Another European Court of Human Rights judgment against Russia over Chechnya
On Thursday 6 July the European Court of Human Rights announced its Chamber judgment1 in the case of Alikhadzhiyeva v. Russia (application no. 68007/01). The applicants son Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, former Speaker of the Chechen parliament disappeared in 2000 without trace.
The Court found that there had been a violation of Article 2 (the right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights both with respect to the disappearance of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, and with the failure of the authorities to properly investigate the disappearance, as well as a violation of Article 5 (the right to liberty and security). It also judged that Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) had been violated with respect to Mr Alikhadzheiyevs mother.
According to a representative of the human rights centre “Memorial”, this case is significant in that it is the first time the Court has passed judgment on somebody holding a high post in Chechnya.
On 21 June the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay compensation to the daughter of a Chechen woman Zura Bityeva who was murdered in 2003.
Press release issued by the Registrar
CHAMBER JUDGMENT ALIKHADZHIYEVA v. RUSSIA
The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing its Chamber judgment1 in the case of Alikhadzhiyeva v. Russia (application no. 68007/01).
The Court held unanimously that:
· there had been a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the disappearance of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev;
· there had been a violation of Article 2 of the Convention concerning the lack of an effective investigation into the circumstances of Mr Alikhadzhiyevs disappearance;
· there had been no violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) regarding ill-treatment of Mr Alikhadzhiyev;
· there had been a violation of Article 3 in respect of the applicant;
· there had been a violation of Article 5 (right to liberty and security) in respect of Mr Alikhadzhiyev;
· there had been a violation of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) in respect of the alleged violations of Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention; and,
· there had been no failure to comply with Article 38 § 1 (a) (obligation to furnish necessary facilities for the examination of the case).
Under Article 41 (just satisfaction), the Court awarded the applicant 40,000 euros (EUR) for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 3,150 and 1,000 pounds sterling (GBP) (1,486.26 EUR) for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available only in English.)
1. Principal facts
The applicant, Zura Chiiyevna Alikhadzhiyeva, is a Russian national who was born in 1941 and lives in Shali (Chechnya). Her son Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, speaker of the Chechen Parliament from 1997 to 1999, lived at the same address with his wife and four small children.
The case concerned Ms Alikhadzhiyevas allegation that her son disappeared in May 2000 after being arrested by Russian servicemen at their home in Shali. She has had no reliable news of him since and assumes that he has been killed.
On 17 May 2000 a large group of armed men in camouflage with armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and UAZ four-wheel drive vehicles surrounded their house, two helicopters hovering overhead. Ms Alikhadzhiyevas son was arrested: no reasons were given or documents shown to explain the arrest. Five other men living in the neighbourhood were also detained. They, along with the applicants son, were blindfolded, placed in APCs and taken to a nearby location, which is where they saw Mr Alikhadzhiyev for the last time. They were called for questioning by masked men in camouflage. They were asked about their identity, whether they had taken part in the hostilities in Chechnya and what they knew about Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev. The five men spent the night in a cellar at that location and, on the following day, were blindfolded again, taken in an APC and released in a forest not far from Shali.
On 25 May 2000 a high-ranking military officer confirmed at a press conference that Mr Alikhadzhiyev had been captured by the security forces during a special operation. On 1 June the press, referring to official sources, corroborated those statements. In September 2000, the Deputy Prosecutor General stated that Mr Alikhadzhiyev had been kidnapped by an unknown armed group and had been killed in August 2000.
On 7 July 2000 (later amended by the Government to 27 July) a criminal investigation was opened into the kidnapping of Mr Alikhadzhiyev. In the context of that investigation, the applicant and other witnesses of the detention were only questioned in October 2000 and March 2001. The applicant was granted victim status in the proceedings in March 2001. An attempt to find the units which had participated in the arrest was made in August 2001. Ultimately, between July 2000 and April 2004 the investigation was adjourned a total of 11 times.
Mr Alikhadzhiyevs family have actively searched for him by applying to relevant official and administrative bodies, bringing his disappearance to the attention of the media and public figures and visiting various detention centres. His name has never been found in any records. The official investigation did not establish his whereabouts. No one has ever been charged with any crime.
3. Summary of the judgment2
Relying on Articles 2 and 5, Ms Alikhadzhiyeva alleged that her son had been unlawfully detained and killed by agents of the State and that the authorities had failed to carry out an adequate investigation into the circumstances of his arrest and death. Further relying on Article 3, she complained about her son having been subjected to ill-treatment, and that, as a result of his disappearance and the authorities response to it, she had suffered anguish and emotional distress. She further complained under Article 13 that she had had no effective remedy in respect of the alleged violations under Articles 2, 3 and 5. Finally, she complained in particular that the Government had failed to submit documents requested by the Court, in breach of Article 38 § 1 (a).
