Squatting of a hotel for 3 years for housing refugees. Conviction for violation of property rights and payment of 312,500 euros from Greece!

JUDGMENT

Papachela and Amazon S.A. v. Greece 03.12.20 (app. no. 12929/18)

see here

SUMMARY

The case concerned the occupation of a hotel for over three years by migrants and a group acting
out of solidarity with them. The hotel belongs to Ms Papachela and to a limited company, of which
she is the sole shareholder.

The applicants complained that the authorities had remained inactive when asked to evict the
squatters, who had remained in the hotel from April 2016 until July 2019, at which point they left
the premises of their own accord. In the meantime, the applicants had lodged a number of
complaints, which were either adjourned or not examined at all. A decision given by a Justice of the
Peace, ordering the eviction and recovery of possession of the hotel, was never enforced. During
that period Ms Papachela was forced to sell her house to cover the debts incurred as a result of the
squatters’ occupation (taxes, water and electricity bills) in order to avoid criminal proceedings.

The Court found in particular that, in view of the applicants’ interests, the authorities should have
taken the necessary measures to secure their right to peaceful enjoyment of their property, while
allowing for a reasonable period of time to find a satisfactory solution. By remaining inactive for over
three years, faced with a situation which had significant repercussions for the applicants’ property
rights, the national authorities had failed to strike a fair balance between the demands of the
general interest of the community and the requirements of protecting individual rights.

PROVISION

Article 1 of the First Additional Protocol

PRINCIPAL FACTS

The application was lodged by Aliki-Maria Papachela (a Greek national who was born in 1961 and
lives in Athens) and by a limited company, of which Ms Papachela is the sole shareholder.

In April 2016 Ms Papachela noticed that a group of people acting out of solidarity with refugees
were squatting in her hotel, which had been empty since March 2010, in the city centre of Athens.
She informed the police, but the officers present at the scene simply observed the squatters’
movements. Ms Papachela repeatedly filed complaints against different people. The applicants’
lawyer subsequently wrote to the public prosecutor complaining that no action had been taken to
evict the squatters. The prosecutor ordered a preliminary investigation.

In the meantime the solidarity group occupying the hotel illegally reconnected the electricity and
water. Ms Papachela’s company wrote to the State electricity and water boards to inform them of
the situation, but neither responded. However, in March 2017, Ms Papachela’s company was
ordered to pay a bill for 81,500 euros (EUR), a sum which had risen to EUR 141,990 by 12 February
2018.

In April 2017 Ms Papachela’s company lodged an interim-measure application with the Athens
Justice of the Peace seeking to have the squatters evicted from its hotel.

In May 2017 Ms Papachela was informed that an eviction order had been issued by the prosecutor,
but that it had not been enforced.

In July 2017 the Justice of the Peace (decision no. 1023/2017 of 26 July 2017) upheld the application
for an interim measure and ordered the “network for civil and political rights” to vacate the hotel, on
pain of a fine of EUR 1,000 and a two-month prison term for the group’s representative. The Justice
of the Peace noted in particular that in spite of Ms Papachela’s request of 22 April 2016 asking the
police to clear the hotel, no action had been taken. The judge also noted that, even though the
applicant had written in June 2016 to the chief of police and the Deputy Minister of the Interior, the
State had not provided her with any assistance, as a result of which she had filed a complaint against
them on 3 March 2017.

In August 2017 a bailiff notified the decision of the Athens Justice of the Peace to the Aghios
Panteleïmonas police station, requesting police intervention to clear the hotel of its occupants in
accordance with this decision. The bailiff subsequently renewed this request, unsuccessfully, on 6
and 18 September 2019, then again on 2 October 2019. Later on the applicants also appealed to the
State Legal Counsel’s office, which did not respond.

According to the applicants, their debt to the State for various taxes up to June 2017 amounted to
EUR 101,885.35, and the unpaid water bills, up to 12 February 2018, to EUR 141,990; in addition to
electricity bills; and the hotel’s net worth since its occupation had allegedly fallen from nine million
to four million euros.

In January 2018 Ms Papachela received a notice of confiscation in respect of her personal home as a
result of her debts to the State. She was forced to sell it to pay off her debts and avoid criminal
prosecution.

