One of the legal provisions of the Greek Constitution that struck me most as a young law student was Article 120, paragraph 4. I still remember its impact on my thinking during my first year at the Law School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. This provision, whose origins can be found in the post-1821 years of the Greek Revolution and early constitutions of the country, says that ‘Greeks’ patriotism’ is entrusted with the observance of the constitution. It adds that Greeks have the right and the duty to resist by all possible means any attempts to abolish the Constitution by violence.
As far as I know this is a somewhat rare constitutional provision. Moreover, I think it is an example of one of the paradigm principles of democracy, because apart from indicating the rights of citizens, it also recalls that they have duties, both collectively and individually. Indeed, one of the major factors that may make democracies function properly is the effective participation of citizens in the evolution of their polities. As Pericles famously said, a citizen who is not involved in public matters is useless.
One of the fundamental rights and duties of a citizen is to vote for his/her country’s parliamentary elections. In this regard, ever since 1975, Article 51, paragraph 4, of the Greek constitution provides for the enactment of legislation that would enable Greek expatriates to vote in parliamentary elections wherever they happen to reside. However, more than forty years have passed and this law has not been adopted. It is clearly an area of policy which needs further thought and attention.
It was against this background and the government’s decision on 18 August 2007 to carry out early parliamentary elections on 16 September 2007 that Christos Giakoumopoulos, Stephanos Stavros and myself met up in early September 2007 and, after some discussion on the subject, decided to ‘do something’ in order to exercise our voting rights.
This ‘something’ was no less than an application to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that Greece had violated our ‘right to free elections’ as enshrined in Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This Article provides for the obligation of states to create conditions that ‘ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature’, an obligation that Greece had not fulfilled at that time, and still has yet to do so. Yes, we were determined to act, and to do so speedily since the early parliamentary elections were due in two weeks’ time.
Nonetheless, we were far from sure that we would have any impact on Greek state practice, let alone win the case in Strasbourg. Actually I remember discussing the lodging of this application in London with a well-known human rights lawyer who told me ‘forget it’. He was sure that we had no chance whatsoever to win. And he was not alone to warn me. Others also told me, in rather derisory tones, that we could surely afford to pay the €500 or so travel expenses in order to get ourselves to Greece in time to vote. But this was not the point. Nor did it concern me alone. The question was much more fundamental: should Greek citizens really have to pay money to exercise their basic human rights?
Although, according to the ECHR, we did not need to exhaust any domestic legal remedies before addressing the Court, we thought it was proper to make a formal contact with the Greek authorities beforehand. So I drafted a joint letter to the Ambassador of Greece to France in Paris and faxed it to his offices on 10 September 2007. By this means, the three of us – Greek citizens, staff members of the Council of Europe, and residents of Strasbourg – were formally submitting a request to the Greek authorities to take urgent and appropriate measures to enable us to vote in France for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
On 12 September 2007 we received an urgent reply from the Greek ambassador. He noted that the Greek state intended to facilitate the voting by Greek expatriates in their countries of residence but given that no law to that effect had been adopted yet, our voting in France was de facto impossible. It was an important admission. In other words, the Greek authorities not only acknowledged the long-standing existence of a legal obligation, under ECHR and the Greek Constitution, to pass the appropriate legislation, but also admitted the state’s failure to fulfill this obligation which had been pending, unimplemented, since 1975.
Eight days later I crossed the bridge between the Palais de l’Europe and the Palais des Droits de l’Homme and handed a blue folder to the secretary of the Court’s Greek division. It contained the application that I had drafted in co-operation with my other two Greek colleagues, and was formally identified as No: 42202/07, Sitaropoulos et autres c. Grèce. The case was later renamed Sitaropoulos et Giakoumopoulos c. Grèce, given that the third colleague subsequently withdrew his participation.
I will not elaborate on the legal arguments put forward to substantiate a violation of the Convention due to the fact that we could not vote in Greece on 16 September 2007. The essence of our claim was that to travel from Strasbourg to Samos, Corfu and Thessaloniki, where each of us had our respective voting venues, would involve a total of about two days of travel, including multiple flights or very long drives, the distance from Strasbourg to Thessaloniki being around 2 000 kms. We added that we found unreasonable the fact that while expatriates can vote for the elections of the European Parliament in Greek consulates in whatever country they happened to reside , Greece was unable to organize similar arrangements in the case of their parliamentary elections.
On 8 July 2010, the Court’s First Chamber delivered its judgment. It was in our favour, by five against two deciding judges. Although the judgment noted that states are autonomous when it came to regulating their voting procedures, it found that Greece had indeed violated the Convention; it confirmed that there had been no enactment of the law provided for by the Greek constitution enabling expatriates to vote from abroad for more than three decades. The Court took also into account the relevant state practices in Europe which indicated that the vast majority of European states authorized and made it possible for their expatriates to vote from abroad for parliamentary elections.
