In collaboration with our partner organisations, we are currently working on around 300 cases against Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia at the European Court. These cases concern a range of alleged violations, from extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to ethnic discrimination, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association. Among the most significant cases we are working on are:
The ‘foreign agent’ law: challenging the repression of human rights defenders in Russia
A federal law, passed in late 2012, introduced the new classification of ‘foreign agent’ for NGOs carrying out so-called ‘political activities’ and receiving foreign funding. The ‘foreign agent’ law marked a new low for the Russian human rights community. NGOs caught by its provisions are required to register as a ‘foreign agent’ and can also be placed on the register by the Ministry of Justice without their consent. The law imposes significantly more onerous reporting restrictions and regulations on these NGOs.
In order to challenge the law, in February 2013, EHRAC and our partner, Memorial launched a case at the European Court on behalf of 11 leading Russian human rights NGOs. The application alleges that the ‘foreign agent’ law violates the rights to freedom of association and expression. A further three NGOs joined the application in July 2013. We continue to monitor the impact of the law.
Supporting people affected by conflict
Years of conflict in the North Caucasus, and in particular in Chechnya, saw vast destruction and countless violations of human rights, including extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, indiscriminate bombings, and widespread incidence of torture. As the Russian courts have never effectively scrutinised the actions of the Russian security forces in the North Caucasus, the ability to seek justice through international mechanisms is incredibly significant for people of the region.
The first cases at the European Court on behalf of the Chechen people reached judgment in 2005, and represented the first time that an international court found that Russian security forces had used grossly disproportionate force in Chechnya, with utter disregard for the risk to civilian life. In each case, the European Court established that Russia had violated the right to life and awarded significant compensation to the applicants. EHRAC and Memorial represented applicants in three of these cases:
|Khashiyev and Akayeva v Russia||This case concerned the torture and extra-judicial execution of five of the applicants’ relatives in Grozny (the Chechen capital) in January 2000. The bodies of the applicants’ relatives were found with numerous gunshot wounds.|
|Isayeva, Yusupova and Bazayeva v Russia||This case arose out of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians leaving Grozny by car in October 1999. Due to the bombing, the first applicant was wounded and her two children and sister-in-law were killed, the second applicant was wounded and the third applicant’s cars were destroyed.|
|Isayeva v Russia||This case concerned the indiscriminate bombing of the Chechen village of Katyr-Yurt in February 2000. As a result of the bombing, the applicant’s son and her three nieces were killed.|
“My son, who was abducted, has left three children behind. I see them every day, and it’s very difficult for me, knowing that my husband and I were unable to do anything to get our son released. Now it will be less hard for me, as our grandchildren will see that we have done everything possible to save their father, that we even applied to the European Court. We plan to leave the entire amount of compensation to our grandchildren. Without your help, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything, as we had never even heard of the European Court. You have alleviated our pain”.
These cases set a ground-breaking precedent for the way the European Court would handle cases from the North Caucasus region for the years to follow. Since 2005, over 200 judgments have been passed down in cases from the region.
When Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, conflict over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh intensified. A ceasefire was reached in 1994 but the conflict continued with fatalities on both sides.
International attempts to broker peaceful settlements have had limited success. Today, thousands of people are living in temporary accommodation after being displaced. They have lost property, livelihoods, and in some cases, their lives.
In 2006, we assisted Armenian NGO ‘Legal Guide’ to bring a case to the European Court on behalf of ethnic Armenians, who had lived in the village of Gulistan (which borders Nagorno-Karabakh later claimed as part of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh). Gulistan was attacked by Azerbaijani forces in June 1992 and the entire village fled fearing for their lives. In this case, Sargsyan v Azerbaijan, the family allege violations of the European Convention arising from their forced displacement and the Government’s refusal to allow them access to their homes. Following a Grand Chamber hearing in February 2014, we are received a judgment by the Court on 16 June 2015. We anticipate that this case may set a precedent for how the Court deals with future cases relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as the situation of Internally Displaced Persons in other conflict situations.
South Ossetia is a breakaway region that claimed de facto independence from Georgia in 1992. In 2008 tensions between Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces escalated, resulting in a five-day war.
In 2009, in partnership with the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, we submitted 32 cases to the European Court on behalf of civilians affected by the conflict. The applicants in these cases had endured shelling and aeriel bombardment of their villages, resulting in the destruction of their properties. Their relatives had been killed or injured. Their houses were burned or looted allegedly by Russian soldiers or the Ossetian militia. Others described how their village was shelled from surrounding Ossetian villages, and then attacked by air allegedly by Russian helicopters and planes. These cases were communicated to the Russian government in 2011 and judgments are awaited.
Challenging injustice in the Ukrainian legal system: Volkov v Ukraine
In our first case against Ukraine, we represented Oleksandr Volkov, a Supreme Court judge who was dismissed from his position in 2010 for an alleged breach of oath. He appealed to the Higher Administrative Court against his dismissal, but his appeal was rejected.
In a landmark judgment in January 2013, the European Court held that Ukraine had violated Mr Volkov’s rights to a fair trial and to respect for his private life. The European Court, for the first time ever, ordered Ukraine to reinstate him as a Supreme Court judge ‘at the earliest possible date’. The European Court also found ‘serious systemic problems as regards the functioning of the Ukrainian judiciary’ and stressed the need for legislative reform.
We continue working towards the implementation of the judgment through advocating for Mr Volkov’s reinstatement and wider legal reform.