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04.07.2009

Strasbourg again finds against Russia over a disappearance in Chechnya

   

In the case of Pukhigova v. Russia (application no. 15440/05), the European Court of Human Rights held unanimously that there had been two violations of the right to life as well as other violations over the disappearance of the claimant’s husband

On 2 July 2009 it notified in writing its Chamber judgment in the case. The Court held unanimously that there had been:

·      two violations of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, on account of the Government not having provided a plausible explanation for the disappearance of the applicant’s husband and of not having carried out an effective investigation;

·      a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), on account of the psychological suffering of the applicant as a result of the disappearance of her husband;

·      a violation of Article 5 (right to liberty and security), on account of the unacknowledged detention of the applicant’s husband;

·      a violation of Article 13 (right of an effective remedy) in conjunction with Article 2, on account of the impossibility for the applicant to obtain the identification and punishment of those responsible, nor redress for her suffering.

Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court awarded the applicant 35,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 4,757 for costs and expenses

1.  Principal facts

The applicant, Ms Zina Pukhigova, is a Russian national who was born in 1944 and lives in the village of Goyty, the Chechen Republic. She was married to Mr Salman Abdulazizov, a category I disabled person, with whom she had six children.

Ms Pukhigova alleged that on the night of 12 February 2001, around twenty heavily armed men, whom she believed to be Russian military, burst into her house and took her husband away. She has not seen him since. During that same night, five other persons from the same village were abducted under similar circumstances; upon their release they told the applicant that they had been kept together with her husband at the military commander’s office of the Urus-Martan District. Ms Pukhigova submitted their and several other persons’ witness statements in writing to the Court.

On the morning after her husband’s abduction, Ms Pukhigova went to the district military commander’s office and heard her husband singing a prayer. On the same day she informed several state agencies that he was being kept in that building. An investigation was opened into the Salman Abdulazizov’s kidnapping on 3 June 2001, only to be temporarily suspended and ultimately, about six and a half years later, forwarded to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office for the Chechen Republic.

The Government submitted that the inquiry they carried out into the disappearance of Salman Abdulaziziov did not establish any involvement of law enforcement agencies in it, and that the investigation was ongoing. Despite specific requests by the Court the Government did not disclose any documents of the investigation file and referred to incompatibility of such disclosure with domestic law.

In April 2003, Ms Pukhigova complained before the courts of the inactivity of the district prosecutor’s office. In August 2004, her complaint was dismissed by the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic which found that the prosecutor had taken numerous actions to solve the crime and that military servicemen had not been involved in the kidnapping.

3.  Summary of the judgment  

Complaints

The applicant alleged that her husband disappeared after having been unlawfully detained by Russian servicemen and that the domestic authorities failed to carry out an effective investigation into her allegations. She relied in particular on Articles 2, 3, 5 and 13.

Decision of the Court

Article 2 (right to life)

The Court found that the applicant had presented a coherent and convincing picture of her husband’s abduction, which had been supported by witness statements. It further found that the fact that a large group of armed men in uniforms had been able to move freely about the village controlled by the federal forces late at night past curfew, to abduct six men and then to pass two federal checkpoints had strongly supported the applicant’s allegation that those had been State servicemen. Having drawn inferences from the Government’s failure to submit the documents which were in their exclusive possession or to provide a plausible explanation for the events in question, the Court considered that Salman Abdulazizov had been abducted on 12 February 2001 at his house in Goyty by State servicemen during an unacknowledged security operation. In his absence or of any news about him for eight years, and given the failure of the Government to justify his abduction, the Court concluded that the Government had been responsible for his death. There had been therefore a violation of Article 2 in respect of him.

Article 2 (investigation)

The Court noted that the investigators had been aware of Salman Abdulazizov’s kidnapping for at the very least one month before they started taking measures to solve it. This important delay, for which no explanation had been provided, had been in itself liable to affect the investigation of a crime such as abduction in life-threatening circumstances, where crucial action had to be taken expeditiously. In addition, the investigating authorities had failed to take a number of elementary investigative steps, such as for example inspection of the crime scene, questioning of the servicemen in the military commander’s office or attempting to find the vehicles allegedly used during the abduction. Finally, the Court noted there had been lengthy periods of inexplicable inactivity during the investigation which had been suspended and resumed several times and had not produced any tangible results even though it had been pending for nearly eight years. The authorities had therefore failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Salman Abdulazizov, in violation of Article 2.

Article 3 (psychological suffering)

The applicant had suffered distress and anguish as a result of the disappearance of her husband and her inability to find out what had happened to him. The manner in which her complaints had been dealt with by the authorities had constituted inhuman treatment, in violation of Article 3.

Article 5 (unlawful detention)

Given that Salman Abdulazizov had been held in unacknowledged detention without any of the safeguards contained in Article 5, this had constituted a particularly grave violation of the right to liberty and security as enshrined in Article 5.

Article 13 in conjunction with Article 2

Finally, the Court held that, given that the criminal investigation into Salman Abdulazizov’s disappearance had been ineffective, the effectiveness of any other remedy that may have existed, including civil remedies suggested by the Government, had been undermined, in violation of Article 13 of the Convention.

The judgment in full can be found at: http://www.echr.coe.int).

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