Particularly heartening to me was the partly dissenting opinion of Judges Spielmann and Jebens. They believed that, given the finding of a violation of a fundamental right, the Court should have awarded us just satisfaction in order to redress the moral harm that we had suffered. This opinion is just one page long but its tone and sensitivity touched me a great deal. It brought to my mind the famous acclamation of the humble miller in Potsdam, ‘There are still judges in Berlin’.
The judgment was a cause for celebration and gave us all much joy. It was an outcome that could benefit not just us as applicants but also around four million Greeks living abroad. With a group of Greek friends I fêted our victory by drinking beer at the terrace of Franchi’s, opposite the Court. Our hope was that there would be no appeal of this judgment by the government, that it would become final and that we would be able to exercise our voting rights from Strasbourg for the next elections.
As was to be expected, the Chamber judgment attracted considerable international and national media attention. It even seemed to trigger or at least accelerate legislative changes in Turkey, which created an overseas voters registry in 2012, allowing Turkish expatriates to vote in the countries of their residence for parliamentary elections. In recent years, Albania too appears to be moving in this direction, another European country whose government has reportedly made clear its aim to grant out-of-country voting rights to expatriates.
This was not, however, the case with Greece. Our hopes proved to be only wishful thinking. On 7 October 2010 the Greek government requested that the Chamber’s judgment be referred to the Grand Chamber. One of the government’s main arguments was that the judgment distanced itself from the Court’s established case law that grants national authorities a large margin of appreciation in matters relating to voting rights.
On 22 November 2010 the Court accepted the government’s request and the case was referred to the Grand Chamber which delivered its judgment on 15 March 2012. This followed a hearing on 4 May 2011 in which I participated along with the Greek lawyer, Yannis Ktistakis, who had taken over the case. Although I was familiar with the Court, having worked in its building for more than three years, it was quite stressful to be sitting there for almost three hours, alone with my lawyer and his assistant, having the entire mechanism of the Greek state, represented by two lawyers, ranged before me. A couple of questions which were posed by the judges at the end of the hearing made me realize that at least some members of the Grand Chamber were not entirely certain that Greece was under an obligation, under ECHR, to give effect to our voting rights abroad.
Regrettably, my fear proved to be true. The Grand Chamber overturned the 2010 judgment by a unanimous vote. All 17 judges concluded that there was no violation of the Convention given that the very essence of our voting rights had not actually been impaired. Some of the major arguments on which this conclusion was based were that under international law, states had no obligation to enable expatriates to exercise their right to vote. The Court, therefore, could not instruct Greece on how and when and in what manner it should give effect to Article 51, paragraph 4, of its Constitution. The judgment also noted that the government had actually made an unsuccessful attempt to pass relevant legislation in 2009. In addition, it determined that the disruption to our financial, family and professional lives caused by our travel to vote in Greece in 2007, would not have been disproportionate.
Like most Grand Chamber judgments, this too became a cause célèbre and gave rise to a number of academic publications and press releases in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. Notably, Lina Papadopoulou, a Constitutional Law Professor, clearly pointed out in an article she published a day after the Grand Chamber judgment, that although Greece might be absolved from an international duty to regulate expatriates’ voting rights, it remained under its own constitutional obligation to do so.
Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos also became a textbook case taught in constitutional and European human rights law courses from that time. In the major ECHR reference book by Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick (OUP 2014) the Grand Chamber judgment is cited with disappointment noting that ‘the unanimous ruling did not acknowledge – as the Chamber judgment did- the crippling impact on voting rights that the lack of absent voting facilities may have on expatriates unable to afford to travel to Greece to vote’.
So perhaps our efforts were not in vain. Apart from the above-mentioned electoral policy changes in certain states following these judgments, experts have noted that there is now a clear trend in favour of out-of-country voting in Europe. In this context, Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos is mentioned as a landmark case and has definitely contributed to this evolution. More recent case law of the Strasbourg Court has also indicated that globalization and modern technology changes should be considered as factors favouring out-of-country voting nowadays.
As regards Greece in particular, the efforts to give Greek expatriates their voting rights have not ceased. As of April 2016, a law proposal to this effect, tabled by seventy-five Greek MPs, has been pending in the Greek parliament, while earlier this year the government announced its intention to launch a public debate on this issue, expressly acknowledging the existence in Europe of a trend that favours out-of-country voting.
