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.
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.
On 19 May 2016, in J.N. v UK the Strasbourg Court provided a useful detailed overview of its case law principles concerning lawfulness of migrant detention in view of deportation:
74. Article 5 of the Convention enshrines a fundamental human right, namely the protection of the individual against arbitrary interference by the State with his or her right to liberty. Subparagraphs (a) to (f) of Article 5 § 1 contain an exhaustive list of permissible grounds on which persons may be deprived of their liberty and no deprivation of liberty will be lawful unless it falls within one of those grounds. One of the exceptions, contained in subparagraph (f), permits the State to control the liberty of aliens in the immigration context (see, as recent authorities, Saadi v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 13229/03, § 43, ECHR 2008, and A. and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 3455/05, §§ 162‑63, 19 February 2009).
75. It is well established in the Court’s case-law under the sub‑paragraphs of Article 5 § 1 that any deprivation of liberty must, in addition to falling within one of the exceptions set out in sub-paragraphs (a) to (f), be “lawful”. In other words, it must conform to the substantive and procedural rules of national law (Amuur v. France, 25 June 1996, § 50, Reports 1996‑III, and Abdolkhani and Karimnia v. Turkey, no. 30471/08, § 130, 22 September 2009).
76. In assessing the “lawfulness” of detention, the Court may have to ascertain whether domestic law itself is in conformity with the Convention, including the general principles expressed or implied therein. On this last point, the Court stresses that, where deprivation of liberty is concerned, it is particularly important that the general principle of legal certainty be satisfied.
77. In laying down that any deprivation of liberty must be effected “in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law”, Article 5 § 1 does not merely refer back to domestic law; like the expressions “in accordance with the law” and “prescribed by law” in the second paragraphs of Articles 8 to 11, it also relates to the “quality of the law”. “Quality of law” in this sense implies that where a national law authorises deprivation of liberty it must be sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable in its application, in order to avoid all risk of arbitrariness (see Nasrulloyev v. Russia, no. 656/06, § 71, 11 October 2007; Khudoyorov v. Russia, no. 6847/02, § 125, ECHR 2005‑… (extracts); Ječius v. Lithuania, no. 34578/97, § 56, ECHR 2000-IX; Baranowski v. Poland, no. 28358/95, §§ 50-52, ECHR 2000-III; and Amuur, cited above). Factors relevant to this assessment of the “quality of law” – which are referred to in some cases as “safeguards against arbitrariness” – will include the existence of clear legal provisions for ordering detention, for extending detention, and for setting time-limits for detention (Abdolkhani and Karimnia, cited above, § 135 and Garayev v. Azerbaijan, no. 53688/08, § 99, 10 June 2010); and the existence of an effective remedy by which the applicant can contest the “lawfulness” and “length” of his continuing detention (Louled Massoud v. Malta, no. 24340/08, § 71, 27 July 2010).
78. In addition to the requirement of “lawfulness”, Article 5 § 1 also requires that any deprivation of liberty should be in keeping with the purpose of protecting the individual from arbitrariness (see, among many other authorities, Saadi v. the United Kingdom, cited above, § 6; and Chahal v. the United Kingdom, 15 November 1996, § 118, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996‑V). It is a fundamental principle that no detention which is arbitrary can be compatible with Article 5 § 1 and the notion of “arbitrariness” in Article 5 § 1 extends beyond lack of conformity with national law, so that a deprivation of liberty may be lawful in terms of domestic law but still arbitrary and thus contrary to the Convention.
79. While the Court has not formulated a global definition as to what types of conduct on the part of the authorities might constitute “arbitrariness” for the purposes of Article 5 § 1, key principles have been developed on a case-by-case basis. It is moreover clear from the case-law that the notion of arbitrariness in the context of Article 5 varies to a certain extent depending on the type of detention involved.
