Matevosyan v Armenia: Failure to conduct ‘effective’ investigation violates Article 3 ECHR

In a recent judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that the Armenian authorities had violated the procedural limb of Article 3 ECHR (prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) by failing to conduct an ‘effective’ investigation into allegations of torture.

Background

The Applicant had been drafted into the Armenian army and had been performing his military service in the Syunik Region of Armenia. On 29 April 2006, the dead body of a fellow serviceman was found hanging from a tree in a forest near where the applicant was based. The applicant was questioned as part of an investigation into the death and was later arrested and detained on suspicion of murder.

On 21 June 2006, the applicant (detained in Nubarashen detention centre) lodged a complaint with the General Prosecutor’s Office, alleging that he had been beaten and ill-treated during his time in detention. This complaint was forwarded to the same investigator (AK) who was investigating the applicant on suspicion of murder. The investigator dismissed the allegations of ill-treatment, relying on statements of the military police officers involved and a letter from the Head of the isolation facility of the Military Police Department where the applicant had been detained. The applicant’s complaint was dismissed due to a lack of evidence. After exhausting domestic remedies, the applicant brought the matter to the ECtHR. He alleged that by failing to conduct an effective investigation into his complaint, the authorities had violated Article 3 ECHR.

The Judgment

After finding the claim admissible, the ECtHR went on to consider its merits. First, the Court outlined the general principles. The Court reiterated that where an individual raises an arguable claim of ill-treatment in breach of Article 3, that provision must be considered in conjunction with the State’s obligations under Article 1 ECHR to “secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in … [the] Convention”. This requires an effective official investigation. The ECtHR went on to hold that such an investigation must be ‘thorough’ and that ‘serious attempts’ must be made by the authorities to determine what happened.  In particular, ‘They [authorities] must take all reasonable steps available to them to secure the evidence concerning the incident, including eyewitness testimony, forensic evidence, and so on.’ Finally, the Court reiterated that any investigation must be independent, both institutionally and practically.

Next, the Court considered the circumstances of the particular case. The Court found that, in the present case, the applicant had made an arguable claim of ill-treatment. As an inquiry had been made into the allegations, the issue for the Court was whether this inquiry could be considered ‘effective’ under Article 3 ECHR. Firstly,  the ECtHR condemned the fact that the applicant’s allegations had been forwarded to the very same investigator who was investigating the applicant on suspicion of murder. Indeed,  the Court cannot consider such an investigation to satisfy the requirement of independence.’ The Court also condemned the investigator’s lack of reasoning in refusing to initiate criminal proceedings. It was not clear why the evidence of the police officers was given more weight than that of the applicant.

In addition, aside from questioning the military police officers involved (three months after the complaint), no other measures were taken in relation to the applicant’s complaint. The investigator merely relied on the police officers’ statements and letter from the head of the isolation facility finding no bodily injuries. As such, it was held that the authorities had failed to react to the applicant’s complaint promptly and diligently. Moreover, the authorities did not order a medical examination or seek to obtain any further evidence, nor even interview the applicant. In light of the above, the ECtHR found that the authorities had failed to conduct an effective investigation into the complaints, violating the procedural limb of Article 3 ECHR.

Conclusion

This judgment is a powerful reminder by the Court of States’ positive obligations under the Convention and Article 3 in particular. Too often, States consider that by announcing an ‘investigation’ they have fulfilled their duties. More often than not, such ‘investigations’ are used by authorities as a way of covering up human rights abuses. Here, the Court has reminded States that such token investigations are not enough.

Source: Matevosyan v Armenia (ECtHR)

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