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.
By Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
In Osungu and Lokongo v. France (delivered on 8/9/2015), the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) rejected as “manifestly ill-founded” two applications submitted by Congolese regular migrants. The proceedings concerned the French authorities’ refusal to grant the migrants family allowances for their minor children who had entered and resided in France, in contravention of the family reunification rules (§§21-26).
The respondent state admitted that the refusal to grant family allowances affected the applicants’ right to respect for family life (Article 8 ECHR) and that this treatment was differential compared with that given to migrants from countries that have concluded special agreements with the European Union. However, the government argued primarily that this differential treatment was justified under Articles 8 and 14 (the non-discrimination clause in the ECHR) as “proportionate to the legitimate aims that it pursued, that is, the protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control” (§36). Additionally, the respondent state produced ten administrative court judgments to prove that regularisation of a de facto reunification is possible under domestic law and practice, and that the applicants could have made use of this avenue.
The Court did not really analyse the argument concerning nationality based differential treatment. It noted briefly (§44) that this treatment is not grounded exclusively in nationality and occurs in an “economic and social domain” where states enjoy a large margin of appreciation.
The largest part of the Court’s reasoning was centred on the argument advanced by France that regularisation was possible under domestic law (in order to receive the family allowances), and that the applicant parents did not make any serious efforts to that end (although the applicants had instituted a series of domestic court proceedings claiming discrimination). Based on this argument, the Court held that the non-allocation of family allowances was due to the applicants’ non-compliance with the family reunification rules. This, according to the Court, constituted an “objective and reasonable justification” for differential treatment (§48).
The Court’s decision raises questions of compatibility with previous case law. In the landmark Belgian Linguistics case (1968), the Court affirmed that the principle of equality of treatment is violated if the “distinction has no objective and reasonable justification”. Such a justification must be assessed “in relation to the aim and effects of the measure … regard being had to the principles which normally prevail in democratic societies”. There are two conditions that differential treatment must fulfill: firstly, it must pursue a legitimate aim; secondly, there must be a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”. These principles have been applied by the Court in other cases concerning migrants’ family life (e.g. Hode and Abdi v. UK, 2012, Bah v. UK, 2011).
There is no doubt that the differential treatment in Osungu and Lokongo sought to pursue legitimate aims (“protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control”). Further, states are justified in restricting access to family allowances since this is a resource-intensive service. A large margin of appreciation certainly exists in this domain.
However, this does not entail the Court’s uncritical deference to a state’s decision, which should be explained and justified by the state concerned, and then analysed and judged by the Court. Deeper scrutiny of the respondent’s arguments would have revealed that the aims of immigration control, protection of public health, and protection of children, are not served by cutting off family benefits. In reality, even where such benefits are cut off, the migrant children concerned are allowed to remain in France and live “a normal life” with their parents who are regular residents. Thus, there is no link between the means adopted and the ends sought to be achieved. The question of necessity and proportionality does not even arise.
These cases raise important jurisprudential and practical issues. As also noted by an EU study published last year, provision of social security is of prime importance to efforts made to reduce poverty and inequality among migrants. Reports indicate there are currently around 9,000 migrant children in France in a situation similar to that of the applicants. It is thus hoped that the Court will be given another opportunity to revisit its case law in this domain in a more nuanced manner.
by Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
Juan Amaya-Castro argues that states’ selective immigration policies are discriminatory, and that this discrimination has been legitimized by international (migration) law. From a legal point of view, this is rather a misperception that confuses differential with discriminatory treatment. The latter is not allowed by contemporary international law as this post will show.
International migration law is not a self-contained legal regime. It is a multi-layered body of law consisting of various international, regional or bilateral treaties and agreements which leave “the alien’s body protected by a varying number of layers (legal regimes) depending upon the sartorial tastes of the State involved” (Richard Lillich, The Human Rights of Aliens in Contemporary International Law, Manchester UP, 1984, 122). Some of the most migrant-protective layers are certainly those provided by international and European human rights law and principles.
As regards migrants’ entry, the UN Human Rights Committee in its 1986 General Comment No 15 noted that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
“does not recognize the right of aliens to enter or reside in the territory of a State party. It is in principle a matter for the State to decide who it will admit to its territory. However, in certain circumstances an alien may enjoy the protection of the Covenant even in relation to entry or residence, for example when considerations of non-discrimination, prohibition of inhuman treatment and respect for family life arise”.
This is true also under another core law-making treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as interpreted by the Strasbourg Court (see below).
Differential treatment of migrants does not always equal discrimination
Migration control measures that differentiate among (prospective) migrants are not automatically unlawful. Whether such state action affecting migrants constitutes discriminationis grounded in the principle of prohibition of discrimination enshrined notably in Article 14 ECHR and in Protocol No. 12 to the ECHR. Non-discrimination grounds indicatively enlisted therein are: “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status”.