80. One general principle established in the case-law is that detention will be “arbitrary” where, despite complying with the letter of national law, there has been an element of bad faith or deception on the part of the authorities (see, for example, Bozano v. France, 18 December 1986, Series A no. 111, and Čonka v. Belgium, no. 51564/99, ECHR 2002-I). Furthermore, the condition that there be no arbitrariness further demands that both the order to detain and the execution of the detention genuinely conform with the purpose of the restrictions permitted by the relevant sub‑paragraph of Article 5 § 1 (see Winterwerp v. the Netherlands, 24 October 1979, § 39, Series A no. 33). There must in addition be some relationship between the ground of permitted deprivation of liberty relied on and the place and conditions of detention (see Aerts v. Belgium, 30 July 1998, § 46, Reports 1998-V; and Enhorn v. Sweden, no. 56529/00, § 42, ECHR 2005-I).
81. Where a person has been detained under Article 5 § 1(f), the Grand Chamber, interpreting the second limb of this sub-paragraph, held that, as long as a person was being detained “with a view to deportation”, that is, as long as “action [was] being taken with a view to deportation”, Article 5 § 1(f) did not demand that detention be reasonably considered necessary, for example, to prevent the individual from committing an offence or fleeing. It was therefore immaterial whether the underlying decision to expel could be justified under national or Convention law (see Chahal, cited above, § 112; Slivenko v. Latvia [GC], no. 48321/99, § 146, ECHR 2003 X; Sadaykov v. Bulgaria, no. 75157/01, § 21, 22 May 2008; and Raza v. Bulgaria, no. 31465/08, § 72, 11 February 2010).
82. Consequently, the Grand Chamber held in Chahal that the principle of proportionality applied to detention under Article 5 § 1 (f) only to the extent that the detention should not continue for an unreasonable length of time; thus, it held that “any deprivation of liberty under Article 5 § 1(f) will be justified only for as long as deportation proceedings are in progress. If such proceedings are not prosecuted with due diligence, the detention will cease to be permissible” (Chahal, § 113; see also Gebremedhin [Gaberamadhien] v. France, no. 25389/05, § 74, ECHR 2007-II). Indeed, the Court of Justice of the European Union has made similar points in respect of Article 15 of Directive 2008/115/EC (in the 2009 case of Kadzoev) and in respect of Article 9(1) of Directive 2013/13 (in the 2016 case of J.N.) (see paragraphs 42 and 44 above).
83. The Court has unequivocally held that Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention does not lay down maximum time-limits for detention pending deportation; on the contrary, it has stated that the question whether the length of deportation proceedings could affect the lawfulness of detention under this provision will depend solely on the particular circumstances of each case (see A.H. and J.K. v. Cyprus, nos. 41903/10 and 41911/10, § 190, 21 July 2015; Amie and Others v. Bulgaria, no. 58149/08, § 72, 12 February 2013; Auad v. Bulgaria, no. 46390/10, § 128, 11 October 2011; and Bordovskiy v. Russia, cited above, § 50, 8 February 2005). Consequently, even where domestic law does lay down time-limits, compliance with those time-limits cannot be regarded as automatically bringing the applicant’s detention into line with Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention (Gallardo Sanchez v. Italy, no. 11620/07, § 39, ECHR 2015; Auad, cited above, § 131).
84. In a series of Russian cases the Court has considered the existence ‑ or absence – of time-limits on detention pending extradition to be relevant to the assessment of the “quality of law” (see, for example, Azimov v. Russia, no. 67474/11, § 171, 18 April 2013; Ismoilov and Others v. Russia, no. 2947/06, §§ 139-140, 24 April 2008; Ryabikin v. Russia, no. 8320/04, § 129, 19 June 2008; Muminov v. Russia, no. 42502/06, § 121, 11 December 2008; and Nasrulloyev v. Russia, no. 656/06, §§ 73-74, 11 October 2007). In these cases the Court was addressing a recurring problem of uncertainty over whether a provision of domestic law laying down the procedure and specific time-limits for reviewing detention applied to detention pending extradition. In light of this uncertainty, in a number of those cases the Court held that the domestic law was not sufficiently precise or foreseeable to meet the “quality of law” standard. In other words, the deprivation of liberty to which the applicants were subjected was not circumscribed by adequate safeguards against arbitrariness (see, for example, Nasrulloyev, cited above, § 77).
