One of the legal provisions of the Greek Constitution that struck me most as a young law student was Article 120, paragraph 4. I still remember its impact on my thinking during my first year at the Law School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. This provision, whose origins can be found in the post-1821 years of the Greek Revolution and early constitutions of the country, says that ‘Greeks’ patriotism’ is entrusted with the observance of the constitution. It adds that Greeks have the right and the duty to resist by all possible means any attempts to abolish the Constitution by violence.
As far as I know this is a somewhat rare constitutional provision. Moreover, I think it is an example of one of the paradigm principles of democracy, because apart from indicating the rights of citizens, it also recalls that they have duties, both collectively and individually. Indeed, one of the major factors that may make democracies function properly is the effective participation of citizens in the evolution of their polities. As Pericles famously said, a citizen who is not involved in public matters is useless.
One of the fundamental rights and duties of a citizen is to vote for his/her country’s parliamentary elections. In this regard, ever since 1975, Article 51, paragraph 4, of the Greek constitution provides for the enactment of legislation that would enable Greek expatriates to vote in parliamentary elections wherever they happen to reside. However, more than forty years have passed and this law has not been adopted. It is clearly an area of policy which needs further thought and attention.
It was against this background and the government’s decision on 18 August 2007 to carry out early parliamentary elections on 16 September 2007 that Christos Giakoumopoulos, Stephanos Stavros and myself met up in early September 2007 and, after some discussion on the subject, decided to ‘do something’ in order to exercise our voting rights.
This ‘something’ was no less than an application to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that Greece had violated our ‘right to free elections’ as enshrined in Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This Article provides for the obligation of states to create conditions that ‘ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature’, an obligation that Greece had not fulfilled at that time, and still has yet to do so. Yes, we were determined to act, and to do so speedily since the early parliamentary elections were due in two weeks’ time.
Nonetheless, we were far from sure that we would have any impact on Greek state practice, let alone win the case in Strasbourg. Actually I remember discussing the lodging of this application in London with a well-known human rights lawyer who told me ‘forget it’. He was sure that we had no chance whatsoever to win. And he was not alone to warn me. Others also told me, in rather derisory tones, that we could surely afford to pay the €500 or so travel expenses in order to get ourselves to Greece in time to vote. But this was not the point. Nor did it concern me alone. The question was much more fundamental: should Greek citizens really have to pay money to exercise their basic human rights?
Although, according to the ECHR, we did not need to exhaust any domestic legal remedies before addressing the Court, we thought it was proper to make a formal contact with the Greek authorities beforehand. So I drafted a joint letter to the Ambassador of Greece to France in Paris and faxed it to his offices on 10 September 2007. By this means, the three of us – Greek citizens, staff members of the Council of Europe, and residents of Strasbourg – were formally submitting a request to the Greek authorities to take urgent and appropriate measures to enable us to vote in France for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
On 12 September 2007 we received an urgent reply from the Greek ambassador. He noted that the Greek state intended to facilitate the voting by Greek expatriates in their countries of residence but given that no law to that effect had been adopted yet, our voting in France was de facto impossible. It was an important admission. In other words, the Greek authorities not only acknowledged the long-standing existence of a legal obligation, under ECHR and the Greek Constitution, to pass the appropriate legislation, but also admitted the state’s failure to fulfill this obligation which had been pending, unimplemented, since 1975.
Eight days later I crossed the bridge between the Palais de l’Europe and the Palais des Droits de l’Homme and handed a blue folder to the secretary of the Court’s Greek division. It contained the application that I had drafted in co-operation with my other two Greek colleagues, and was formally identified as No: 42202/07, Sitaropoulos et autres c. Grèce. The case was later renamed Sitaropoulos et Giakoumopoulos c. Grèce, given that the third colleague subsequently withdrew his participation.
I will not elaborate on the legal arguments put forward to substantiate a violation of the Convention due to the fact that we could not vote in Greece on 16 September 2007. The essence of our claim was that to travel from Strasbourg to Samos, Corfu and Thessaloniki, where each of us had our respective voting venues, would involve a total of about two days of travel, including multiple flights or very long drives, the distance from Strasbourg to Thessaloniki being around 2 000 kms. We added that we found unreasonable the fact that while expatriates can vote for the elections of the European Parliament in Greek consulates in whatever country they happened to reside , Greece was unable to organize similar arrangements in the case of their parliamentary elections.
On 8 July 2010, the Court’s First Chamber delivered its judgment. It was in our favour, by five against two deciding judges. Although the judgment noted that states are autonomous when it came to regulating their voting procedures, it found that Greece had indeed violated the Convention; it confirmed that there had been no enactment of the law provided for by the Greek constitution enabling expatriates to vote from abroad for more than three decades. The Court took also into account the relevant state practices in Europe which indicated that the vast majority of European states authorized and made it possible for their expatriates to vote from abroad for parliamentary elections.
Particularly heartening to me was the partly dissenting opinion of Judges Spielmann and Jebens. They believed that, given the finding of a violation of a fundamental right, the Court should have awarded us just satisfaction in order to redress the moral harm that we had suffered. This opinion is just one page long but its tone and sensitivity touched me a great deal. It brought to my mind the famous acclamation of the humble miller in Potsdam, ‘There are still judges in Berlin’.
The judgment was a cause for celebration and gave us all much joy. It was an outcome that could benefit not just us as applicants but also around four million Greeks living abroad. With a group of Greek friends I fêted our victory by drinking beer at the terrace of Franchi’s, opposite the Court. Our hope was that there would be no appeal of this judgment by the government, that it would become final and that we would be able to exercise our voting rights from Strasbourg for the next elections.
As was to be expected, the Chamber judgment attracted considerable international and national media attention. It even seemed to trigger or at least accelerate legislative changes in Turkey, which created an overseas voters registry in 2012, allowing Turkish expatriates to vote in the countries of their residence for parliamentary elections. In recent years, Albania too appears to be moving in this direction, another European country whose government has reportedly made clear its aim to grant out-of-country voting rights to expatriates.
This was not, however, the case with Greece. Our hopes proved to be only wishful thinking. On 7 October 2010 the Greek government requested that the Chamber’s judgment be referred to the Grand Chamber. One of the government’s main arguments was that the judgment distanced itself from the Court’s established case law that grants national authorities a large margin of appreciation in matters relating to voting rights.
On 22 November 2010 the Court accepted the government’s request and the case was referred to the Grand Chamber which delivered its judgment on 15 March 2012. This followed a hearing on 4 May 2011 in which I participated along with the Greek lawyer, Yannis Ktistakis, who had taken over the case. Although I was familiar with the Court, having worked in its building for more than three years, it was quite stressful to be sitting there for almost three hours, alone with my lawyer and his assistant, having the entire mechanism of the Greek state, represented by two lawyers, ranged before me. A couple of questions which were posed by the judges at the end of the hearing made me realize that at least some members of the Grand Chamber were not entirely certain that Greece was under an obligation, under ECHR, to give effect to our voting rights abroad.
Regrettably, my fear proved to be true. The Grand Chamber overturned the 2010 judgment by a unanimous vote. All 17 judges concluded that there was no violation of the Convention given that the very essence of our voting rights had not actually been impaired. Some of the major arguments on which this conclusion was based were that under international law, states had no obligation to enable expatriates to exercise their right to vote. The Court, therefore, could not instruct Greece on how and when and in what manner it should give effect to Article 51, paragraph 4, of its Constitution. The judgment also noted that the government had actually made an unsuccessful attempt to pass relevant legislation in 2009. In addition, it determined that the disruption to our financial, family and professional lives caused by our travel to vote in Greece in 2007, would not have been disproportionate.
Like most Grand Chamber judgments, this too became a cause célèbre and gave rise to a number of academic publications and press releases in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. Notably, Lina Papadopoulou, a Constitutional Law Professor, clearly pointed out in an article she published a day after the Grand Chamber judgment, that although Greece might be absolved from an international duty to regulate expatriates’ voting rights, it remained under its own constitutional obligation to do so.
Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos also became a textbook case taught in constitutional and European human rights law courses from that time. In the major ECHR reference book by Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick (OUP 2014) the Grand Chamber judgment is cited with disappointment noting that ‘the unanimous ruling did not acknowledge – as the Chamber judgment did- the crippling impact on voting rights that the lack of absent voting facilities may have on expatriates unable to afford to travel to Greece to vote’.
So perhaps our efforts were not in vain. Apart from the above-mentioned electoral policy changes in certain states following these judgments, experts have noted that there is now a clear trend in favour of out-of-country voting in Europe. In this context, Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos is mentioned as a landmark case and has definitely contributed to this evolution. More recent case law of the Strasbourg Court has also indicated that globalization and modern technology changes should be considered as factors favouring out-of-country voting nowadays.
As regards Greece in particular, the efforts to give Greek expatriates their voting rights have not ceased. As of April 2016, a law proposal to this effect, tabled by seventy-five Greek MPs, has been pending in the Greek parliament, while earlier this year the government announced its intention to launch a public debate on this issue, expressly acknowledging the existence in Europe of a trend that favours out-of-country voting.
Application No. 42202/07 was an enriching adventure for me. Although its end was not an entirely happy one, the journey towards it gave me great satisfaction because I felt that it contributed to the evolution of law and policy concerning a fundamental political right for every human being: that of voting for one’s national parliament. In addition, it was the fulfillment of a civic obligation I believe I had towards my country’s democratic institutions and values that, as a first year law school student, I had discovered that I had the constitutional right and duty to defend. In addition, it fulfilled a moral obligation I felt I had as a staff member of the Council of Europe, an international organization which enshrined the highest standards of democracy and human rights whose protection, I also believe, should start at home.
Migrant Ill-treatment in Greek Law Enforcement—Are the Strasbourg Court Judgments the Tip of the Iceberg? – article in European J’l of Migration & Law
Numerous instances of migrant ill-treatment, including torture, in Greek law enforcement have been recorded over a long period of time by international human rights monitoring organisations. The frequent reporting of such incidents though was not accompanied by any major judgments by the Strasbourg Court until Alsayed Allaham and Zontul in 2007 and 2012 respectively. The article provides an analysis of these first major judgments which usefully shed light on the underlying, long-standing systemic failures of the Greek law, as well as of the law enforcement and judicial authorities’ practice. It is argued that the above judgments are in fact only the tip of the iceberg. For this, the author looks into the process of supervision of these judgments’ execution by Greece, which is pending before the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, as well as into alarming reports issued notably by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Greek Ombudsman. The article also highlights the question of racial violence that has not been tackled in the aforementioned judgments. However, the national Racist Violence Recording Network and the Greek Ombudsman have recorded numerous cases of racist violence by law enforcement officials targeting migrants and the ineffective response by the administrative and judicial authorities. The article concludes with certain recommendations in order to enhance Greek law and practice and eradicate impunity.
An earlier version was published in February 2017 at SSRN: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2921109
SMM v. UK, ECtHR judgment of 22 June 2017
This is an interesting Chamber judgment that highlights the need for prompt state action and review of the lawfulness of detention of particularly vulnerable migrants, such as those suffering from mental illness.
In addition, the judgment sheds some light at the long-standing issue of migrant detention in the UK which remains with no fixed time limits, despite the repeated recommendations made by national and international human rights institutions.
In view of these two major elements, the Court found a violation of Article 5§1 ECHR having considered the fact that the applicant (national of Zimbabwe) had been detained for over two and a half years.
Link to judgment: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-174442
Ill-Treatment of Migrants in Greek Law Enforcement – Are the Strasbourg Court Judgments the Tip of the Iceberg?
Originally posted on the Blog of Border Criminologies, Oxford University.
A number of reports by international human rights organisations, like CPT and Amnesty International, have recorded numerous cases of ill-treatment, including torture, suffered by migrants while under the control of Greek law enforcement officials. Despite the frequent reporting of such incidents there have not been any major cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights (‘Strasbourg Court’ or ‘the Court’) until recently. In 2003 the first application (Alsayed Allaham), concerning the ill-treatment of a Syrian migrant by police in Athens, was lodged. The 2007 judgment against Greece in Alsayed Allaham was followed by another judgment in 2012 in the Zontul case condemning Greece once more for failing to investigate the rape of a Turkish asylum-seeking detainee by a coast guard officer in Crete. Both cases demonstrated the need for structural changes in Greek law and practice in order to eradicate impunity and ill-treatment in the law enforcement sector.
In both cases the Court found violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) highlighting faults in judicial and administrative proceedings. In Alsayed Allaham it was noted that the appeal court that acquitted the policeman for ill-treatment relied on testimonies of five eye-witnesses, three of whom were police officers, and gave no credit to medical reports that had verified the applicant’s injuries. In addition, no weight was given to the fact that the Head of the Greek police himself had sanctioned the two policemen involved in the applicant’s ill-treatment.
In Zontul the Strasbourg Court found that the administrative investigation and the subsequent criminal proceedings had been seriously flawed. Among the major shortcomings identified by the Court in the coast guard investigation was the failure to ensure the examination of the victim by a medical doctor despite the victim’s request and the improper recording of the victim’s statement as a ‘slap’ and ‘use of psychological violence’, instead of a rape. The sentence imposed on the officer, a suspended term of six months’ imprisonment for bodily injury and sexual dignity-related offences, was commuted to a fine of €4.40 per day of detention.
These two cases highlighted some key failings of the domestic criminal law system. First, the clemency of the criminal sanction imposed on the coast guard officer was manifestly disproportionate in relation to the gravity of the ill-treatment. It also did not demonstrate a deterrent effect nor did it provide an adequate remedy to the victim.
Second, Zontul shed light on a major flaw in Greek law and practice concerning the definition of torture in the criminal code (see more in author’s blog post). The Court stressed that, on the basis of its own and other international courts’ case law, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, rape with an object constitutes an act of torture and consequently a clear and substantive violation of Article 3 ECHR. However, according to Article 137A§2 of the Greek criminal code, in order for an act to be defined as torture it requires a ‘planned’ (μεθοδευμένη) infliction of severe physical, and other similar forms of pain on a person by a public official. This requirement, which does not exist in the definition of torture contained in Article 1 of the 1984 Convention against Torture, makes prosecution and sanctioning extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The culture of impunity of ill-treatment is compounded by the enactment in recent years of a number of laws (e.g. Laws 3904/2010, 4093/2012) that aim to decongest Greek prisons by converting custodial sentences into pecuniary penalties and community service. Regrettably these laws have been applied indiscriminately to cases of ill-treatment by the police. This practice raises serious issues of compatibility with international standards, including the Strasbourg Court’s case law (e.g. Gäfgen v. Germany), according to which penalties imposed in this context should be adequate and dissuasive.
Another fault noted by the Court concerns the prescription terms for serious offences, including torture, by state officials. Because these are subject to ordinary prescription provisions, even where the Strasbourg Court finds a violation of Article 3 ECHR for torture that occurred more than 15 years earlier (as in Zontul), the offender cannot be prosecuted and sanctioned. According to the Greek code of criminal procedure, reopening a case may occur only if this could ameliorate the defendant’s position. However, under the Strasbourg Court’s case law (e.g. Yeter v. Turkey,) when a state agent is accused of crimes that violate Article 3 ECHR, the prosecution must not be time-barred and the granting of an amnesty or pardon should not be permissible.
Unfortunately, the Court in its judgments in Alsayed Allaham and Zontul failed to highlight the the potential racial bias by law enforcement officers in the ill-treatment of migrants. According to the CPT visit reports on Greece, since 1997 there has been a clear pattern of migrant ill-treatment among Greek law enforcement occasionally with flagrantly racist overtones. In addition, the yearly incidents of racist violence involving law enforcement officials, which were recorded from 2012 to 2015 by the national Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) ranged from 11 to 31 per year, pointing to the prevalence of racist incidents in Greek territory.
