Saribekyan and Balyan v. Azerbaijan

[2020] ECHR 35746/11
Download Judgment: English

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The applicants, Mamikon Saribekyan and Siranush Balyan, brought an application that their son, Manvel Saribekyan, had been tortured and killed under the detention of the Azerbaijan authorities. Saribekyan, was a resident of the Tutjur village in the Gegharkunik region of Armenia near the border of Azerbaijan. On September 11th, 2010, Saribekyan lost his bearings in the fog while out collecting wood and looking for stray cattle. Saribekyan accidentally crossed the Azerbaijani border and was arrested by Azerbaijani military police and detained in the town of Baku. On September 13th, Azerbaijani media reported that they had arrested an Armenian “saboteur” and aired a television interview in which Saribekyan claimed he had been trained in Armenia to carry out terrorist attacks in Azerbaijan and had been carrying explosives to blow up an Azerbaijani school. On October 4th, Saribekyan was found dead hanging by a rope in his cell. The Azerbaijan Military Prosecutor’s office conducted an investigation, concluded he had committed suicide by hanging, and found no wrongdoing by the Azerbaijani authorities.

On November 4th, Saribekyan’s body was handed over to Armenian authorities. Armenian investigators conducted an independent autopsy and found wounds on Saribekyan’s corpse consistent with torture before death. They also found evidence suggesting Saribekyan’s death was caused by suffocation through compressing the neck with a ring. In the European Court of Human Rights proceedings, the applicants introduced evidence suggesting Saribekyan had been beaten and intentionally killed by Azerbaijani authorities, including testimony from a detainee, YG, who claimed to have been kept in the cell directly above Saribekyan. YG testified that he was regularly tortured by the guard, that he heard guards opening and closing the door to Saribekyan’s cell several times on the night he died, and that it would have been impossible for Saribekyan to hang himself given the layout of the cell. Azerbaijan refused to comply with several Armenian requests for assistance in the investigation.

The applicants lodged an application against the Republic of Azerbaijan with the European Court of Human Rights under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) on June 10th, 2011. The applicants alleged their son had been tortured and killed in detention, that Azerbaijan’s investigation was insufficient, and that the alleged violations occurred in part due to discrimination based on ethnic origin. They accordingly claimed breaches of Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of torture), Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) and Article 14 (discrimination). The Court’s decision focused on Articles 2 and 3. Notice of the application was given to the respondent, the Azerbaijani government, on November 10, 2015 and the Armenian government exercised its right to intervene pursuant to Article 36 section 1 of the Convention.

The Court held that Azerbaijan violated Saribekyan’s Article 2 and 3 rights under the Convention but declined to find a separate Article 3 violation with respect to the psychological impact on his relatives.

On Article 2, the right to life, the Court held that where a detainee is in good health prior to detention and is found injured on release, the State must provide an adequate explanation as to the cause of the injuries – and the Azerbaijan authorities did not do as such. Strong presumptions of fact will arise with respect to injuries and death occurring during detention, and the burden of proof rests with the authorities to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation. These obligations arise because detained persons are in a vulnerable position and the authorities are under a duty to protect them, and because the events at issue lay in the exclusive knowledge of the authorities. The Court added that the obligation on authorities to account for the treatment of detained individuals is particularly stringent when they die or disappear. Although Article 2 requires that a violation must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court held that these presumptions of fact, if unrebutted, can be sufficient to constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt. On the available information, the Court held that there was a prima facie case that Saribekyan was in good health prior to detention and that his death was caused by the Azerbaijan authorities, and that that the Azerbaijan government did not provide a satisfactory explanation of Saribekyan’s death. The Azerbaijan forensic expert did not acknowledge or explain the injuries that were noted and photographed in the Armenian examination. Therefore, the Court held that Saribekyan’s substantive Article 2 rights had been violated.

The Court held that the procedural content of Article 2 was violated because Azerbaijan’s investigation had been insufficient. The Azerbaijan investigation was based on the presumption that Saribekyan committed suicide and therefore alternate explanations for his death were not properly explored. Additionally, the context, namely the hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia, required an investigation into whether ethnic hatred played a role in Saribekyan’s and that investigation was not done. Finally, the Court held that the Azerbaijan authorities did not properly notify the applicant’s nor the Armenian regarding Saribekyan’s arrest.

The Court held that Saribekyan’s Article 3 rights, the prohibition against torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, had also been violated. The Court held that ill-treatment must attain a minimum level of severity before it falls under Article 3. The Court held that this threshold is fact-specific and depends upon the duration of the treatment, the physical and mental effects of the treatment, and in some cases, the age, sex, and health of the individual. The ill-treatment must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on Armenia’s forensic investigation, the Court held that during the final days of Saribekyan’s detention, he experienced serious and cruel suffering that was intentionally inflicted to the point of being characterized as torture. The Court held that the presumptions of fact and obligation for the state to account for events identified in its Article 2 analysis also applied to Article 3. The Court found 6-1 that the Azerbaijan government had failed to satisfactorily rebut the presumption it had tortured Saribekyan, and therefore Saribekyan’s Article 3 rights had been violated.

The Court held that the psychological impact and mental suffering experienced by Saribekyan’s relatives did not constitute a separate violation of their Article 3 rights. The Court held that in order to find a separate Article 3 violation with respect to the relatives, “there should be special factors in place giving their suffering a dimension and character distinct from the emotional distress inevitably stemming from the aforementioned violation itself” (para 84). Relevant factors include the proximity of the family tie with the victim, the particular circumstances of the relationship, whether the family member witnessed the events in question, and the involvement of the applicants in attempts to get information about the fate of their relatives. In this case, the Court held there was no “sufficiently special feature” of the relatives’ suffering that made it distinct from the emotional distress inevitably caused when a relative is tortured. The Court therefore unanimously held that the relatives’ Article 3 rights were not violated.

The Court held that there was no need to consider an Article 13 violation because it had already found a violation of the procedural aspect of Article 2, and that there was no need to consider an Article 14, discrimination violation because the complaint was based on the same facts as the Article 2 and 3 violations that had already been established.

The Court, in finding that the applicants suffered non-pecuniary damages as a result of the Article 2 and 3 violations, awarded them 60,000 euros and 2,200 euros in costs.

“Detained persons are in a vulnerable position and the authorities are under a duty to protect them. Consequently, where an individual is taken into police custody in good health and is found to be injured on release, it is incumbent on the State to provide a plausible explanation of how those injuries were caused. The obligation on the authorities to account for the treatment of a detained individual is particularly stringent where that individual dies or disappears thereafter” (para 60).

“Where the events in issue lie wholly, or in large part, within the exclusive knowledge of the authorities, as in the case of persons within their control in detention, strong presumptions of fact will arise in respect of injuries and death occurring during that detention. Indeed, the burden of proof may be regarded as resting on the authorities to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation” (para 61).

 “Ill-treatment must attain a minimum level of severity before it will be considered to fall within the provision’s scope. The assessment of this minimum is relative and depends on all of the circumstances of the case including the duration of its treatment, the physical or mental effects and, in some cases, the age, sex and health of the individual. The practice of the Convention organs requires compliance with a standard of proof “beyond reasonable doubt” that ill‑treatment of such severity occurred (para 82).”

“[I]n order for a separate violation of Article 3 of the Convention to be found in respect of the victim’s relatives, there should be special factors in place giving their suffering a dimension and character distinct from the emotional distress inevitably stemming from the aforementioned violation itself. The relevant factors include the proximity of the family tie, the particular circumstances of the relationship, the extent to which the family member witnessed the events in question and the involvement of the applicants in the attempts to obtain information about the fate of their relative” (para 84).

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