85. The Court adopted a similar approach in Louled Massoud, cited above, § 71, in which it found that the Maltese legal system did not provide for a procedure capable of avoiding the risk of arbitrary detention pending deportation. It reaching this conclusion it noted that, in the absence of time‑limits, the applicant was subject to an indeterminate period of detention, and the necessity of procedural safeguards (such as an effective remedy by which to contest the lawfulness and length of his detention) therefore became decisive.
86. In Abdolkhani and Karimnia, cited above, § 135 and Garayev, cited above, § 99 the Court held that in the absence of clear legal provisions establishing the procedure for ordering and extending detention or extradition with a view to deportation and setting time-limits for such detention, the deprivation of liberty to which the applicants were subjected was not circumscribed by adequate safeguards against arbitrariness. Similarly, in Mathloom v. Greece, no. 48883/07, § 71, 24 April 2012, although the Court’s conclusions refer to the fact that “the relevant provisions of domestic law governing the detention of persons under judicial expulsion do not set the maximum length of such detention”, it is clear from the preceding paragraphs that it also viewed as significant the fact that the applicant had been detained for “an unreasonably long period” (more than two years), during which time his expulsion had not been possible. Consequently, the relevant authorities had failed to exercise “due diligence”.
(iii) Automatic judicial review
87. Although the Court has made it clear that the existence of an effective remedy by which to contest the lawfulness and length of detention may be a relevant procedural safeguard against arbitrariness (Louled Massoud, cited above, § 71), it has not, to date, held that Article 5 § 1(f) requires automatic judicial review of detention pending deportation. In fact, as with time-limits, it has found that the existence of such a remedy will not guarantee that a system of immigration detention complies with the requirements of Article 5 § 1(f) of the Convention; for example, in Auad, cited above, § 132 it found that the fact that the applicant’s detention was subject to automatic periodic judicial review provided an important safeguard against arbitrariness but could not be regarded as decisive.
88. In the context of Article 5 § 4, the Court has made it clear that that provision’s requirement that “everyone who is deprived of his liberty … shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court” does not impose a uniform, unvarying standard to be applied irrespective of the context, facts and circumstances (Louled Massoud, cited above, § 40). Nevertheless, the Court has provided some guidance on what might constitute an “effective remedy”. First, the remedy must be made available during a person’s detention to allow that person to obtain speedy review of its lawfulness. Secondly, that review must have a judicial character and provide guarantees appropriate to the type of deprivation of liberty in question (see Louled Massoud, cited above, § 40 and A. and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 3455/05, § 203, ECHR 2009‑…). Thirdly, the review should also be capable of leading, where appropriate, to release. Finally, it must be sufficiently certain, not only in theory but also in practice, failing which it will lack the accessibility and effectiveness required for the purposes of that provision (see Muminov, cited above, § 113, and Ismoilov, cited above, § 145, 24 April 2008).
The latest report on Greece by the Council of Europe anti-torture Committee (CPT), issued on 1 March, rang, once again, the alarm concerning decades-old, institutionalised, unlawful violence by law enforcement agents. In its press release CPT highlighted the need for Greece to fully acknowledge the phenomenon of police ill-treatment and to adopt a “comprehensive strategy and determined action” to address it.
The issue is compounded by the fact that this deeply ingrained violence is combined with institutionalised racism inside parts of the Greek law enforcement forces, thus targeting in particular migrants. In its 2015 report the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network noted that in 21 out of the 81 racist incidents that were recorded in 2014 the perpetrators were either only law enforcement officials or law enforcement officials along with other perpetrators. Out of these, 13 took place in public places, six in police stations or detention centres, and two in an abandoned private place.
These findings were corroborated by the 2016 CPT report where it is 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. The report contains some particularly worrying, graphic paragraphs and an appended photograph concerning the alleged use in 2015 by the police in Thessaloniki of wooden bats during the interrogation of a Bulgarian national who was detained on remand.