Application No. 42202/07 was an enriching adventure for me. Although its end was not an entirely happy one, the journey towards it gave me great satisfaction because I felt that it contributed to the evolution of law and policy concerning a fundamental political right for every human being: that of voting for one’s national parliament. In addition, it was the fulfillment of a civic obligation I believe I had towards my country’s democratic institutions and values that, as a first year law school student, I had discovered that I had the constitutional right and duty to defend. In addition, it fulfilled a moral obligation I felt I had as a staff member of the Council of Europe, an international organization which enshrined the highest standards of democracy and human rights whose protection, I also believe, should start at home.
Migrant Ill-treatment in Greek Law Enforcement—Are the Strasbourg Court Judgments the Tip of the Iceberg? – article in European J’l of Migration & Law
Numerous instances of migrant ill-treatment, including torture, in Greek law enforcement have been recorded over a long period of time by international human rights monitoring organisations. The frequent reporting of such incidents though was not accompanied by any major judgments by the Strasbourg Court until Alsayed Allaham and Zontul in 2007 and 2012 respectively. The article provides an analysis of these first major judgments which usefully shed light on the underlying, long-standing systemic failures of the Greek law, as well as of the law enforcement and judicial authorities’ practice. It is argued that the above judgments are in fact only the tip of the iceberg. For this, the author looks into the process of supervision of these judgments’ execution by Greece, which is pending before the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, as well as into alarming reports issued notably by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Greek Ombudsman. The article also highlights the question of racial violence that has not been tackled in the aforementioned judgments. However, the national Racist Violence Recording Network and the Greek Ombudsman have recorded numerous cases of racist violence by law enforcement officials targeting migrants and the ineffective response by the administrative and judicial authorities. The article concludes with certain recommendations in order to enhance Greek law and practice and eradicate impunity.
An earlier version was published in February 2017 at SSRN: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2921109
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
PACE Resolution 2109 (2016) The situation of refugees and migrants under the EU-Turkey Agreement of 18 March 2016
1. The Parliamentary Assembly takes note of the European Union-Turkey Agreement of 18 March 2016, adopted against the background of the unprecedented numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in western Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans route in 2015, which had generated political tensions in many States and an institutional crisis in the European Union. It recalls the fact that Turkey currently hosts over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, on whom it estimates to have spent over €7 billion.
2. The Assembly considers that the EU-Turkey Agreement raises several serious human rights issues relating to both its substance and its implementation now and in the future, in particular the following:
2.1. the Greek asylum system lacks the capacity to ensure timely registration of asylum applications, issue of first instance decisions or determination of appeals; the new Greek Law 4375/2016 may help to address earlier shortcomings but will not ensure adequate capacity;
2.2. detention of asylum seekers in the “hotspots” on the Aegean islands may be incompatible with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5), due notably to procedural failures undermining the legal grounds for detention and inadequate detention conditions;
2.3. children and vulnerable persons are not systematically referred from detention to appropriate alternative facilities;
2.4. returns of Syrian refugees to Turkey as a “first country of asylum” may be contrary to European Union and/or international law, as Turkey may not ensure protection that is “sufficient”, according to the position of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and there have been reports of onward refoulement of Syrians;
2.5. returns of asylum seekers, whether Syrians or not, to Turkey as a “safe third country” are contrary to European Union and/or international law, as Turkey does not provide them with protection in accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, non-Syrians do not have effective access to the asylum procedure and there have been reports of onward refoulement of both Syrians and non-Syrians;
2.6. remedies against decisions to return asylum seekers to Turkey do not always have automatic suspensive effect, as required by the European Convention on Human Rights;
2.7. resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey is made conditional on the number of returns from Greece and will subsequently depend on a “Voluntary Humanitarian Readmission Scheme”, which is likely in practice to generate unacceptably low levels of resettlement;
2.8. there have been unreasonable delays in the European Union’s disbursement of Financial assistance promised to Turkey to help support Syrian refugees in Turkey, which should not depend on developments in the Aegean Sea.
3. The Assembly also has concerns relating to certain parallel initiatives in areas closely related to the EU-Turkey Agreement, in particular the following:
3.1. the closure by “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” of its southern border, coupled with the EU-Turkey Agreement, has added to the pressure on Greece, a country already struggling with the effects of budgetary and financial austerity;
3.2. most European Union member States have effectively failed to honour their pledges to relocate refugees from Greece, despite the growing pressure that country is under;
3.3. it is premature to consider resuming transfers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation given the continuing inadequacies of its asylum system, the additional pressure of its current situation and the fact that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has not yet closed supervision of execution by Greece of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of M.S.S. v.Belgium and Greece.
