European Court of Human Rights Rules Against Bulgaria in Police Abuse Case

On June 13, 2002, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found Bulgaria in breach of several provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights in a case involving the death of a young Romani man while in police custody.

The case, Anguelova v. Bulgaria, relates to the events surrounding the death of 17-year-old Anguel Zabchikov, who was allegedly trying to break into cars in a neighbourhood in Razgrad, Bulgaria, sometime after midnight on January 28, 1996. Neighbours alerted an off-duty police officer, Sergeant Mutafov, who was in the area at the time. Sergeant Mutafov chased Anguel Zabchikov and claimed that Zabchikov fell on his face several times while trying to run away. He was arrested for attempted theft and taken to the police station shortly before 1:00 AM. By 3:00 AM, his health had deteriorated significantly. He was taken to the local hospital, where he died at around 5:00 AM.

An autopsy the following day indicated that Anguel Zabchikov died from a skull fracture sustained four to six hours before his death. A subsequent report, based only on documentary evidence, concluded that he had been injured ten hours before his death. Based on the second report, the investigators concluded that the police were not responsible for his injuries or death and terminated the investigation. The case was filed at the European Court of Human Rights by local counsel working for the ERRC.

In its June 2002 ruling, the Court unanimously held there had been a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights with respect to Anguel Zabchikov's death, the failure to provide timely medical care, and the failure to conduct an effective investigation. The applicant submitted an expert medical opinion showing Zabchikov had severe bruising on his right hand and other evidence of ill treatment. In finding a violation, the Court noted that the police delayed contact between Zabchikov and a doctor, may have tried to control which doctor saw him, and manipulated the detention records. It further noted that the case file contained no criticism or disapproval of the delaying actions. With respect to the investigation, the Court questioned the failure of Bulgarian authorities to clarify the obvious contradictions between the first and second medical reports and concluded that the investigation was not objective and thorough. For the same reasons, the Court found a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture).

Because there was no written order or proper record of Zabchikov's detention, the Court also found a violation of Article 5 (right to liberty). Further, the Court found that the failure to conduct an effective investigation into his death undermined the effectiveness of any other potential remedies, and thus violated Article 13 (right to an effective remedy). The Court awarded 19,050 euros for non-pecuniary damage and 3,500 euros for costs and expenses.

While finding that the applicant had raised "serious" arguments that Zabchikov's treatment by the police was in part a result of his Romani ethnicity, the Court held that the applicant had not proven the discrimination claim "beyond a reasonable doubt". In a thoughtful dissenting opinion, Judge Bonello noted his concern that the Court, in over fifty years, has not found a single instance of violation of the right to life or the right not to be subjected to torture induced by the race, colour or place of origin of the victim. Per Judge Bonello, "Kurds, coloureds, Islamics, Roma and others are again and again killed, tortured or maimed, but the Court is not persuaded that their race, colour, nationality or place of origin has anything to do with it." He cited numerous reports of inter-governmental organisations and human rights groups, such as the European Roma Rights Center, documenting the "predilection displayed by police officers for savaging Roma."

The full text of the decision is available on the website of the European Court of Human Rights at: www.echr.coe.int. An analysis of the decision appears on p.73 of this issue of Roma Rights.

(ERRC)

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