The CPT report is alarming because it clearly identifies a Greek police culture under which it is not unprofessional to resort to ill-treatment, although its prohibition is enshrined in the unqualified and non-derogable Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). As the Strasbourg Court has underlined on numerous occasions (see e.g. Galotskin v. Greece, 2010) Article 3 ECHR enshrines one of the most fundamental values of democratic societies. Even in the most difficult circumstances, such as the fight against terrorism and organised crime, the Convention prohibits in absolute terms torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, irrespective of the victim’s conduct. In addition, the Court has noted that in respect of a person deprived of their liberty, recourse to physical force which has not been made strictly necessary by their own conduct diminishes human dignity and is in principle an infringement of Article 3 ECHR.
One of the major root causes for this highly problematic situation lies with the culture of impunity that pervades parts of the Greek, primarily, police forces, as well as of prosecutorial and judicial authorities. This requires a drastic overhaul of the law enforcement overseeing and redress mechanisms and of the awareness-raising and sensitisation of all actors of the national justice system.
As regards the law enforcement sector, CPT recommends the fostering of proper conduct by police members towards detainees, notably by doing more to encourage police officers to prevent colleagues from ill-treating, and to report, through appropriate channels, all cases of violence by colleagues. Importantly, CPT underlines the need for the authorities to adopt “whistle-blower” protective measures. However, in order for these highly useful recommendations to be given effect it is necessary to develop a reporting system linked to an independent complaint authority and a legal and institutional system able to fully and effectively safeguard the whistle-blowers’ personal security and other rights.
As regards the need to establish an independent and effective complaint mechanism, in his 2013 report on Greece, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, drawing upon the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Guidelines on eradicating impunity for serious human rights violations (2011), urged Greece to establish a fully independent and well-functioning complaints mechanism covering all law enforcement officials. This should be based on the five principles of effective complaints investigation: (a) independence: there should be no institutional or hierarchical connections between the investigators and the official complained against and there should be practical independence; (b) adequacy: the investigation should be capable of gathering evidence to determine whether the behaviour of the law enforcement body complained of was unlawful and to identify and punish those responsible; (c) promptness: the investigation should be conducted promptly and in an expeditious manner in order to maintain confidence in the rule of law; (d) public scrutiny: procedures and decision-making should be open and transparent in order to ensure accountability; and (e) victim involvement: the complainant should be involved in the complaints process in order to safeguard his or her legitimate interests.
What is however even more worrying and challenging is the fact that not only the administrative but also the judicial routes of investigation and prosecution in this context are fundamentally flawed. For example, CPT in its 2016 report refers to the cases of three migrant detainees whose allegations of torture and severe ill-treatment by police officers in 2013 were investigated by a public prosecutor. The prosecutor summarily dismissed the complaints and closed the file. The problem is that such bluntness has been encountered even at the highest judicial level, that of the Greek Court of Cassation (Areios Pagos). A characteristic example is the case of Kouidis v. Greece, where in 2006 the UN Human Rights Committee found the first violation by Greece of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was the consequence of the fact that Areios Pagos, in a criminal case decided upon in 1998, did not take into account the applicant’s claims that his confession to the police was given under duress (serious ill-treatment including the use of falanga) during his interrogation in the Athens police headquarters.
The above shows that international and European human rights norms and standards have not as yet been fully embedded in the Greek national legal system. As noted by Adamantia Pollis in her incisive study on human rights in modern Greece (1987), albeit the judiciary in this country has been structurally independent it has rarely acted as a separate and autonomous branch of government. This has been a consequence of an ‘organic’ conception of the Greek nation which is embodied in the state, and its institutions, reinforcing its power. Pollis’ research in the 1980s demonstrated that Greek judges have remained committed to a legal philosophy that supports legal restrictions of rights in the name of higher state interests.
In order to overcome these structural shortcomings, the establishment of an effective system of administration of justice is needed, with courts empowered to apply domestic anti-torture law in line with the state’s human rights obligations and international or regional case law. Under the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence (see e.g. Gäfgen v. Germany, 2010) states have a positive procedural obligation, deriving from Article 3 ECHR, to conduct a thorough and effective investigation in all cases that raise an arguable claim of ill-treatment. This investigation should be capable of leading to the identification and punishment of those responsible. In view of this, in the course of the examination of all such cases the Strasbourg Court has imposed on itself the obligation to “apply a particularly thorough scrutiny”. In fact, this is the level of scrutiny that is required also from prosecutors and courts at domestic level.