Yet, Alsayed Allaham and Zontul reveal the institutionalised ill-treatment against migrants by Greek law enforcement officials. As noted in the 2015 CPT visit report on Greece, in defiance of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the national authorities consistently refuse to consider the violence of the police as a serious, systematic problem. As a consequence, the authorities have not taken adequate measures to combat it and eliminate impunity for serious human rights violations.
Evidence of the ill-treatment of migrants can also be found in the Greek Ombudsman’s reports. In 2007, for example, the annual report referred to cases of serious ill-treatment of migrants by coast guard officers. In a special report on racist violence in Greece issued in 2013 the Ombudsman noted that in 2012 their office received 17 complaints (involving migrants and a national of migrant origin) concerning inappropriate attitudes of police officers which were probably racially biased. The Ombudsman’s 2015 annual report referred to two more cases concerning the ill-treatment of five migrants following their arrest by police officers in Athens.
Three things need to change. First, Greece needs to establish an effective administrative mechanism to eradicate impunity and to provide adequate redress to all victims of ill-treatment. The latest complaint mechanism established by Law 4443/2016 is certainly a positive step. Yet it falls short of fulfilling the condition of effectiveness given the national complaint mechanisms is chaired by the Ombudsman, who is only empowered to issue non-binding reports.
Secondly, there is a need for a holistic overhaul of criminal law and practice concerning torture and other forms of ill-treatment, as well as of the relevant sentencing policy. The definition of torture contained in the Greek criminal code is in breach of international and European standards. This is one of the major reasons for the long-standing state of impunity for serious human rights violations in the country. At the same time, the criminal law provisions on prescription, conversion of custodial sentences and reopening of cases after Strasbourg Court’s judgments need to be reviewed and amended to ensure victim’s full redress.
Last but not least, particular attention needs to be given by the authorities to migrants who are easily subject to abusive behaviour, including ill-treatment, by law enforcement officials and very often remain voiceless victims. To this end, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has usefully recommended that states place law enforcement agencies under a statutory obligation to promote equality and prevent racial discrimination, including racist violence, in carrying out their functions. Enshrining this obligation in law would oblige these agencies to design and implement specific programmes, such as systematic training and awareness-raising of all staff.
In view of the above, the ill-treatment of migrants in Greek law enforcement cannot but be considered as a long-standing systemic problem that calls for sustained and determined action by the state. In a rule-of-law based democracy, law enforcement officers are and should act as professional upholders of the law and providers of services to the public. A precondition for achieving this is the development of policies and practices that oblige all state agents to respect human dignity, irrespective of one’s origin and status.
Sitaropoulos, Nikolaos, Migrant Ill -Treatment in Greek Law Enforcement – Are the Strasbourg Court Judgments the Tip of the Iceberg? (2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2921109
The paper provides an analysis of the first major judgments of the Strasbourg Court which usefully shed light on the underlying, long-standing systemic failures of the Greek rule of law. The author argues that these judgments are in fact only the tip of the iceberg. For this the paper looks into the process of supervision of these judgments’ execution by Greece, which is pending before the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, as well as into alarming reports issued notably by CPT as well as by the Greek Ombudsman. The paper also highlights the question of racial violence that has not been so far the subject of analysis in the Court’s judgments concerning ill-treatment in Greece. However, a number of reports, especially the annual reports of the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network since 2012, record numerous cases of racist violence by law enforcement officials targeting migrants and the ineffective responses by the administrative and judicial authorities. The paper’s concluding observations provide certain recommendations in order to enhance Greek law and practice and eradicate impunity.
In the course of its visits since 1993 and reports on Greece the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has recorded numerous cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. In its 2015 visit report on Greece, CPT noted that infliction of ill-treatment by law enforcement agents, particularly against foreign nationals, including for the purpose of obtaining confessions, continues to be a frequent practice. As noted in an earlier post, ill-treatment in Greece has in fact acquired an institutionalised form. For this, CPT considered essential for the Greek authorities to promote a “culture change where it is regarded as unprofessional to resort to ill-treatment”.
The latest report by CPT made also clear that one of the major reasons for this state of affairs is impunity due to lack of convictions. One of the major reasons for this is the problematic definition of torture in Greek law. This definition was introduced into the criminal code (Article 137A§2) in 1984 by Law 1500, although introduction of statutory legislation was prescribed already by Article 7§2 of the 1975 Greek Constitution. Torture is defined in Article 137A§2 primarily as the “planned” (μεθοδευμένη) infliction by a state official on a person of severe physical, and other similar forms of, pain. Under the established Greek case law and doctrine in order for the infliction of pain to be considered as “planned” it must be repeated and have a certain duration.
Domestic Greek law and practice on torture is clearly at variance with international human rights law standards. This was highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights (“the Strasbourg Court” or “the Court”) in 2012 in Zontul c. Grèce, a case concerning a Turkish asylum seeker who in 2001, while in detention on Crete, was raped with a truncheon by a coast guard officer. The naval tribunals, both in first instance and on appeal, did not qualify the applicant’s rape with a truncheon as torture but as an affront to the victim’s sexual dignity, an offence that, under Article 137A§3 of the criminal code, is sanctioned with imprisonment of at least three years (while torture is a felony and punished with at least five years’ imprisonment). In Zontul the actual penalties that were finally imposed on the main perpetrator and his accomplice were six and five months’ imprisonment, which were suspended and commuted to fines. The Strasbourg Court found a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture) ECHR noting, inter alia, that a detainee’s rape by a state agent has been considered as torture in its own case law as well as by other international courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Indeed, the conditioning of torture upon the existence of a “planned” infliction of severe pain raises serious issues of compatibility of the Greek criminal law with international human rights law. Firstly, it finds no ground in ECHR and the Strasbourg Court’s case law. In 2010 in Gäfgen v. Germany, the Grand Chamber of the Court noted that in determining whether ill-treatment can be classified as torture, consideration must be given to the distinction between this notion and that of inhuman or degrading treatment. The Court added that it appears that it was the intention that ECHR should, through this distinction, attach a special stigma to deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel suffering. Apart from the severity of the treatment, there is a purposive element to torture. To support this the Court noted, as primary treaty-reference, the 1984 Convention against Torture (CAT), where (Article 1) torture is defined in terms of the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering with the aim, inter alia, of obtaining information, inflicting punishment or intimidating.
As noted by the Strasbourg Court in Zontul (para. 47) in fact the draft text of CAT provided the model for defining torture in Law 1500/1984 that introduced the definition of torture into the criminal code. In addition, Greece by Law 1782/1988 ratified CAT, without any substantive reservations to the text of that treaty. Actually Law 1782/1988 constitutes a literal transposition into Greek law of CAT, including the definition of torture contained in Article 1 CAT. In view of the above it is hard to understand the deviation of the criminal code definition from international standards that appeared to guide the Greek law makers in 1984. The only logical explanation may be a wrong translation into Greek of the wording of Article 1 CAT.
In addition, the word “planned” is a vague term from a legal point of view that may ignite various interpretations. By its 2012 concluding observations, the UN Committee against Torture called on Greece to amend the torture definition in the criminal code so that it is “in strict conformity with and covers all the elements” provided for by Article 1 CAT and meets “the need for clarity and predictability in criminal law”.
The current wording of the Greek criminal code, and its application by the Greek courts, is clearly at variance with both CAT and ECHR and needs to be amended. Under Article 28§1 of the Greek Constitution, CAT and ECHR upon their ratification became an integral part of domestic law and prevail over any contrary provision of domestic law. As noted by A.A. Fatouros, when debating the above provision in 1975 in parliament, there was an overall agreement among the law makers that the Greek Constitution by Article 28§1 gives enhanced formal validity to both customary and conventional international law so that they prevail over both prior and subsequent statutory legislation. In fact the then Minister of Justice stated that the Greek government accepted the increased validity of treaties par excellence.
