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Greece in Breach of Articles 3 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights

14 December 2005

The European Court of Human Rights finds that Greece violated Articles 3 and 14 after police abuse of two young Romani men and failure to investigate possible racist motives.

Budapest, Athens, Strasbourg, 14 December 2005. On 13 December 2005, three years after the initial submission, the European Court of Human Rights (Court) issued a decision in the case of Bekos and Koutropoulos vs. Greece. The Court found the Greek state responsible for the inhuman and degrading treatment two Romani man suffered at the hands of police, as well as the subsequent failure to conduct an effective official investigation, in violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment). The Court also found a violation of the procedural guarantee against racial discrimination contained in Article 14 (discrimination), taken together with Article 3.

Mr. Lazaros Bekos and Mr. Eleftherios Koutropoulos ("the applicants") were represented by lawyers of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), together with the Athens-based non-governmental organisation, Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM).

The incident at issue took place in May 1998, when Mr. Bekos and Mr. Koutropoulos were arrested for allegedly attempting to break into a kiosk. The two men were taken to the Mesolonghi police station and interrogated. During the interrogation, both were severely beaten by the police. A forensics report, issued the following day indicated that both young men had sustained "moderate bodily injuries caused in the past 24 hours by a blunt, heavy instrument."

An internal Sworn Administrative Inquiry concluded that two officers, Police Lieutenant Apostolos Tsikrikas (Chief Commander of the Security Department) and Lieutenant Andreas Avgheris (Deputy Commander of the Security Department) had treated the applicants "with particular cruelty during their detention." The report also established that Officer Tsikrikas physically abused both of the young men and that Officer Avgheris had struck one of the men with a truncheon intensely several times. Although the Sworn Administrative Inquiry recommended that both officers be suspended from service, this was never done.

At the conclusion of a criminal investigation into the matter two years later, the Misdemeanors Prosecutor of Mesolonghi recommended that three police officers be tried for causing bodily harm. Despite this recommendation, the three-judge Misdemeanor Judges Indictment Chamber dropped the criminal charges against two of the officers and indicted only Officer Tsikrikas. The Appeals Court of Patras, ignoring the testimony of the two Romani men, the findings of the Sworn Administrative Inquiry, and the results of the Mesolonghi Public Prosecutor's investigation, acquitted Officer Tsikrikas of all charges.

The applicants brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging violations of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment), Article 13 (lack of an effective legal remedy), and Article 14 (discrimination), in conjunction with Articles 3 and 13.

In its assessment of the applicants' treatment at the hand of the police, the Court noted the failure of the authorities to provide explanations as to the incident, and held that:
"[It] considers that the serious physical harm suffered by the applicants at the hands of the police, as well as the feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority which the impugned treatment had produced in them, must have caused the applicants suffering of sufficient severity for the acts of the police to be categorised as inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention". Additionally, the Court held that there was no effective investigation into the credible allegation made by the applicants that they had been ill-treated while in custody, thus finding a violation of the procedural aspect of Article 3 of the Convention.

With regard to Article 14 discrimination claim, the Court followed a two-pronged approach, considering first whether the Greek State was liable for the degrading treatment on the basis of the victims' race or ethnic origin and second, whether the respondent State complied with its obligation to investigate possible racist motives.

On the former, the Court observed that "Racial violence is a particular affront to human dignity and, in view of its perilous consequences, requires from the authorities special vigilance and a vigorous reaction. It is for this reason that the authorities must use all available means to combat racism and racist violence, thereby reinforcing democracy's vision of a society in which diversity is not perceived as a threat but as a source of its enrichment".

Nevertheless, it reiterated its position, previously established in Nachova vs. Bulgaria, rejecting the applicants' claims on substantive violation of Article 14 taken together with Article 3, hinging on the high "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof. Ruling on 13 December in Bekos and Koutropoulos v. Greece, the court maintained that it had not been established that racist attitudes played a role in the treatment of the two men by the police.

With respect to procedural obligation under Article 14, the Court held, as it has previously, that:

"[It] further considers that the authorities' duty to investigate the existence of a possible link between racist attitudes and an act of violence is an aspect of their procedural obligations arising under Article 3 of the Convention, but may also be seen as implicit in their responsibilities under Article 14 of the Convention to secure the fundamental value enshrined in Article 3 without discrimination. […]".

Assessing the evidence, the Court noted serious flaws in investigating the possible existence of racist motives and therefore found Greece in violation of Article 14 of the Convention, taken together with Article 3.

The Court awarded each applicant 10,000 Euro for non-pecuniary damages.

For further details on this case, please contact Panayote Dimitras (GHM Executive Director (panayote@greekhelsinki.gr) or Dianne Post, ERRC Legal Director (e-mail: dianne.post@errc.org. Additional information on the human rights situation of Roma in Greece is available on the ERRC internet website at: http://errc.org.

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