In the 1975 ‘first torturers’ trial’ in Greece targeting officers of the Greek military police (ESA) involved in torture during the 1967-1974 dictatorship (cf. Amnesty International’s report), the court-martial prosecutor posed a fundamental question that is still echoing: “How could Greek officers sink to this moral degradation? Who are those responsible?” In a characteristically frank statement, probably prompted by the post-dictatorship atmosphere reigning then in Greece, the prosecutor added that “those morally responsible are not in this court. They are those who used the defendants…who, for many years, have given thousands of hours instruction on the fighting of communism without sparing even one hour to the defence of democracy”.
Regrettably these phrases are still of relevance today and call for reflection. Unlawful violence and impunity in the Greek system of law enforcement are decades-old long and derive from a long, sad tradition of state repression and disregard of human dignity and civil rights. As Pollis said in her 1987 study, despite the post-1974 legal and institutional changes in Greece, the underlying world view of the earlier decades persists. This is why the ‘culture’ of impunity still constitutes the mind frame of many state institutions and is tolerated. It is indeed high time for the national authorities to cross the Rubicon and redress this situation where human rights standards and the rule of law cannot but buckle.
Judgment delivered on 7 July 2015 by the ECtHR
The applicants are seven Serbian nationals, a father and mother and their five children. They were born in 1981, 1977, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2011 respectively and live in Serbia. Their eldest daughter,
who was born in 2001 and was mentally and physically disabled from birth, died in December 2011.
The applicants are of Roma origin and were born in Serbia, where they have lived for most of their lives.
In March 2010 the applicants travelled to France, where they submitted an asylum application which was rejected. In March 2011 they travelled to Belgium and lodged an asylum application there. On
12 April 2011 the Belgian authorities submitted a request to the French authorities to take back the family. On 6 May 2011 France accepted the request under the Dublin II Regulation2. On 17 May 2011 the Aliens Office in Belgium issued the applicants with an order to leave Belgian territory for France, on the ground that Belgium was not responsible for considering the asylum application under the Dublin II Regulation. On 25 May 2011 the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the territory was extended until 25 September 2011 owing to the mother’s pregnancy and imminent
On 16 June 2011 the applicants submitted to the Aliens Appeals Board a request for the suspension and setting-aside of the decision refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country. On 22 September 2011 the applicants applied for leave to remain on medical grounds on behalf of their disabled eldest daughter. The Aliens Office rejected their application. On 26
September 2011, on expiry of the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the country, the applicants were expelled from the Sint-Truiden reception centre where they had been staying, as
they were no longer eligible for the material support provided to refugees. They travelled to Brussels, where voluntary associations directed them to a public square in the Schaerbeek municipality in the centre of the Brussels-Capital district, together with other homeless Roma families. They remained there until 5 October 2011. On 7 October 2011 they were assigned to a new reception facility as a mandatory place of registration in the Province of Luxembourg, 160 km from Brussels. The applicants eventually took up residence in Brussels North railway station, where they remained for three weeks until their return to Serbia was arranged on 25 October 2011 by a charity under the return programme run by Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers.
In a judgment of 29 November 2011 the Aliens Appeals Board set aside the impugned decisions (the refusal of leave to remain and the order to leave the country) on the grounds that the Aliens Office had not established on what legal basis it considered France to be the State responsible for the applicants’ asylum application. The Belgian State lodged an appeal on points of law with the
Conseil d’État against the judgment of the Aliens Appeals Board. In a judgment of 28 February 2013 the Conseil d’État declared the appeal inadmissible for lack of current interest, given that the
applicants had returned to Serbia and that the Belgian State had been released from its obligations under the procedure for determining the Member State responsible for their asylum application.
Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court:
Relying on Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), the applicants complained that their exclusion from the reception facilities in Belgium from 26 September 2011 onwards had
exposed them to inhuman and degrading treatment. Under Article 2 (right to life), they alleged that the reception conditions in Belgium had caused the death of their eldest daughter. Lastly, under
Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), they complained that they had been unable to assert before the courts their claim that their removal to Serbia and the refusal to regularise their residence status had exposed them to a risk to their eldest daughter’s life (Article 2) and to a risk of suffering inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3).
Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):
The Court reiterated that neither the Convention nor its Protocols conferred the right to political asylum and that Contracting States had the right, subject to their international undertakings
including the Convention, to control the entry, residence and expulsion of non-nationals.
Nevertheless, the State’s responsibility could be engaged in relation to asylum seekers’ conditions of reception. The Court observed3 that, in order to determine whether the threshold of severity required under Article 3 was met in a given situation, particular importance should be attached to the person’s status as an asylum seeker and, as such, a member of a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable population group in need of special protection. Asylum seekers’ vulnerability was heightened in the case of families with children, and the requirement of special protection had been even more important in the applicants’ case in view of the presence of small children, including one infant, and of a disabled child.
The Court had to ascertain in this case whether the applicants’ living conditions in Belgium between 26 September and 25 October 2011 engaged the responsibility of the Belgian State under Article 3.
The Court’s review related only to that period, between their eviction from the accommodation centre and their departure for Serbia, since the applicants’ reception and the fulfilment of their
needs prior to that period were not the subject of dispute. Between 26 September and 25 October 2011 their situation had been particularly serious as they had spent nine days on a public
square in Brussels and then, after two nights in a transit centre, a further three weeks in a Brussels train station. The Court noted that this situation could have been avoided or made shorter if the
proceedings brought by the applicants seeking the setting-aside and suspension of the decisions refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country, which had lasted for two
months, had been conducted more speedily.
However overstretched the reception network for asylum seekers in Belgium may have been at the time of the events5, the Court considered that the Belgian authorities had not given due
consideration to the applicants’ vulnerability and had failed in their obligation not to expose the applicants to conditions of extreme poverty for four weeks, leaving them living on the street,
without funds, with no access to sanitary facilities and no means of meeting their basic needs. The Court found that these living conditions, combined with the lack of any prospect of an improvement
in the applicants’ situation, had attained the level of severity required under Article 3. The applicants had therefore been subjected to degrading treatment, in breach of that provision.
Article 2 (right to life):
The Court noted that, although the Belgian authorities must have been aware that the applicants were living in poverty following their eviction from the centre, and must have known about their
eldest daughter’s medical conditions, the medical certificate had not mentioned the degree of severity of those conditions. It also noted, with regard to the timing of the events, that a number of
factors may have contributed to the child’s death, including having spent several weeks in insalubrious conditions after the family’s return to Serbia. Accordingly, the Court considered that the
applicants had not shown that their eldest daughter’s death had been caused by their living conditions in Belgium, or that the Belgian authorities had failed in their obligation to protect her life.
The Court therefore found no violation of Article 2.
Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) taken in conjunction with Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):
On the basis of its analysis of the Belgian system as in force at the time of the events, the Court considered that the applicants had not had an effective remedy available to them, in the sense of
one that had automatic suspensive effect and enabled their allegations of a violation of Article 3 to be examined in a rapid and effective manner.
The order for the applicants to leave the country had been liable to be enforced at any time by the Belgian authorities, and the application to set aside and the request for suspension of the measure lodged by the applicants did not have suspensive effect. The Court observed in particular that the lack of suspensive effect had resulted in the material support granted to the applicants being
withdrawn and had forced them to return to their country of origin without their fears of a possible violation of Article 3 having been examined. The Court also noted that the length of the proceedings concerning the application to set aside had been unsatisfactory, given that the Aliens Appeals Board had not delivered its judgment until 29 November 2011, after the applicants had left for Serbia, thereby effectively depriving them of the opportunity to continue the proceedings in Belgium and France. Accordingly, since the applicants had not had an effective remedy, there had been a violation of Article 13 taken in conjunction with Article 3.
From Court’s press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-5127554-6327501
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.