The execution by Greece of Zontul is still subject to supervision, under Article 46 ECHR, by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (CM), along with ten more cases (Makaratzis group of cases) against Greece concerning, inter alia, excessive use of force, ill-treatment by law enforcement officials and lack of effective investigations. The CM supervision has so far focused on the need for Greece to establish an effective administrative complaint mechanism for such cases. A mechanism provided for by Law 3938/2011 never became operational. Law 4443/2016, published on 9 December 2016, defined the Greek Ombudsman as the new national complaint mechanism covering all law enforcement and detention facility agents. The Ombudsman was given the competence for collecting, registering and investigating (also ex officio) individual complaints, and was accorded the power of issuing a report with non-binding recommendations addressed to the disciplinary bodies of the law enforcement authorities concerned.
Although this is a positive step, concern about the effectiveness of this new mechanism has been voiced by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in a letter on the draft law which he addressed to the Greek government in July 2016. The primary reason for this concern is the non-binding force of the Ombudsman’s recommendations. However, even if the new complaint mechanism had been provided with stronger safeguards of effectiveness it would not have been in a position, on its own, to provide redress to victims of torture without an amendment of the criminal code or a change of the established domestic case law.
As stressed by the Strasbourg Court (see e.g. Zontul; Gäfgen) in cases of a person’s ill-treatment while in detention, or wilful ill-treatment contrary to Article 3 ECHR, adequate means of remedy is the one provided by criminal law. In order for an investigation to be effective in practice the state should enact criminal law provisions penalising practices that are contrary to Article 3. The Court in Zontul made it clear that the current Greek criminal code and case law do not fulfil this vital requirement. The best solution and way forward would be an amendment of Article 137A§2 of the criminal code so that it is fully aligned with the standards contained in ECHR and CAT.
In B.A.C. v. Greece, judgment of 13 October 2016, the Strasbourg Court found (potential) violations of ECHR highlighting two major issues: the non-delivery by Greece of a final decision on the Turkish asylum seeker’s application for approx. 12 years; and the substantial risk of ill-treatment by Turkey in case of a forced return.
The case concerned a political activist who had been detained and tortured in Turkey in mid- late 1990s. His extraditions request had been rejected by Greece.
The judgment has potential ramifications for other similar cases of Turkish asylum seekers pending in (or forthcoming) Greece/Strasbourg.
Link to press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng-press?i=003-5517200-6939523
In five judgments rendered on 12 July 2016 by the Strasbourg Court France was found to have violated, inter alia, Art. 3 ECHR due to the administrative detention of minor migrants along with their parents subject to deportation in Toulouse and Metz. The cases are: A.B. and Others v. France, R.M. and M.M. v. France, A.M. and Others v. France, R.K. v. France, and R.C. v. France.
The issues had been raised in another widely-cited case, Popov v. France, 2012. The repetitive nature of these judgments is indicative of the structural problems inherent in migrant detention in France and the rest of Europe. It also shows the need for establishing clearly in national law a prohibition of migrant children and a clear framework for applying alternative to detention measures. The “last resort” rule appears to be highly dysfunctional in practice.
Excerpt on violation of Article 3 from: A.B. et autres c France, arrêt du 12 juillet 2016:
1. Principes applicables
107. La Cour rappelle que l’article 3 de la Convention ne ménage aucune exception. Cette prohibition absolue, par la Convention, de la torture et des peines ou traitements inhumains ou dégradants montre que l’article 3 consacre l’une des valeurs fondamentales des sociétés démocratiques qui forment le Conseil de l’Europe (Soering c. Royaume-Uni, 7 juillet 1989, § 88, série A no 161).
108. Pour tomber sous le coup de l’article 3, un mauvais traitement doit atteindre un minimum de gravité. L’appréciation de ce minimum est relative par essence ; elle dépend de l’ensemble des données de la cause, et notamment de la nature et du contexte du traitement, ainsi que de ses modalités d’exécution, de sa durée, de ses effets physiques ou mentaux, ainsi que, parfois, du sexe, de l’âge et de l’état de santé de la victime (voir, entre autres, Raninen c. Finlande, 16 décembre 1997, § 55, Recueil des arrêts et décisions 1997-VIII).
109. La Cour rappelle qu’elle a conclu à plusieurs reprises à la violation de l’article 3 de la Convention en raison du placement en rétention d’étrangers mineurs accompagnés (voir Muskhadzhiyeva et autres c. Belgique, no 41442/07, 19 janvier 2010 ; Kanagaratnam c. Belgique, no 15297/09, 13 décembre 2011 ; Popov, précité) ou non (voir Mubilanzila Mayeka et Kaniki Mitunga c. Belgique, no 13178/03, CEDH 2006‑XI ; Rahimi c. Grèce, no 8687/08, 5 avril 2011). Dans les affaires concernant le placement en rétention d’enfants étrangers mineurs accompagnés, elle a notamment conclu à la violation de l’article 3 de la Convention en raison de la conjonction de trois facteurs : le bas âge des enfants, la durée de leur rétention et le caractère inadapté des locaux concernés à la présence d’enfants.
2. Application au cas d’espèce
110. La Cour constate qu’en l’espèce, et à l’instar de l’affaire Muskhadzhiyeva et autres, l’enfant des requérants était accompagné de ses parents durant la période de rétention. Elle estime cependant que cet élément n’est pas de nature à exempter les autorités de leur obligation de protéger l’enfant et d’adopter des mesures adéquates au titre des obligations positives découlant de l’article 3 de la Convention (ibid., § 58) et qu’il convient de garder à l’esprit que la situation d’extrême vulnérabilité de l’enfant est déterminante et prédomine sur la qualité d’étranger en séjour illégal (voir Popov, pécité, § 91 ; comparer avec Mubilanzila Mayeka et Kaniki Mitunga, précité, § 55). Elle observe que les directives européennes encadrant la rétention des étrangers considèrent à ce titre que les mineurs, qu’ils soient ou non accompagnés, comptent parmi les populations vulnérables nécessitant l’attention particulière des autorités. En effet, les enfants ont des besoins spécifiques dus notamment à leur âge et leur dépendance.
111. La Cour note que, lors de la rétention en cause, l’enfant des requérants était âgé de quatre ans et qu’il fut retenu avec ses parents pendant dix-huit jours au centre de Toulouse-Cornebarrieu.
112. Concernant les conditions matérielles de rétention, la Cour constate que le centre de Toulouse-Cornebarrieu compte parmi ceux « habilités » à recevoir des familles en vertu du décret du 30 mai 2005 (voir paragraphe 26 ci-dessus). Il ressort des rapports de visite de ce centre (voir les paragraphes 31 à 40 ci-dessus) que les autorités ont pris soin de séparer les familles des autres retenus, de leur fournir des chambres spécialement équipées et de mettre à leur disposition du matériel de puériculture adapté. La Cour relève d’ailleurs que les ONG ont reconnu que, contrairement à ce qui était le cas dans l’affaire Popov précitée, les conditions matérielles ne posaient pas problème dans ce centre.
113. La Cour constate cependant que le centre de rétention de Toulouse‑Cornebarrieu, construit en bordure immédiate des pistes de l’aéroport de Toulouse-Blagnac, est exposé à des nuisances sonores particulièrement importantes qui ont conduit au classement du terrain en « zone inconstructible » (voir paragraphes 33, 37 et 40). La Cour observe que les enfants, pour lesquels des périodes de détente en plein air sont nécessaires, sont ainsi particulièrement soumis à ces bruits d’une intensité excessive. La Cour considère, en outre et sans avoir besoin de se référer au certificat médical produit par les requérants, que les contraintes inhérentes à un lieu privatif de liberté, particulièrement lourdes pour un jeune enfant, ainsi que les conditions d’organisation du centre ont nécessairement eu un effet anxiogène sur l’enfant des requérants. En effet, celui-ci, ne pouvant être laissé seul, a dû assister avec ses parents à tous les entretiens que requérait leur situation, ainsi qu’aux différentes audiences judiciaires et administratives. Lors des déplacements, il a été amené à côtoyer des policiers armés en uniforme. De plus, il a subi en permanence les annonces délivrées par les haut-parleurs du centre. Enfin, il a vécu la souffrance morale et psychique de ses parents dans un lieu d’enfermement ne lui permettant pas de prendre la distance indispensable.
114. La Cour considère que de telles conditions, bien que nécessairement sources importantes de stress et d’angoisse pour un enfant en bas âge, ne sont pas suffisantes, dans le cas d’un enfermement de brève durée et dans les circonstances de l’espèce, pour atteindre le seuil de gravité requis pour tomber sous le coup de l’article 3. Elle est convaincue, en revanche, qu’au-delà d’une brève période, la répétition et l’accumulation de ces agressions psychiques et émotionnelles ont nécessairement des conséquences néfastes sur un enfant en bas âge, dépassant le seuil de gravité précité. Dès lors, l’écoulement du temps revêt à cet égard une importance primordiale au regard de l’application de ce texte. La Cour estime que cette brève période a été dépassée dans la présente espèce, s’agissant de la rétention d’un enfant de quatre ans qui s’est prolongée pendant dix-huit jours dans les conditions exposées ci-dessus.
115. Ainsi, compte tenu de l’âge de l’enfant des requérants, de la durée et des conditions de son enfermement dans le centre de rétention de Toulouse-Cornebarrieu, la Cour estime que les autorités ont soumis cet enfant à un traitement qui a dépassé le seuil de gravité exigé par l’article 3 de la Convention. Partant il y a eu violation de cet article à l’égard de l’enfant des requérants.
ECtHR, GC, Biao v. Denmark, judgment of 24 May 2016 – overturning earlier Chamber judgment
C. The Court’s assessment
1. General principles
88. The Court reiterates that Article 14 complements the other substantive provisions of the Convention and the Protocols thereto. It has no independent existence since it has effect solely in relation to “the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms” safeguarded by those provisions. The application of Article 14 does not necessarily presuppose the violation of one of the substantive rights guaranteed by the Convention. The prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 thus extends beyond the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms which the Convention and Protocols require each State to guarantee. It applies also to those additional rights, falling within the general scope of any Article of the Convention, for which the State has voluntarily decided to provide. It is necessary but it is also sufficient for the facts of the case to fall within the ambit of one or more of the Convention Articles (see, for example, Stec and Others v. the United Kingdom (dec.) [GC], nos. 65731/01 and 65900/01, §§ 39-40, ECHR 2005‑X; E.B. v. France [GC], no. 43546/02, §§ 47-48, 22 January 2008; and Vallianatos and Others v. Greece [GC], nos. 29381/09 and 32684/09, § 72, ECHR 2013).
89. The Court has established in its case-law that only differences in treatment based on an identifiable characteristic, or “status”, are capable of amounting to discrimination within the meaning of Article 14. Moreover, in order for an issue to arise under Article 14 there must be a difference in the treatment of persons in analogous, or relevantly similar, situations (see for example, Carson and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 42184/05, § 61, ECHR 2010; Burden v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 13378/05, § 60, ECHR 2008; D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic [GC], no. 57325/00, § 175, ECHR 2007-IV; and Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark, 7 December 1976, § 56, Series A no. 23). Article 14 lists specific grounds which constitute “status” including, inter alia, race, national or social origin and birth. However, the list is illustrative and not exhaustive, as is shown by the words “any ground such as” (in French “notamment”) (see Engel and Others v. the Netherlands, 8 June 1976, § 72, Series A no. 22, and Carson and Others, cited above, § 70) and the inclusion in the list of the phrase “any other status”. The words “other status” have generally been given a wide meaning (see Carson and Others, cited above, § 70) and their interpretation has not been limited to characteristics which are personal in the sense that they are innate or inherent (see Clift v. the United Kingdom, no. 7205/07, §§ 56-58, 13 July 2010).
90. A difference in treatment is discriminatory if it has no objective and reasonable justification, that is if it does not pursue a legitimate aim or if there is not a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be achieved. The notion of discrimination within the meaning of Article 14 also includes cases where a person or group is treated, without proper justification, less favourably than another, even though the more favourable treatment is not called for by the Convention (see Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali, cited above, § 82).
91. A general policy or measure that has disproportionately prejudicial effects on a particular group may be considered discriminatory even where it is not specifically aimed at that group and there is no discriminatory intent. This is only the case, however, if such policy or measure has no “objective and reasonable” justification (see, among other authorities, S.A.S. v. France [GC], no. 43835/11, § 161, ECHR 2014 (extracts), and D.H. and Others, cited above, §§ 175 and 184-185).
92. As to the burden of proof in relation to Article 14 of the Convention, the Court has held that once the applicant has demonstrated a difference in treatment, it is for the Government to show that it was justified (see D.H. and Others, cited above, § 177).
93. The Contracting States enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in assessing whether and to what extent differences in otherwise similar situations justify a difference in treatment (see, for example, Hämäläinen v. Finland [GC], no. 37359/09, § 108, ECHR 2014; X and Others v. Austria [GC], no. 19010/07, § 98, ECHR 2013; and Vallianatos and Others, cited above, § 76). The scope of the margin of appreciation will vary according to the circumstances, the subject matter and its background, but the final decision as to the observance of the Convention’s requirements rests with the Court. A wide margin is usually allowed to the State when it comes to general measures of economic or social strategy (see Burden, cited above, § 60; Carson and Others, cited above, § 61; Şerife Yiğit v. Turkey [GC], no. 3976/05, § 70, 2 November 2010; and Stummer v. Austria [GC], no. 37452/02, § 89, ECHR 2011). However, very weighty reasons would have to be put forward before the Court could regard a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of nationality as compatible with the Convention (see Gaygusuz v. Austria, 16 September 1996, § 42, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996‑IV; Koua Poirrez v. France, no. 40892/98, § 46, ECHR 2003-X; Andrejeva v. Latvia [GC], no. 55707/00, § 87, ECHR 2009; and Ponomaryovi v. Bulgaria, no. 5335/05, § 52, ECHR 2011).
94. No difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society. Discrimination on account of, inter alia, a person’s ethnic origin is a form of racial discrimination (see, D.H. and Others, cited above, §176; Timishev v. Russia, nos. 55762/00 and 55974/00, § 56, ECHR 2005‑XII; and Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria [GC], nos. 43577/98 and 43579/98, §145, ECHR 2005‑VII).
2. Application of those principles to the present case
(a) Applicability of Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 8
95. It is undisputed by the parties that the facts of the case, namely the refusal to grant family reunification and the non-application of the 28‑year rule to the applicants in the present case fall within the ambit of Article 8. The Court agrees. Consequently, and recalling the principles set out in paragraph 88 above, Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8 applies to the facts of the case (see, for example, Hode and Abdi v. the United Kingdom (no. 22341/09, § 43, 6 November 2012)).
(b) Compliance with Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8
(i) Do the facts of the case disclose discrimination?
96. It is not in dispute that the applicants were in a relevantly similar situation to that of other couples in which a Danish national and a foreign national seek family reunification in Denmark. Moreover, the Government acknowledged, as did the domestic courts, that the 28-year rule did treat Danish nationals differently, depending on how long they had been Danish nationals. If the person had been a Danish national for 28 years, the exception to the “attachment requirement” applied. If the person had not been a Danish national for 28 years, the exception did not apply. The crux of the case is therefore whether, as maintained by the applicants, the 28‑year rule also created a difference in treatment between Danish-born nationals and those who acquired Danish nationality later in life, amounting to indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin.
