Violence by prison staff to prisoners is equal to torture

JUDGMENT 

Cirino and Renne v. Italy 26-10-2017 (no. 2539/13 and 4705/13)

see here

SUMMARY

Mistreatment of prisoners by police authorities. The prisoners remained naked for days inside the cell, without blankets, sheets and mattresses, there was no sink and no windows. At the same time they were deprived of water and food. Both applicants were abused by guard groups, both day and night. Mr Renne was found with a broken rib and bruises. The behavior of prison staff is equal with torture. Impossibility to punish those responsible due to the abrogation of offenses and the systemic lack of legal provision for the torture offense under Italian law. The imposition of disciplinary sanctions does not offset the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators, since the imposition of disciplinary sanctions alone is not a sufficient response of the authorities to such a serious offense as torture. Only criminal prosecution is capable of providing the necessary preventive effect. Violation of Article 3 (torture and procedural aspects).

PROVISION

Article 3

PRINCIPAL FACTS 

The applicants in this case were Andrea Cirino and Claudio Renne, Italian nationals born in 1978 and
1975 respectively. Mr Cirino lives in Turin; Mr Renne was detained in Turin until he died in January
2017. Following his death, the proceedings have been continued by his daughter. At the time of the
events at issue, both applicants were detained in the Asti Correctional Facility.

Following an altercation between Mr Cirino and a prison officer on 10 December 2004, in which
Mr Renne intervened, the applicants were separately placed in solitary confinement. According to
their submissions, which were later confirmed by the findings of the domestic courts, they were
stripped of their clothes and remained naked for several days in cells in which the bed had no
mattress, sheets or covers, where there was no sink and the window had no window panes. They
were also subjected to the rationing of food and water. Both applicants were beaten by groups of
prison officers on a daily basis, during the day and at night. On 16 December 2004 Mr Renne was
admitted to hospital, where an examination revealed a fractured rib and widespread bruising.

In 2011 five officers were charged with ill-treatment with the aggravating circumstance of having
abused their position as civil servants. The applicants joined the proceedings as civil parties.

In its judgment of January 2012, the Asti District Court found that the evidence showed that the
events had occurred in the manner described by the applicants. The court considered it established
that Mr Cirino had been subjected to repeated physical violence from 10 to 29 December 2004 and
Mr Renne from 10 to 16 December 2004. It also found that at the time there had been a
“generalised practice of ill-treatment” in the Asti Correctional Facility, inflicted on prisoners
considered problematic. This had happened, according to the court, in a climate of impunity, due to
the acquiescence of high-level prison administrators.

The District Court held that the conduct of four of the prison officers amounted to infliction of bodily
harm. However, since the statutory limitation period for this offence had expired, it ordered that the
proceedings against them be discontinued. With respect to two of these officers, who had been
responsible for most or all of the acts of abuse at issue, the court considered that those acts could
be classified as torture pursuant to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, since Italy had failed to incorporate the
offence of torture into national legislation, the court had to conclude that there was no provision
under Italian law that would allow the conduct in question to be classified as torture. It thus had to
turn to other existing offences, namely the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to abuse of
authority against detained persons. However, the statutory limitation period for that offence had
also elapsed.

The four prison officers underwent disciplinary proceedings in relation to the conduct in question.
One of them was dismissed from his functions; the other three officers were either dismissed and
later reinstated or suspended for a temporary period.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT 

Article 3 (treatment)

As to the facts, the Court observed that the domestic court had found that the events in question
had occurred in the manner described by the applicants. The Court saw no valid reason to call those
findings in question.

As to the classification of the treatment sustained by the applicants, the Court considered that it
could be characterised as inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel suffering. The Court
noted in particular: that the applicants had been subjected to repeated physical violence at all hours
of the day and night for many consecutive days; that such treatment, inflicted on the applicants
while in the custody of prison officers – thus in a situation of vulnerability – had to have caused them
considerable fear, anguish and mental suffering in addition to their physical suffering; and that their
placement in solitary confinement had to have intensified their feelings of helplessness. Moreover,
the physical abuse had been coupled with extremely serious material deprivations – rationing of
food and water, lack of appropriate sanitary facilities, bedding or heating – and the applicants had
been additionally humiliated by being forced to remain naked for several days.

That treatment had been deliberate and carried out in a premeditated and organised manner.
Furthermore, the domestic courts had established that the treatment had been inflicted in the
context of a broader pattern of abuse of “problematic” detainees that could be found in the Asti
Correctional Facility at the time. There had thus been a purposive element underlying the illtreatment,
namely to punish the detainees concerned.

Having regard to those considerations, the Court concluded that the treatment inflicted on the
applicants had amounted to torture. There had accordingly been a violation of Article 3 in its
substantive aspect.

Article 3 (prosecution and punishment of those responsible)

In the Court’s view, the fact that the offences for which four of the prison officers of the Asti
Correctional Facility had been prosecuted had all been declared time-barred could not be attributed
to delays or negligence on the part of the domestic judicial authorities. Indeed, the domestic court
had taken a very firm stance and had not sought to downplay the conduct in question; it had made a
genuine effort to establish the facts and to identify the individuals responsible for the treatment
inflicted on the applicants.

However, since the domestic court had concluded that, under Italian law in force at the time, there
was no legal provision allowing them to classify the treatment in question as torture, it had had to
turn to other provisions of the Criminal Code, in particular relating to abuse of authority against
detained persons. In the Court’s view, those provisions were not capable of appropriately addressing
the acts of torture suffered by the applicants. The fact itself that the provisions were subject to
statutory limitation periods was at odds with the Court’s case-law concerning torture inflicted by
State officials.

Accordingly, the core of the problem lay in a systemic deficiency of the Italian criminal law
framework at the time, as the Court had already identified in a previous case.2 As a result of this
lacuna in the legal system, the domestic courts had been ill-equipped to ensure that treatment
contrary to Article 3 perpetrated by State officials did not go unpunished. The criminal legislation
which they had applied had been both inadequate for punishing the acts of torture inflicted on the
applicants and devoid of any deterrent effect.

Finally, the Court took note of the disciplinary proceedings against the four prison officers. It
considered, however, that the imposition of disciplinary sanctions alone was not an adequate
response by the authorities to acts in breach of one of the core rights of the Convention. Only
criminal prosecution was capable of providing the necessary preventive effect. Moreover, the
officers had not been suspended from duty during the investigation or trial. Such a measure was of
particular importance in a correctional context in order to ensure that persons who might have been
the victims of ill-treatment by State officials in custody were not discouraged from lodging
complaints or reporting such treatment.

The Court concluded that there had been a violation of Article 3 also in its procedural aspect.

Just satisfaction (Article 41)

The Court held that Italy was to pay Mr Cirino and Mr Renne’s daughter each 80,000 euros (EUR) in
respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 8,000 in respect of costs and expenses(echrcaselaw.com editing).


ECHRCaseLaw

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