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