In January 2018 Ms Papachela’s company appealed to the Athens Justice of the Peace seeking the
eviction of the squatters. In August 2018 the national chief of police informed the Secretary General
of the Ministry of Migration Policy that the eviction decision would not be easy to enforce and that it
would first be necessary to identify places where they could be housed after leaving the hotel.

Ultimately, the occupation, which had begun in April 2016, ended in July 2019 when the squatters
left the hotel of their own accord.

Relying on Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) to the Convention, the applicants
complained of the illegal occupation of their hotel and of the State’s inaction in failing to resolve the
matter. They also complained that the authorities had refused to compensate them. They alleged
that they had had to pay taxes to the State as the legal proprietors of the hotel during that time.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT…

Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property)

The Court observed that the authorities’ failure to take steps to clear the applicants’ hotel of its
unlawful occupants, even though an eviction order had been issued by the public prosecutor, had
resulted in the property being unusable for several years, thus increasing the hotel’s financial burden
as a result of a significant accumulation of the building’s energy costs.

The Government justified the authorities’ inaction on public policy grounds, seeking in particular to
avoid the risk of a breach of the peace if forcibly removing dozens of people and clearing out a
building that had been squatted as part of a campaign by activists, but also on welfare grounds,
particularly bearing in mind that, at a time when the migration crisis had peaked, there were no
alternative housing solutions for the migrants in question.

The Court acknowledged that the fears caused by the above-mentioned considerations could justify
to some extent the authorities’ reluctance to carry out a rapid and sudden clearance of the building.
However, this could not justify such total and prolonged inaction on their part. In spite of the
applicants’ complaint in which they had requested immediate police assistance in evicting the
squatters from the hotel, the procedure had been delayed. Moreover, two complaints by the
applicants against the person responsible for the situation had never been examined.

Furthermore, the national electricity and water boards, which had agreed to resume their supply to
the hotel, even though the applicants had in the past cut off both electricity and water, had not
responded to the applicants’ appeal not to be held liable for any consumption generated by the
squatters. In spite of that, one year after the start of the hotel’s occupation, the national water
board had summoned Ms Papachela’s company to pay a bill of EUR 81,000 on pain of confiscation of
the hotel, a sum which had reached EUR 141,990 by 12 February 2018. The debt owed to the tax
authorities for various taxes reached EUR 101,885.35 in June 2017, of which EUR 22,000 per annum
corresponded to property tax.

In addition, the applicants had sought to reach an agreement with the State for the payment of
taxes and the water and electricity bills that had accumulated in respect of their property. They had
thus written to the State Legal Counsel, which was the only body empowered to negotiate such an
agreement, but had not received any reply. In January 2018 Ms Papachela received notice that her
personal home would be confiscated to cover debts owed to the State.

Lastly and importantly, decision no. 1023/2017 by which the Justice of the Peace, while noting the
inaction of the police authorities, had ordered, by way of an interim measure, the clearing of the
premises and the recovery of the hotel by the applicants, was never enforced. The police had failed
to respond to the four requests by which the bailiff mandated by the applicants had asked for police
assistance in enforcing the decision. Proceedings for the squatters’ eviction, brought by
Ms Papachela’s company in January 2018 before the Justice of the Peace, had not been dealt with by
July 2019, when they vacated the hotel of their own accord.

In view of the applicants’ interests, the authorities should have taken the necessary measures to
secure their right to peaceful enjoyment of their property, while allowing for a reasonable period of
time to find a satisfactory solution. By remaining inactive for over three years, faced with a situation
which had significant repercussions for the applicants’ property rights, the national authorities had
failed to strike a fair balance between the demands of the general interest of the community and the
requirements of protecting individual rights. There had therefore been a violation of Article 1 of
Protocol No. 1.

Just satisfaction (Article 41)

The Court held that Greece had to pay the applicants EUR 300,000 for loss of business (pecuniary
damage), EUR 2,500 in respect of costs and expenses. It also had to pay Ms Papachela EUR 10,000
for non-pecuniary damage.


ECHRCaseLaw

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