As Judge Tanaka observed in his outstanding dissenting opinion in South West Africa (Second Phase) (1966), the “equal treatment of men as persons” is a metaphysical, natural law idea that pervades international and domestic law. Equality, however, does not exclude differentiation because “to treat different matters equally in a mechanical way would be as unjust as to treat equal matters differently”. For a differential practice not to amount to discrimination, it should be justified by the criterion of justice or reasonableness which excludes arbitrariness. In addition, since equality is a principle and different treatment an exception, states that resort to different treatment must always prove its “raison d’être and reasonableness”.
These positions were echoed later in the seminal Belgian Linguistics case (1968), where the European Court of Human Rights affirmed that the principle of equality of treatment is violated if the “distinction has no objective and reasonable justification”. The existence of such a justification must be assessed “in relation to the aim and effects of the measure under consideration, regard being had to the principles which normally prevail in democratic societies”. The Court went on and established two fundamental conditions that differential treatment should fulfill: firstly, it must pursue a legitimate aim; secondly, there must be a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”.
Major prohibitive grounds of differential treatment affecting migrants
The ECHR organs have developed a significant body of case-law on whether exclusion from territory or difference of treatment affecting migrants may be prohibited by the principle of non-discrimination. One of the first, fundamental principles highlighted is that states have no right to base migration control measures upon migrants’ racial origin. The question was posed in 1970 before the former European Commission of Human Rights in the case of East African Asians v. UK, concerning the exclusion from the UK, expressly and admittedly for reasons of ‘racial harmony’, of UK passport holders of Asian origin who lived in Kenya or Uganda.
In the above case the Commission noted that “publicly to single out of a group of persons for differential treatment on the basis of their race might, in certain circumstances, constitute a special form of affront to human dignity”. In addition, immigration law discrimination on racial grounds could itself amount to degrading treatment under Article 3 ECHR, as was found to be the case in East African Asians. In 1983, in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali, the Commission made it clear that no state may implement immigration policies “of a purely racist nature, such as a policy prohibiting the entry of any person of a particular skin colour”.
These cases remain important in view of ongoing debates about migration control, which are often tainted by racist considerations. Among many examples one may cite the travel restrictions imposed on Roma from the Western Balkans seeking asylum in the EU (cf. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, The Right to Leave a Country, 2013).
The question of differential treatment on the ground of sex was posed in 1980 when the UK introduced stricter conditions, purportedly in order to protect the domestic labour market, for entry of migrant husbands or fiancés seeking to join or remain with their wives or fiancées already settled in the UK. Under the law and practice of the time, it was easier for men settled in the UK than for women so settled to obtain permission for their non-national spouses to enter or remain in the country. This was found to be discriminatory against the women, primarily migrant, applicants, hence unlawful by the Strasbourg Court (Plenary) in Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali v. UK (1985).
Ultimately, the argument centered on whether the above difference had an objective and reasonable justification. The Court stressed that “very weighty arguments would have to be advanced before a difference of treatment on the ground of sex could be regarded as compatible with the Convention”. The data put forward by the respondent state did not convince the Court that this differential treatment to the detriment of migrant women already in the host state was justified “by the need to protect the domestic labour market at a time of high unemployment”.
Under the ECHR, states, in principle, cannot use nationality as a sole ground of distinction that would deny regular migrants, including recognised refugees, major social rights or social benefits. An exception to this principle may occur again only if states are in a position to persuasively provide “very weighty reasons” for differential treatment (e.g. Dhahbi v. Italy, 2014).
In his post, Juan Amaya-Castro claims that current selective immigration policies have legitimized another differentiation ground, the migrants’ “economic worth” on the basis of which easy entry and residence may be enjoyed by, for example, non-national investors or entrepreneurs. Although I am sympathetic towards his argument, I am not convinced that, in itself, such differentiation constitutes discriminatory, and hence unlawful, treatment, in the sense explained earlier. The Strasbourg Court has actually noted that, in the context of differential treatment, a “wide margin is usually allowed to the State under the Convention when it comes to general measures of economic or social strategy”, adding that “offering incentives to certain groups of immigrants may amount to a legitimate aim for the purposes of Article 14 of the Convention”. The Court has made it clear that in general it will respect the legislature’s policy in this field “unless it is manifestly without reasonable foundation” (e.g. Hode and Abdi v. UK, 2012).
In conclusion, the claim that international (migration) law gives states a free hand to discriminate is not watertight. It certainly still grants states a margin of appreciation and license for differential treatment. However, under the European Court of Human Rights’ case-law, any such treatment affecting migrants has to be in conformity with the fundamental principle of equality, that is, to be legitimate, reasonably proportionate and justified by “very weighty reasons”. In this context, the Court has rightly applied a particularly strict review in cases concerning ‘suspect’discrimination grounds relating to one’s race, sex or nationality, which refer to innate personal characteristics. These standards of European human rights law arguably constitute the most protective layer of international migration law.