investigation into it and into
possible racist motives behind it.
Under the same provision, in conjunction with Article 14, they also complained that their Roma
ethnicity and what they considered to be institutional racism in Slovakia had been the decisive
factors in their alleged ill-treatment and in the alleged failure to conduct a proper investigation into
that ill treatment.
THE DECISION OF THE COURT…
Substantive limb of Article 3 of the Convention
In that regard, the Court reiterates that Article 3 of the Convention enshrines one of the most fundamental values of a democratic society. It prohibits in absolute terms torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, irrespective of the victim’s conduct One of the criteria informing the characterisation of a treatment under Article 3 is the severity of the treatment. In the present case, it has not been disputed that in the course of the operation of 19 June 2013 and more specifically in the course of their arrest the police resorted to the use of coercive measures against the applicants and that the applicants suffered bodily injuries.
At the domestic level, the use of force by the police in the course of the operation was not directly recorded. In so far as any force was used specifically against the applicants, it was noted only retrospectively in the decisions concerning their detention and in the reports concerning the use of coercive measures against them .In particular, it was noted that it had been necessary to use coercive measures against the applicants in order to effect their arrest since they had resisted and had been verbally aggressive.
However, as established by experts in medicine, a part of the applicants’ injuries had most likely been caused by beating with batons .
At the same time, the Court notes that there is no indication of any extraordinary circumstances, events or security incidents in relation to the realisation of the search operation of 19 June 2013 that would specifically justify the use of batons rather than the other coercive measures noted in the decisions and records motioned.
Moreover, and irrespective of the repressive or other character of the operation of 19 June 2013 as such, the Court notes that the behaviour which could have made the use of the coercive measures against the applicants necessary was not found to constitute an offence in relation to the first applicant. Even though it was found to constitute an offence in respect of the second applicant, the nature and intensity of his resistance or opposition to the police – directly relevant to the necessity of any coercive measures – were reflected in the rather moderate sanction imposed above.
The foregoing considerations are sufficient to enable the Court to conclude that the Government have failed to show that the use of force against the applicants to affect their arrest in the course of the operation of 19 June 2013 on Budulovská St was indispensable and not excessive. Consequently, the State is responsible, under Article 3 of the Convention, for the injuries sustained by them on that date.
There has accordingly been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention in its substantive limb.
Procedural limb of Article 3 of the Convention
The Court reiterates that where an individual raises an arguable claim that she or he has suffered treatment infringing Article 3 at the hands of the police or other similar agents of the State, that provision, read in conjunction with the State’s general duty under Article 1 of the Convention to “secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in … [the] Convention”, requires by implication that there should be an effective official investigation .
Accordingly, with a view to assessing the overall effectiveness of the investigation in question, on the facts of the present case the Court considers as crucial the following.
The applicants’ ill-treatment took place in the context of the operation conducted on 19 June 2013. Following media attention, criminal complaints and another submission, an initial investigation by the eastern unit of the Inspection Service was conducted and concluded with decision of 23 August 2013. While the first applicant’s subsequent appeals were dismissed, on 15 January 2014 a new investigation was opened.
The Court is of the view that in a case such as the present one the potential of an investigation is to a significant extent determined by the initial investigative response, in particular in so far as direct medical evidence, oral evidence from the actors and any in situ inspections are concerned.
In the applicants’ case, they were interviewed in February 2014, they were involved in an identity parade and face-to-face interviews, and expert evidence in respect of their injuries was obtained in August 2014. As for the evidence last mentioned, the respective reports themselves specify that the experts’ medical input data were limited to photographs of the applicants’ injuries and general practitioners’ notes, the latter having been taken by on‑call doctors after the ill-treatment and being rather general. In other words, in view of the time factor the expert witnesses had no opportunity to examine the applicants in person at the relevant time and the factual basis for their assessment was rather limited.
These considerations are sufficient for the Court to conclude that, despite the significant efforts in particular on the part of the central‑Slovakia unit of the Inspection Service and the PPS, the investigation as a whole was not adequate. Therefore, it was not effective for the purposes of Article 3.
There has accordingly been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention in its procedural limb.
The complaint in fact rather rests on the applicants’ contention that operations of the given type had predominantly been planned in Roma communities and they as a part of their local community had accordingly been targeted on account of their ethnicity.
In these circumstances, and taking into account the material in its possession as well as the applicable standard of proof , the Court is unable to take a position on whether racist attitudes played a role in the planning of the operation of 19 June 2013.
On the other hand, the Court finds the lack of a proper examination of that aspect of the case incompatible with the respondent State’s positive obligation under Article 14 of the Convention to take all reasonable steps to unmask any racist motive and to establish whether or not ethnic prejudice may have played a role in the applicants’ treatment.
The remainder of the applicants’ discrimination complaint consists of a claim that racism was a causal factor in the execution of the operation of 19 June 2013, that this aspect of the case was not properly examined, and that the investigation itself was conducted in an arbitrary fashion.
In assessing the respondent State’s response, the Court also takes into account that the applicants’ argumentation in appealing at the domestic level itself provided no specifics at all and was limited to a general claim that “a racist motive could not be excluded”, a reference to the “potential racist aspect of the case, including the potentially racist motive in the actions of the suspects” and observations that “all the alleged victims were Roma” and that “the officers’ motivation might have had to do with the victims’ ethnicity”.
Τhe Court concludes that they did not fail to examine the alleged discrimination in the execution of the operation of 19 June 2013. Moreover, in the light of all the material in its possession, the Court is unable to conclude that any racist attitudes played a role in the execution of that operation. There has accordingly been no issue of discrimination contrary to Article 14, in conjunction with Article 3 of the Convention in that connection.
Moreover, while being aware of the sensitive nature of the situation related to Roma in Slovakia at the relevant time, the Court reiterates that, when exercising its jurisdiction under Article 34 of the Convention, it has to confine itself, as far as possible, to the examination of the concrete case before it. Its task is not to review domestic law, but to determine whether the manner in which they were applied to or affected the applicant gave rise to a violation of the Convention In view of the above, (i) there has been a violation of the applicants’ rights under Article 14, in conjunction with Article 3 of the Convention, on account of the lack of investigation into the alleged discrimination in the planning of the operation of 19 June 2013, in so far as it concerned them, (ii) there has been no violation of their rights under these provisions in connection with the remainder of the applicants’ complaint.
Having regard to its findings of a violation of the applicants’ rights under Article 3 (procedural aspect) and under Article 14, in conjunction with Article 3, the Court considers that no issue arises calling for a separate examination on the merits of the complaint under Article 13 taken in conjunction with Article 3 of the Convention.