97. It will be recalled that on 1 July 2003 the Aliens Authority refused the second applicant’s request for a residence permit as the applicants did not fulfil the attachment requirement. Their appeal was dismissed on 27 August 2004 by the Ministry for Refugees, Immigration and Integration on the same grounds. The applicants did not benefit from the newly introduced exception to the attachment requirement, namely the 28-year rule which had come into effect on 1 January 2004, as the first applicant had not been a Danish national for 28 years.
98. The Court observes that the 28-year rule was introduced by Act no. 1204 of 27 December 2003, with effect from 1 January 2004, to relax the application of the attachment requirement for residents who had been Danish nationals for 28 years or more. Thereafter, section 9, subsection 7 of the Aliens Act was worded as follows (see paragraph 35 above):
“Unless otherwise appropriate for exceptional reasons, a residence permit under subsection 1(i)(a), when the resident person has not been a Danish national for 28 years, and under subsection 1(i)(b) to (d), can only be issued if the spouses’ or the cohabitants’ aggregate ties with Denmark are stronger than the spouses’ or the cohabitants’ aggregate ties with another country. Resident Danish nationals who were adopted from abroad before their sixth birthday and who acquired Danish nationality not later than on their adoption are considered to have been Danish nationals from birth.”
The wording of the provision thus distinguished only between residents who had been Danish nationals for at least 28 years and those who had not been Danish nationals for 28 years.
99. According to the preparatory work (see paragraph 36 above) it would appear that the aim of the proposed provision was to ensure that Danish expatriates having strong and lasting ties with Denmark in the form of at least 28 years of Danish nationality would be able to obtain spousal reunion in Denmark. The proposed provision targeted a group of persons who did not, under the previous section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act, have the same opportunities as Danish and foreign nationals living in Denmark for obtaining spousal reunion. The proposed adjustment of the attachment requirement was to give “Danish expatriates a real possibility of returning to Denmark with a foreign spouse or cohabitant, and likewise young Danes could go abroad and stay there for a period with the certainty of not being barred from returning to Denmark with a foreign spouse or cohabitant as a consequence of the attachment requirement”.
100. Moreover, again according to the preparatory work (see paragraph 37 above), the exemption for “exceptional reasons” in the relevant provision allowed for situations covered by Denmark’s treaty obligations. It was specifically stated that 28 years of legal residence since early childhood would fall within the “exceptional reasons”, as provided in section 9, subsection 7, for the benefit of non-Danish nationals. Accordingly, persons who were not Danish nationals, but who were born and raised in Denmark, or came to Denmark as small children and were raised in Denmark, were also exempted from the attachment requirement, as long as they had resided lawfully in Denmark for 28 years.
101. For the reasons that follow, the Court is not ready to accept the Government’s claim that the difference in treatment was linked solely to the length of nationality with the result that the applicants were treated differently when compared to a couple seeking family reunification in which one of the spouses had been a Danish national for more than 28 years, Mr Biao having been a Danish national for a shorter period.
102. The applicants alleged that the 28-year rule created in practice a difference in treatment between Danish-born nationals and those who acquired Danish nationality later in life. In addition, since the majority of Danish-born nationals would be ethnically Danish, while persons acquiring Danish nationality later in life would overwhelmingly be of different ethnic origins, that is other than Danish, the differential treatment also amounted to indirect discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin. The applicants referred, among other things, to the view expressed by the minority of the Supreme Court (see paragraph 30 above), which had found that the 28‑year rule amounted to an indirect difference in treatment between Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin and Danish nationals of other ethnic origin regarding the right to spousal reunion.
103. The Court has accepted in previous cases that a difference in treatment may take the form of disproportionately prejudicial effects of a general policy or measure which, though couched in neutral terms, discriminates against a group (see, for example, Hugh Jordan v. the United Kingdom, no. 24746/94, § 154, 4 May 2001). Such a situation may amount to “indirect discrimination”, which does not necessarily require a discriminatory intent (see, D.H. and Others, cited above, § 184).
104. It is therefore pertinent in the present case to examine whether the manner in which the 28-year rule was applied in practice had a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who, like the first applicant, acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of an ethnic origin other than Danish (see also D.H. and Others, cited above, § 185).
105. To this end the Court finds it necessary to view the relevant provision of the Aliens Act from a historical perspective. It notes that the attachment requirement was introduced into Danish legislation on 3 June 2000 as one of the conditions for granting family reunion with persons residing in Denmark who were not Danish nationals.
106. As of 1 July 2002 the attachment requirement was extended to apply also to Danish nationals, one of the reasons being, according to the preparatory work (see paragraph 33 above), as follows:
“… Experience has shown that integration is particularly difficult in families where generation upon generation fetch their spouses to Denmark from their own or their parents’ country of origin. With resident aliens and Danish nationals of foreign extraction it is a widespread marriage pattern to marry a person from their country of origin, among other reasons owing to parental pressure. This pattern contributes to the retention of these persons in a situation where they, more than others, experience problems of isolation and maladjustment in relation to Danish society. The pattern thus contributes to hampering the integration of aliens newly arrived in Denmark. The government find that the attachment requirement, as it is worded today, does not take sufficient account of the existence of this marriage pattern among both resident foreigners and resident Danish nationals of foreign extraction. There are thus also Danish nationals who are not well integrated into Danish society and where the integration of a spouse newly arrived in Denmark may therefore entail major problems.”
107. However, as stated above (see paragraph 35 above), it soon transpired that the decision to extend the attachment requirement to Danish nationals had consequences for Danish expatriates, who had difficulties returning to Denmark with their foreign spouses.
108. In the proceedings before the Grand Chamber, the Court invited the Danish Government to indicate how many persons had benefited from the 28‑year rule pursuant to section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and how many of those were Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin (see paragraph 84 above).
109. As already indicated, the Government replied that regrettably they had been unable to produce the specific information requested by the Court (see paragraph 44 above). However, they did provide a memorandum of 1 December 2005 on the application of the attachment requirement to spousal reunification under section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and general statistics on family reunion in Denmark.
110. It is thus not possible for the Court to establish exactly how many persons have benefited from the 28‑year rule pursuant to section 9, subsection 7, of the Aliens Act and how many of those were Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin and how many were Danish nationals of other origin.
111. Nevertheless, the Court finds that it can in the present case, and without being exhaustive as to the categories of persons covered, conclude as follows:
a) As intended, all Danish-born expatriates, who would otherwise have had difficulties in fulfilling the attachment requirement when returning to Denmark with their foreign spouses, would benefit from the 28-year rule from the age of 28.
b) All other Danish-born nationals resident in Denmark would benefit from the 28-year rule from the age of 28.
c) Moreover, it follows from the preparatory work (see paragraph 37 above) that aliens, who were not Danish nationals, who were born and raised in Denmark or who came to Denmark as small children, and who had lawfully resided in Denmark for 28 years, would also benefit from the 28‑year exemption rule, when they reached the age of 28 or shortly thereafter.
d) Most, if not all persons, who like Mr Biao, had acquired Danish nationality later in life, would not benefit from the 28-year rule, since the exception would apply only after 28 years had passed from the date when such person became a Danish national. The Government have explained that this does not mean, as claimed by the applicants, that persons in this category would de facto have to wait 28 years before being granted family reunion, since, for example, couples in the applicants’ situation, being raised in the same country and one of them acquiring Danish nationality later in life, would generally fulfil the attachment requirement after three years of acquiring Danish nationality or after 12 years of lawful residence (see paragraph 78 above). The Court observes that the preparatory notes to the 28-year rule did not mention that the 28-year rule would not have any disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life since such persons would in any event fulfil the attachment criteria much sooner, and, as stated above, there are no statistics in this regard. Furthermore, the attachment requirement would not automatically be considered fulfilled after three years of nationality or after 12 years of lawful residence. Moreover, it is noteworthy that if a person acquires Danish nationality (category d) for example at the age of 28 (and thus after 9 years of required lawful residence in Denmark, see paragraphs 14 and 30), in general, he or she will still have to wait three years before the attachment requirement may be considered fulfilled. However, a 28-year old Danish-born national, resident in Denmark (category b) would be exonerated from the attachment requirement immediately at the age of 28, and a 28‑year old Danish-born expatriate (category a) would also be exonerated from the attachment requirement immediately at the age of 28, even if the expatriate had resided in Denmark only for a short period of time. Accordingly, although persons who acquire Danish nationality later in life may not have to wait 28 years to be allowed family reunification, but rather three years or more, this does not, in the Court’s view, remove the fact that the application of the 28-year rule had a prejudicial effect on Danish nationals in the applicant’s situation.