Decision of the Court
Concerning the right to life of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev
Neither party contested the fact that Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev had been detained on 17 May 2000 at his home in Shali by a large group of armed men in camouflage. Indeed, the fact that such a group, equipped with military vehicles and helicopters, had made arrests in broad daylight in a built-up area strongly supported the applicants allegation that they had belonged to security forces. The five men detained along with the applicants son had given accounts of their detention, questioning and release which supported that conclusion, also later corroborated by reports in the press. The domestic investigation had also accepted that version of events and verified whether law-enforcement bodies had been involved in detaining Mr Alikhadzhiyev.
The Court noted with great concern that a number of cases had come before it which had suggested that “disappearances” were well known in Chechnya. In the context of the conflict in Chechnya, a person detained by unidentified servicemen without any subsequent acknowledgment of their detention, could be regarded as being in a life-threatening position. The lack of reliable or official news about Mr Alikhadzhiyev for over six years supported that assumption. None of the steps necessary for an effective investigation had been taken in the crucial first days and weeks after his detention and that had significantly contributed to the risk of his disappearance. Moreover, the authorities reaction to the applicants complaints led the Court to presume that there had been tacit agreement with the situation and made it doubt as to the objectivity of the investigation.
In conclusion, the Court considered that it had been established beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Alikhadzhiyev was presumed dead following his detention by State servicemen. Having noted that the authorities did not submit any plausible explanation as to what had happened to him after his detention or given any reasons to justify the use of lethal force by their agents, it followed that his death could be attributed to the State. Accordingly, there had been a violation of Article 2.
Concerning inadequacy of the investigation
The investigation into Mr Alikhadzhiyevs arrest had not been opened until more than two months after his arrest. Once started, it was plagued by inexplicable delays: notably, in questioning key witnesses; granting victim status to the applicant and trying to find the units which had participated in the arrest. The Court found that those delays clearly went beyond what could be tolerated in dealing with a crime such as abduction, where crucial action had to be taken immediately after the event.
Furthermore, other important measures had never been taken. Neither the units which had participated in the operation nor the location to which the detainees had been transported had ever been identified. Local officials, the military or police were never questioned about the operation. No questions were asked either about the announcement made in the press by a high-ranking military officer.
The applicant had not been informed of the investigations progress, the only information occasionally communicated to her over a period of about four years had concerned the adjournments and reopening of the proceedings. Supervising prosecutors had criticised the investigation and ordered certain steps to be taken, but it appeared that those orders had either been ignored or carried out with exaggerated delay.
The Court therefore found that the authorities had failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev and held that there had been a further violation of Article 2.
Concerning Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev
The witness statements produced by the applicant did not contain sufficient evidence to enable the Court to find beyond all reasonable doubt that her son had been subjected to
ill-treatment following his arrest. The Court could not therefore conclude that there had been a violation of Article 3 on that account.
Concerning the applicant
The applicant was the mother of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev. She was an eyewitness to his arrest. For more than six years she had not had any news of him. During that period she had enquired about her son to various official bodies, both in writing and in person but had never received any plausible explanation as to what had become of him. The responses she had received mostly denied the State responsibility for his arrest or simply informed her that an investigation was ongoing.
The Court therefore found that the applicant had suffered, and continued to suffer, distress and anguish as a result of her sons disappearance and inability to find out what had happened to him. The manner with which her complaints had been dealt with by the authorities had to be considered as inhuman treatment. The Court therefore concluded that there had been a violation of Article 3 in respect of the applicant.
No official trace of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyevs detention or his subsequent whereabouts existed. The Court found that to be a most serious failing since it enabled those responsible for his deprivation of liberty to conceal their involvement in a crime and to escape accountability.
Indeed, the Courts findings regarding the conduct of the investigation left no doubt that the authorities had failed to take prompt and effective measures to safeguard Mr Alikhadzhiyev against the risk of disappearance.
Consequently, the Court found that the fact that Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev had been held in detention without acknowledgement or any of the safeguards enshrined by Article 5 amounted to a particularly grave violation of his right to liberty and security.
Having found in the present case that the criminal investigation into Mr Alikhadzhiyevs disappearance and death had been ineffective and the effectiveness of any other remedy that might have existed, including the civil remedies suggested by the Government, had consequently been undermined, it followed that the State had failed in its obligation under Article 13. Consequently, there had been a violation of Article 13 in conjunction with Articles 2 and 3. The Court considered that no separate issue arose in respect of Article 13 read in conjunction with Article 5.
Article 38 § 1 (a)
The Government had refused to submit documents from the criminal investigation file requested by the Court at the communication stage of the application. In February 2006, after the Court had declared the application admissible and had reiterated its request, the Government had submitted the requested documents.
The Court did not find that the delays in submitting the information had prejudiced the establishment of the facts or prevented a proper examination of the case. Accordingly, the Court considered that there had been no failure by the State to comply with Article 38 § 1 (a).
The Courts judgments are accessible on its Internet site (http://www.echr.coe.int).
2 This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.