4. The Assembly therefore recommends that Greece, as an implementing party of the EU-Turkey Agreement, and the European Union, insofar as it provides relevant operational assistance to the Greek authorities:
4.1. refrain from automatic detention of asylum seekers and ensure strict adherence to the requirements of national law, the European Convention on Human Rights and European Union law concerning both the grounds for and conditions of detention, with adequate provision for alternatives where detention is not justified or otherwise inappropriate, including following the expiry of time limits;
4.2. systematically ensure that children and vulnerable persons are promptly excluded from detention and referred to appropriate alternative facilities;
4.3. ensure that the rights and provisions under the European Union Reception Conditions Directive are fully respected for all refugees and migrants arriving in Greece;
4.4. refer the question of interpretation of the concept of “sufficient protection” in Article 35 of the
European Union Asylum Procedures Directive to the Court of Justice of the European Union and, until such interpretation has been given, refrain from involuntary returns of Syrian refugees to Turkey under this provision;
4.5. refrain from involuntary returns of asylum seekers to Turkey in reliance on Article 38 of the Asylum Procedures Directive;
4.6. ensure that sufficient resources, from within the Greek administration and seconded from other European Union member States, are rapidly made available so as to allow effective access to a proper asylum procedure and rapid first instance decisions and appeal determination, in accordance with European Union law, especially for applicants in detention;
4.7. revise the legislation to ensure that all appeals against decisions to return to Turkey have an automatic suspensive effect;
4.8. ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers whose applications are not accepted are treated with dignity and in full compliance with the European Union Return Directive.
5. The Assembly also recommends to the European Union, its member States, and States participating in European Union resettlement schemes, as appropriate:
5.1. resettlement pledges made under the 20 July 2015 European Union agreement on resettlement should be rapidly and fully honoured, regardless of developments in the implementation of the EUTurkey Agreement; beyond that, substantial numbers of Syrian refugees should be resettled from Turkey;
5.2. family reunion of refugees should be allowed without any delay or complicated procedures, in order to prevent family members from being forced to take an irregular route to reunification;
5.3. the financial assistance promised to Turkey in November 2015 to help support Syrian refugees should be disbursed without further delay;
5.4. commitments to relocate refugees from Greece should be rapidly fulfilled;
5.5. there should be no further consideration of resuming transfers to Greece under the Dublin
Regulation until the Committee of Ministers has closed its supervision of execution by Greece of the M.S.S. judgment.
6. Finally, the Assembly recommends that Turkey:
6.1. withdraw its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention and recognise the status and fully respect the rights of refugees under that convention;
6.2. refrain from any onward refoulement of asylum seekers returned from Greece, ensuring access to the asylum system and to an effective remedy with suspensive effect against removal as required by the European Convention on Human Rights;
6.3. ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers returned from Greece are treated in full accordance with international standards, including on detention.
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.
Strasbourg Court confirms inadequacy of Greek asylum system and condemns collective expulsions from Italy
The European Court of Human Rights delivered today its Chamber judgment in the case of
Sharifi and Others v. Italy and Greece (application no. 16643/09).
The case concerned 32 Afghan nationals, two Sudanese nationals and one Eritrean national, who alleged, in particular that they had entered Italy illegally from Greece and been returned to that country immediately, with the fear of subsequent deportation to their respective countries of origin, where they faced the risk of death, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.
The Court held, by a majority, concerning four of the applicants, Reza Karimi, Yasir Zaidi, Mozamil
Azimi and Najeeb Heideri (also known as Nagib Haidari), who had maintained regular contact with their lawyer in the proceedings before this Court, that there had been:
a violation by Greece of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) combined with Article 3
(prohibition of inhuman or regarding treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights on
account of the lack of access to the asylum procedure for the above-named applicants and the risk
of deportation to Afghanistan, where they were likely to be subjected to ill-treatment;
a violation by Italy of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 (prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens);
a violation by Italy of Article 3, as the Italian authorities, by returning these applicants to Greece,
had exposed them to the risks arising from the shortcomings in that country’s asylum procedure;
a violation by Italy of Article 13 combined with Article 3 of the Convention and Article 4 of Protocol
No. 4 on account of the lack of access to the asylum procedure or to any other remedy in the port of Ancona.
The Court held, in particular, that it shared the concerns of several observers with regard to the
automatic return, implemented by the Italian border authorities in the ports of the Adriatic Sea, of
persons who, in the majority of cases, were handed over to ferry captains with a view to being removed to Greece, thus depriving them of any procedural and substantive rights.
In addition, it reiterated that the Dublin system – which serves to determine which European Union
Member State is responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national – must be applied in a manner compatible with the Convention: no form of collective and indiscriminate returns could be justified by reference to that system, and it was for the State carrying out the return to ensure that the destination country offered sufficient guarantees in the application of its asylum policy to prevent the person concerned being removed to his country of origin without an assessment of the risks faced.
Link to press release: