Euro Rights Blog: Greek Courts and Torture: Fostering Impunity?

The Greek version of the International New York Times reported yesterday that two Greek coastguards had been convicted of torture arising from their conduct in 2007. in 2007 the Coastguards had subjected two Moroccan refugees to water-boarding and mock executions. As a result the Greek Naval Tribunal imposed on the two men suspended jail sentences of three and six years. The Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees also blogged welcoming the decision. However, notwithstanding the convictions there must be a real concern that the lenient sentences do not comply with Article 3 ECHR. Why?

In Aleksakhin v Ukraine [2012] ECHR 31939/06 the European Court handed down an important judgment exactly on point. In Aleksakhin the applicant had been arrested and detained in a police station. While detained the applicant had been handcuffed him to a metal ring in the wall by a police officer, Kh. Kh sprayed tear gas in Aleksakhin’s face, and kicked and beat him in the head, neck, chest and back. In the circumstances the European Court had little difficult in concluding that Aleksakhin had been tortured and there was a substantive violation of Article 3 as a consequence.

With the respect to the procedural aspects of Article 3 the European Court had the following important dicta:

56. The procedural requirements of art 3 go beyond the preliminary investigation stage when, as in this case, the investigation leads to legal action being taken before the national courts: the proceedings as a whole, including the trial stage, must meet the requirements of the prohibition enshrined in art 3. This means that the domestic judicial authorities must on no account be prepared to let physical or psychological suffering inflicted go unpunished. This is essential for maintaining the public’s confidence in, and support for, the rule of law and for preventing any appearance of the authorities’ tolerance of or collusion in unlawful acts.

The European Court went on to note that while the proceedings had resulted in the conviction of officer Kh it had taken the authorities seven years to do so. Moreover, at the end of these proceedings the Ukrainian courts had imposed a suspended prison sentence. On this the European Court observed:

58. The Court further reiterates that when an agent of the State is accused of crimes involving torture or ill-treatment, the criminal proceedings and sentencing must not be time-barred and the granting of an amnesty or pardon should not be permitted. Although in the present case the police officer was convicted, the Court again notes that the final sentence of 3 July 2006 is nearly identical to the one of 23 August 2001 (Kh. being sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and released on probation) quashed by the higher court as too lenient. By punishing the officer with a lenient non-custodial sentence more than eight years after his wrongful conduct, the State in effect fostered the law-enforcement officer’s ‘sense of impunity’ instead of showing, as it should have done, that such acts could in no way be tolerated. In such circumstances, the Court is not convinced that the police officer’s punishment was adequate.

The similarities with the Greek case are striking. The Greek authorities by taking six years to punish torture with a suspended sentence are also fostering a sense of impunity with respect to the most fundamental guarantee of the ECHR. This is simply not good enough. No member state of the Council of Europe should foster impunity for the most egregious violation of human dignity.