In first decision involving Roma applicants from Central or Eastern Europe, Strasbourg Court finds Bulgaria in violation of European Convention of Human Rights

29 October 1998

On 28 October, 1998, in the first ruling in its history involving Romani applicants from Central or Eastern Europe, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found that the Government of Bulgaria violated the European Convention of Human Rights in its mistreatment of a teenage Romani boy. The decision, which constitutes a landmark for Roma throughout Europe, held unanimously that law enforcement authorities inflicted inhuman and degrading treatment upon a Romani youth by failing to conduct an effective investigation of his allegations of police ill-treatment. The ruling has particular significance for Roma, whose complaints of police abuse all too often encounter indifference, neglect and/or hostility on the part of investigative authorities.

Alongside widespread discrimination, police ill-treatment is the single most serious human rights problem today for Roma throughout much of Europe. In Bulgaria alone, since 1992, at least 14 Romani men have died after having last been seen alive in police custody, or as a result of the unlawful use of firearms by law enforcement. The Court's judgment serves as a wake-up call to governments to curb official abuse, and thoroughly investigate allegations of misconduct.

The case of Assenov v. Bulgaria began with the arrest on 19 September 1992 of 14-year-old Anton Assenov, a Romani boy, for gambling in the market square in the provincial town of Shoumen. Assenov was taken to a nearby bus station, then handcuffed and, along with his father, brought to the police station, where the two were detained for approximately two hours before being released without charge. Assenov alleged that during this time, the police struck him with truncheons and pummeled him in the stomach. A medical certificate issued two days after his release documented large purple-bluish bruises on the boy's head, chest, and right arm, which the examining physician viewed as consistent with the alleged police mistreatment.

Over the next two years, Assenov and his parents filed complaints with every available criminal investigative authority -- up to and including the Chief General Prosecutor. None of the investigative bodies initiated criminal proceedings against the police. Assenov was subsequently arrested on other charges and held in pretrial detention for two years. Assenov filed an application with the European Commission of Human Rights in September 1993. After ruling on the matter, the Commission referred the case to the European Court in September 1997.

In its ruling of 28 October, 1998, the Court unanimously found that the Government had violated the following Convention provisions:

  • Article 3 (right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment), by failing to undertake an effective official investigation even though Assenov had raised an arguable claim to have been mistreated by the police;
  • Article 5 (right to liberty and security of the person), by failing, following Assenov's 1995 arrest, a) to bring Assenov promptly before a judge or other officer, b) to bring him to trial within a reasonable time or to release him pending trial, and c) to enable him to have the lawfulness of his pre-trial detention determined by a court;
  • Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), by failing not only to conduct a thorough and effective investigation, but also to provide effective access for Assenov to the investigatory procedure and payment of compensation, notwithstanding his arguable claim of police ill-treatment; and
  • Article 25 (obligation of State not to interfere with the right to petition the Strasbourg organs), by pressuring two of the applicants into denying having made an application at a time when Assenov was being held in detention.

The Court ordered payment of damages and the applicants' costs and expenses in full.

The applicants were represented by Zdravka Kalaydjieva, an attorney affiliated with Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights. The European Roma Rights Center and Amnesty International acted as amici curiae. The full text of the decision is available on the website of the European Court of Human Rights at http://www.dhcour.coe.


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