112. The Court also considers that it can reasonably be assumed that at least the vast majority of category a) Danish expatriates and category b) Danish nationals born and resident in Denmark, who could benefit from the 28-year rule, would usually be of Danish ethnic origin whereas category d) persons acquiring Danish citizenship at a later point in their life, like Mr Biao, who would not benefit from the 28-year rule, would generally be of foreign ethnic origin.
113. It is not to be overlooked that aliens in category c), and thus persons of foreign ethnic origin, could also benefit from the 28-year rule, but that does not alter the fact that the 28-year rule had the indirect effect of favouring Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and placing at a disadvantage, or having a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who, like the first applicant, acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of an ethnic origin other than Danish (see paragraph 103 above).
114. The burden of proof must shift to the Government to show that the difference in the impact of the legislation pursued a legitimate aim and was the result of objective factors unrelated to ethnic origin (see paragraphs 115 to 137 below). Having regard to the fact that no difference in treatment based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being justified in a contemporary democratic society and a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of nationality is allowed only on the basis of compelling or very weighty reasons (see paragraphs 93 and 94 above), it falls to the Government to put forward compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin if such indirect discrimination is to be compatible with Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention.
(ii) The legitimacy of the aim pursued
115. The Government submitted that the aim of the 28-year rule was to make an exception to the attachment requirement for those who had strong and lasting ties with Denmark when seen from a general perspective. The rationale was that it would be unproblematic to grant such persons family reunion with a foreign spouse because the latter would normally be successfully integrated into Danish society. In particular the aim was to ensure that Danish expatriates would be able to obtain family reunion in Denmark since this group had been unintentionally and unfairly disadvantaged by the tightening of the attachment requirement introduced in 2002. Finally, and more generally, the 28-year rule exception to the attachment requirement pursued the legitimate aim of immigration control and improving integration (see paragraph 79 above).
116. The applicants alleged that the disputed legislation had been introduced intentionally to target Danish citizens of non-Danish ethnic or national origin and thus did not pursue a legitimate aim. In this respect they referred to the finding by the minority of the Supreme Court (see paragraph 30 above).
117. The Court reiterates that where immigration is concerned, Article 8, taken alone, cannot be considered to impose on a State a general obligation to respect a married couple’s choice of country for their matrimonial residence or to authorise family reunification on its territory. Nevertheless, in a case which concerns family life as well as immigration, the extent of a State’s obligations to admit to its territory relatives of persons residing there will vary according to the particular circumstances of the persons involved and the general interest (see, among others, Jeunesse v. the Netherlands, cited above, § 107). Moreover, the Court has, on many occasions, accepted that immigration control, which serves the general interests of the economic well-being of the country, pursued a legitimate aim within the meaning of Article 8 of the Convention (see, for example, Zakayev and Safanova v. Russia, no. 11870/03, § 40, 11 February 2010; Osman v. Denmark, 38058/09, § 58, 14 June 2011; J.M. v. Sweden (dec.), no. 47509/13, § 40, 8 April 2014; and F.N. v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 3202/09, § 37, 17 September 2013).
118. That being said, the present case concerns compliance with Article 14 of the Convention read in conjunction with Article 8, with the result that immigration control measures, which may be found to be compatible with Article 8 § 2, including with the legitimate aim requirement, may nevertheless amount to unjustified discrimination in breach of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8. It appears that case‑law on these matters is rather sparse. In Hode and Abdi, (cited above, § 53) the Court accepted that offering incentives to certain groups of immigrants may amount to a legitimate aim for the purposes of Article 14 of the Convention. Furthermore, in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali (cited above, § 87), the Court found legitimate the aim cited by the Government for the differential treatment on the ground of birth, namely “to avoid the hardship which women having close ties to the United Kingdom would encounter if, on marriage, they were obliged to move abroad in order to remain with their husbands” or, in other words, to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country.
119. The majority of the Supreme Court found that the 28-year rule had the same aim as the requirement of birth in the United Kingdom, which was accepted in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali (cited above), namely to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country (see paragraph 29 above).
120. The minority of the Supreme Court, without specifically adverting to the legitimacy of the aim pursued, expressed a clear view that the indirect difference in treatment between Danish nationals of Danish ethnic extraction and Danish nationals of other ethnic extraction resulting from the application of the 28-year rule was an intended consequence (see paragraph 30 above).
121. The Court considers that it is not required to take a separate stand on the questions whether the indirect discrimination, which it has found in this case, was an intended consequence as alleged by the applicants, or whether the aim put forward by the Government for the introduction of the 28‑year rule was legitimate for the purposes of the Convention. The Court finds it appropriate in the circumstances of the present case to limit its inquiry to the existence (or not) of compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin for the difference in treatment, a matter which will be examined below.
(iii) The justification of the aims pursued
122. The Court observes that one of the aims of introducing the 28‑year rule (see paragraphs 29, 35 and 74 above), was that the previous amendment of the Aliens Act in July 2002, extending the attachment requirement to apply also to Danish nationals, had been found to have unintended consequences for persons such as Danish nationals who had opted to live abroad for a lengthy period and who had started a family while away from Denmark and subsequently had difficulties fulfilling the attachment requirement upon return. It was found that there would normally be a basis for successful integration of Danish expatriates’ family members into Danish society, since they would often have maintained strong ties with Denmark, which in addition would also have been passed on to their spouse or cohabitant and any children of the union.
123. It will be recalled that the preparatory work in respect of the 28‑year rule underlined that the “fundamental aim of tightening the attachment requirement in 2002”, namely securing better integration of foreigners would not be forfeited by introducing the said exception. The “fundamental aim” of tightening the attachment rule in 2002 was set out in the preparatory work to that amendment (see paragraph 33 above).
124. In the Court’s view the materials concerning the legislative process show that the Government wished, on the one hand, to control immigration and improve integration with regard to “both resident foreigners and resident Danish nationals of foreign extraction”, whose “widespread marriage pattern” was to “marry a person from their country of origin”, and, on the other, to ensure that the attachment requirement did not have unintended consequences for “persons such as Danish nationals who opted to live abroad for a lengthy period and who started a family while away from Denmark” (see paragraphs 33 and 36 above).
125. The Court considers that the justification advanced by the Government for introducing the 28-year rule is, to a large extent, based on rather speculative arguments, in particular as to the time when, in general, it can be said that a Danish national has created such strong ties with Denmark that family reunion with a foreign spouse has a prospect of being successful from an integration point of view. The answer to this question cannot, in the Court’s view, depend solely on the length of nationality, whether for 28 years or less. Therefore, the Court cannot follow the Government’s argument that because the first applicant had been a Danish national for only two years when he was refused family reunion, the consequences of the 28‑year rule could not be considered disproportionate as regards his situation. It points out that this line of reasoning seems to overlook the fact that in order to obtain Danish nationality the first applicant had resided in Denmark for at least nine years, had proved his proficiency in the Danish language and knowledge of Danish society, and met the requirement of self‑support.
