European Court of Human Rights finds Bulgaria in breach of ECHR in police abuse case
11 July 2000
On May 18, 2000, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found that the Bulgarian government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of Velikova v. Bulgaria. The case concerns the death in police custody of a 49-year-old Romani man named Slavcho Tsonchev. In its ruling, the European Court held unanimously that Bulgaria had committed violations of Article 2 (right to life) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Roma Rights Center provided the applicant, Ms Anya Velikova, the common-law wife of Mr Tsonchev, with legal counsel throughout the proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.
Mr Slavcho Tsonchev died in the Pleven police station at 2:00 AM on September 25, 1994, approximately twelve hours after he had been taken into custody. Death resulted from injuries sustained as a result of brutal beating. At around 2:00 PM on September 24, 1994, two uniformed police sergeants brought Mr Tsonchev from his aunt's house to the Pleven Police Department to answer allegations of cattle theft. According to police testimony, Mr Tsonchev was too inebriated to be questioned. At approximately 7:00 PM, the police requested medical assistance for Mr Tsonchev. A physician and a paramedical assistant came, conducted a cursory examination, and then left, at which point Mr Tsonchev was locked up. Shortly after midnight the police requested medical help for a second time. At around 2:00 AM on September 25, the same physician arrived and pronounced Mr Tsonchev dead. At 2:30 AM, the regional investigator arrived and examined the body, noting only a "bruise ... on the right side of the face" and "[b]ecause of the dark colour of the skin ... no other visible injuries of the body." In violation of Bulgarian criminal procedures, the inspection record was not signed by any of the witnesses present, but only by the investigator.
A criminal investigation was subsequently opened on September 25, 1994. The report of an autopsy conducted the same morning documented numerous bruises all over Mr Tsonchev's body which the initial inspection had failed to record, including a haemorrhage under the right lower eyelid, bruises on both sides of the face, the lower jaw and the chin, "massive" bruises on both arms, and three long bruises on the buttocks. The report concluded that death was caused by "acute anaemia", resulting from the "huge and deep haemorrhages" on the body.
In the ensuing three years and five months, the authorities conducted an inadequate investigation which shed no light on the causes of Mr Tsonchev's death. In the process, they denied the applicant, Ms Anya Velikova, Mr Tsonchev's common law wife and mother of his three children, access to civil remedies. They additionally persistently obstructed her efforts to obtain information about the course of the investigation.
On May 12, 1995 and again on February 28, 1996, the applicant's counsel filed requests with the Office of the Bulgarian Chief Prosecutor asking for the investigation to be expedited. On March 19, 1996, well beyond the time limit established in the Criminal Procedure Code, the Regional Prosecutor suspended the investigation on the grounds that it was impossible to determine where the victim had been beaten, and whether it had been police officers or the owners of the cattle Mr Tsonchev was alleged to have stolen who had carried out the beating. In an order of July 8, 1996, the Office of the Chief Prosecutor granted Counsel's appeal and ordered that the investigation be reopened. The July 8 order found that the investigation to date had not been thorough or complete and directed that further specific steps be taken to determine liability for Mr Tsonchev's death and for the failure to provide adequate medical assistance during detention.
In January and again in May 1997, renewed written complaints were filed by the applicant's counsel with, respectively, the Pleven Regional Prosecutor's Office and the Office of Chief Prosecutor, alleging that contrary to the July 8 order, no investigation was taking place. On August 17, 1997, counsel received by mail a copy of a letter dated June 3, 1997, in which the Pleven Regional Prosecutor's Office explained to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor that no further investigation was possible, and that the investigation should again be suspended.
The applicant, Ms Anya Velikova, lodged an application with the European Commission of Human Rights on February 12, 1998. On November 1, 1998, the case was transmitted to the European Court of Human Rights. It was declared admissible on May 18, 1999, and a hearing before the Court was held on January 20, 2000. In its ruling of May 18, 2000, the Court unanimously found that the government had violated Article 2 (right to life) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Court of Human Rights. The Court found that there is sufficient evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Tsonchev died as a result of injuries inflicted while he was in police custody. Furthermore, the Court stressed that Mr Tsonchev was not properly examined by a medical doctor while in custody and suffering from grave injuries. In addition, the Court found that the Bulgarian authorities had failed to conduct an effective official investigation to determine the cause of death, and that no plausible explanation for the authorities' failure to collect key evidence was ever provided by the respondent government. Regarding Article 13 , the Court held that the authorities' failure to conduct an effective investigation into the death of Mr Tsonchev undermined the effectiveness of any other remedy which might have existed.
Finally, the Court ordered partial payment of pecuniary damages suffered by the applicant, and payment in full for the applicant's mental pain and suffering as well as of her costs and expenses.
The European Court's ruling in Tsonchev has particular significance for Roma. Throughout Europe, Roma regularly suffer abuses - often extreme abuses - at the hands of the police and other representatives of the state. The most common response on the part of investigative, prosecutorial and judicial authorities to reports of police abuse of Roma is indifference, neglect and/or hostility. Officers are rarely prosecuted or even internally disciplined, even in cases where police have killed Roma. The European Court of Human Rights ruling in Tonschev has vindicated the efforts of one Romani woman to see that her husband's death receives justice. Perhaps as importantly, the Court's ruling has sent a clear signal to European states that abuses of Roma by state actors cannot be tolerated. The full text of the decision is available on the website of the European Court of Human Rights at www.errc.org.