Strasbourg seeks to limit Russia cases, but rights-watchers say that’s a good thing
Lawyer Karinna Moskalenko says the recent rule-tightening will ultimately work to the advantage of those who need help the most.
New restrictions imposed by the European Court of Human Rights sparked alarming headlines this week in Russia, where the court is seen as the last resort for victims of some of the country’s most egregious rights abuses.
"Russians Access To European Justice Limited, " read one. "Russia’s Most Vulnerable Residents Can’t Count On Strasbourg, " said another.
The news comes in response to a move by the Strasbourg-based court moved to tighten application requirements as of June 1.
The new guidelines, which the court has yet to publish, are intended to cut down on the number of cases coming from countries like Russia that submit the majority of the court’s complaints.
But Russian lawyers and other observers close to the court say there’s no cause for alarm.
The new rules, which have been in the works for more than a year, are designed to ensure that applications meet admissibility standards and represent a clear violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court rejects approximately 90 percent of all applications due to inadmissibility.
Anna Stavitskaya, a defense lawyer who has represented numerous clients in Strasbourg, says the change is meant to streamline a system clogged by tens of thousands of improperly prepared applications.
"The European Court is a court that examines violations of the European Convention. So you need to demonstrate that a violation has in fact occurred and follow the court requirements, " Stavitskaya says.
"If the complaint is really serious and touches on some kind of serious violation of a right guaranteed by the convention, then I don’t think that it would be denied on formal grounds."
Russia No. 1
The European Court of Human Rights was founded in 1959 as an outlet for individuals or states within the Council of Europe to seek redress against other member states for human rights violations.
In the past two decades, newer Council of Europe members from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have added considerably to the court’s case load.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg already rejects approximately 90 percent of all applications due to inadmissibility.
Five countries -- Russia, Turkey, Italy, Romania, and Ukraine -- currently account for more than 60 percent of the 150, 000 applications pending before the court.
Russia -- which joined the Council of Europe in 1996 and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights two years later -- is the leader by a wide margin, with more than 40, 000 applications submitted.
Bill Bowring, a professor of international human rights law at the University of London’s Birbeck College, says the court has proved an enticing option in a country whose own justice system has performed poorly on human rights.
"Really, everybody in Russia has gotten to hear about the convention. I think it’s probably better known in Russia than in most Council of Europe states. And so both lawyers representing people and people in custody are very likely to write to Strasbourg with their complaints, " he says. "Out of 47 countries, one-quarter of complaints are coming in from Russia."
In particular, the Strasbourg court has been seen as a lifeline for hundreds of families in the North Caucasus whose family members have disappeared or died as a result of torture at the hands of local or federal authorities.
The court has awarded millions of dollars in compensation to families in Chechnya and other republics in the region.
It has also awarded damages to jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and ordered the Russian government to pay out $1.7 million in compensation for its mishandling of the 2002 hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater, in which 130 people died.
The court’s decisions are binding, and Bowring says the state has been dutiful, if not always cheerful, about paying damages and implementing other court recommendations.
Most recently, he says, the court’s recommendations have been effective in prompting the country to address the notoriously poor conditions in its pretrial detention system.
In all, Strasbourg judges have so far ruled on 1, 212 complaints from Russia, the vast majority of which have found authorities guilty of some degree of rights violations.
Experts have stressed that the new requirements do not affect what they consider the most important aspects of the court’s applications: the process remains free of charge, and can still be submitted in handwritten form by individuals in prison.
Human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, who won the first-ever case against Russia heard in public hearings at the Strasbourg court, says the recent rule-tightening will ultimately work to the advantage of those who need help the most.
"The basic requirements that apply to every applicant are laid out in a very detailed, clear way in the complaint forms, " Moskalenko says.
"All that has happened is that the accompanying explanatory note, which has existed since 1959, has been slightly modified and made more detailed -- all for the benefit of the same applicants and their representatives."