More concretely, in August 2004, when Mr Biao was refused family reunion, not only had he been a Danish national for approximately two years, he had lived in Denmark for more than ten years, had been married there to a Danish national for approximately four years, had participated in various courses and worked there for more than six years, and had had a son on 6 May 2004, who was a Danish national by virtue of his father’s nationality. None of these elements was or could be taken into account in the application of the 28-year rule to the applicant, although in the Court’s opinion they were indeed relevant when assessing whether Mr Biao had created such strong ties with Denmark that family reunion with a foreign spouse had any prospect of being successful from an integration point of view.
126. The Court finds that some of the arguments advanced by the Government in the course of the preparatory work relating to the Act which extended from 1 July 2002 the attachment requirement to residents of Danish nationality (see paragraph 33 above), reflect negatively on the lifestyle of Danish nationals of non-Danish ethnic extraction, for example in relation to their “marriage pattern”, which, according to the Government, “contributes to the retention of these persons in a situation where they, more than others, experience problems of isolation and maladjustment in relation to Danish society. The pattern thus contributes to hampering the integration of aliens newly arrived in Denmark”. In this connection, the Court would refer to its conclusion in Konstantin Markin v. Russia [GC] (no. 30078/06, §§ 142‑143, ECHR 2012 (extracts)), that general biased assumptions or prevailing social prejudice in a particular country do not provide sufficient justification for a difference in treatment on the ground of sex. The Court finds that similar reasoning should apply to discrimination against naturalised nationals.
127. Thus, so far, the arguments and material submitted by the Government before the Court have not shown that the difference in treatment resulting from the impugned legislation was based on objective factors unrelated to ethnic origin.
128. In the judicial review of the application of the 28-year rule to the applicants, the majority of the Danish Supreme Court found that the exception was based on an objective criterion and that it could be considered objectively justified to select a group of nationals with such strong ties to Denmark, when assessed from a general perspective, that it would be unproblematic to grant family reunion. The rationale being that it would normally be possible for the foreign spouse or cohabitant of such a person to be successfully integrated into Danish society. Moreover, they found that the consequences of the 28-year rule could not be considered disproportionate for the first applicant (see paragraph 29 above).
129. The majority relied heavily on the Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali judgment (cited above), as they considered that the factual circumstances of the present case in most material aspects were identical to those of Mrs Balkandali’s situation. Both the latter and Mr Biao arrived in the country as adults. Mr Biao’s application for spousal reunion was refused when he had resided in Denmark for eleven years, two of which as a Danish national. Mrs Balkandali’s application was refused after she had resided in the United Kingdom for eight years, two of which as a British national. Further, relying, inter alia, on the statement (ibid, § 88) that “there are in general persuasive social reasons for giving special treatment to those whose link with a country stems from birth within it”, the majority in Supreme Court found, as stated above, that “the criterion of 28 years Danish nationality had the same aim as the requirement of birth in the United Kingdom, which was accepted by the Court in the 1985 judgment as not being contrary to the Convention: to distinguish a group of nationals who, seen from a general perspective, had lasting and strong ties with the country”.
130. The Court would point out, however, that it has found that the 28‑year rule had the indirect discriminatory effect of favouring Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and placing at a disadvantage or having a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of ethnic origins other than Danish (see paragraph 113 above). The Supreme Court on the other hand found that the discrimination at issue was based solely on the length of citizenship a matter falling within the ambit of “other status” within the meaning of Article 14 of the Convention. Accordingly, the proportionality test applied by the Supreme Court was different from the test to be applied by this Court, which requires compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discriminatory effect of the 28-year rule (see paragraph 114).
131. In the field of indirect discrimination between a State’s own nationals based on ethnic origin, it is very difficult to reconcile the grant of special treatment with current international standards and developments. Since the Convention is first and foremost a system for the protection of human rights, regard must also be had to the changing conditions within Contracting States and the Court must respond, for example, to any evolving convergence as to the standards to be achieved (see Dhahbi v. Italy, no. 17120/09, § 47, 8 April 2014; Konstantin Markin, cited above, § 126; and Fabris v. France [GC], no. 16574/08, § 56, ECHR 2013 (extracts)).
132. The Court notes in this connection that the applicants relied on Article 5 § 2 of the European Convention on Nationality. It is noteworthy that it has been ratified by 20 member States of the Council of Europe, including Denmark (see paragraph 47 above). Moreover, in respect of Article 5 § 2 of the European Convention on Nationality, the Explanatory Report (see paragraphs 48 above) states that although not being a mandatory rule to be followed in all cases, the paragraph was a declaration of intent, aimed at eliminating the discriminatory application of rules in matters of nationality between nationals from birth and other nationals, including naturalised persons. This suggests a certain trend towards a European standard which must be seen as a relevant consideration in the present case.
133. Furthermore, within the member States of the Council of Europe there is a degree of variation as regards the conditions for granting family reunion (see paragraph 61 above). However, it would appear from the 29 countries studied that there are no States which, like Denmark, distinguish between different groups of their own nationals when it comes to the determination of the conditions for granting family reunification.
134. In relation to EU law it is relevant to point out that the Court’s conclusions in, inter alia, Ponomaryovi (cited above, § 54) and C. v. Belgium (7 August 1996, § 38, Reports 1996‑III), that “the preferential treatment of nationals of member States of the European Union … may be said to be based on an objective and reasonable justification, because the Union forms a special legal order, which has, moreover, established its own citizenship” concerned preferential treatment on the basis of nationality; not favourable treatment of “nationals by birth” as compared to “nationals by acquisition later in life” or indirect discrimination between the country’s own nationals based on ethnic origin. The Court also notes that in EU law on family reunification no distinction is made between those who acquired citizenship by birth and those who acquired it by registration or naturalisation (see paragraph 87 above).
135. The rules for family reunification under EU law did not apply to the applicants’ case in August 2004 (see paragraph 58 above). However, it is instructive to view the contested Danish legislation in the light of relevant EU law. Given that the first applicant has moved to Sweden, by virtue of Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member States, and in the light of the CJEU’s judgment of 25 July 2008 in Metock v. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (see paragraph 59 above), the applicants and their child now have a prospect of success in applying from Sweden for a residence permit in Denmark.
136. In addition, it is noteworthy that various independent bodies have expressed concern that the 28-year rule entails indirect discrimination. Reference is made, for example, to the reports cited by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in which it stated (see paragraph 54, point 49, above) that “ECRI is deeply concerned by the fact that the 28 years’ aggregate ties with Denmark rule amounts to indirect discrimination between those who were born Danish and people who acquired Danish citizenship at a later stage.”; and “the rule that persons who have held Danish citizenship whether it be for over 28 or 26 years, or who were born in Denmark or came to the country as a small child or have resided legally in the country, whether it be for over 28 or 26 years, are exempt from these requirements, also risks disproportionately affecting non‑ethnic Danes.” (see paragraph 55, point 129, above). The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), expressed a similar concern (see paragraph 60, point 15, above).
137. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed his concern as regards the operation of the 28-year rule (see paragraph 49 above) and found that it placed naturalised Danish citizens at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to Danish citizens born in Denmark and stated that “the dispensation from the aggregate ties conditions for a naturalised citizen, for whom the condition will, inevitably, be harder to meet by virtue of his or her own foreign origin, at so late an age constitutes, in my view, an excessive restriction to the right to family life and clearly discriminates between Danish citizens on the basis of their origin in the enjoyment of this fundamental right…”.
(iv) The Court’s conclusion
138. In conclusion, having regard to the very narrow margin of appreciation in the present case, the Court finds that the Government have failed to show that there were compelling or very weighty reasons unrelated to ethnic origin to justify the indirect discriminatory effect of the 28‑year rule. That rule favours Danish nationals of Danish ethnic origin, and places at a disadvantage, or has a disproportionately prejudicial effect on persons who acquired Danish nationality later in life and who were of ethnic origins other than Danish.
139. It follows that there has been a violation of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention in the present case.