European Court rules Russia’s detention and deportation of Georgians ten years ago contravened Convention rights

Published: 20 Dec 2016

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Today the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia’s collective expulsion of Georgians in 2006 violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The applicants (or their relatives) were all arrested and held in police stations or detention centres; the Court ruled that the conditions of their “arbitrary and unlawful” detention constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. Some of those detained subsequently left Russia by their own means, while others were deported; the husband of one applicant, Nino Dzidzava, collapsed and died upon arrival at Domodedovo airport (Moscow) shortly before his deportation. The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA, Tbilisi) represented 12 individuals in two cases before the European Court.[1]

Background

Following a serious breakdown in diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia in 2006, Georgian nationals residing in Russia were subjected to identity checks, arrested, detained and summarily expelled. The 11 applicants in Chokheli and others v Russia had resided in Russia for up to fourteen years and many had valid residency and work permits. All were arrested and detained in appalling conditions, for example: squalid and overcrowded cells; toilets not separated from the cells; no windows or fresh air; no food or water; no bed; and being held in ‘monkey cages’. They were deported between four and 20 days after their arrests.

In a separate case, Ms. Dzidzava’s husband, Tengiz Togonidze, was arrested in October 2006. Despite notifying the authorities that he suffered from asthma attacks, he too was detained in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Consul of Georgia in Russia visited Mr Togonidze in prison and, seeing his poor medical condition, requested that he be immediately transferred to hospital, but he was not. Two weeks after his arrest, he was driven for 8-9 hours by bus to Domodedovo airport to be deported.  He collapsed and died moments after arrival. Ms. Dzidzava argued that the authorities were aware of Mr Togonidze’s health condition but failed to take the necessary measures to prevent his death, and that there had there been no effective investigation into his death, in violation of the right to life (Article 2 ECHR). The Russian Government contested that Mr Togonidze’s death was due to the conditions of his detention and lack of medical treatment, stating that he had died of methadone intoxication.

The Court’s findings

In its judgment on Chokeli and others v Russia, the Court found that the expulsion of eight of the applicants was unlawful, that the expulsions were not carried out following a “reasonable and objective” assessment of each applicant’s case and that there was consequently a violation of the prohibition of the collective expulsion of aliens, under Article 4 of Protocol 4 ECHR. In addition, the applicants’ arrests and detentions were arbitrary and, practically, the applicants were unable to seek a review of the lawfulness of their detention (in violation of Article 5(1) and (4) ECHR).

Referring to its 2014 decision in Georgia v Russia (I) [GC], also concerning the collective expulsion of Georgians from Russia, the Court reiterated its finding that:

“the conditions of detention caused undeniable suffering to the Georgian nationals and should be regarded as both inhuman and degrading treatment”

in violation of Article 3 ECHR. Relying on its pilot judgment in Ananyev and others v Russia, the Court found that the applicants had no access to an effective remedy to challenge their inhuman and degrading treatment in detention, in breach of Article 13 ECHR (in conjunction with Article 3).

Although the Court did not find specific violations with regards to the remaining three applicants, it acknowledged:

“it is comprehensible that some Georgian nationals left the Russian Federation prior to an official expulsion order, anticipating being arrested, detained and expelled”.

They were, along with the other eight applicants, each awarded €25,000 in compensation.

In relation to Ms. Dzidzava’s case, along with the arguments of the parties, the European Court considered an independent expert medical report produced on the applicant’s behalf.  The Court found that the circumstances of her husband’s death were “highly inconsistent with a methadone overdose” and the Russian Government’s explanation for his death, in light of the medical report submitted by Ms. Dzidzava, was “not satisfactory and convincing”. It also found that the investigation into his death was inefficient and ineffective, consequently finding a violation of the right to life (Article 2 ECHR) under both the substantive and procedural limbs. With regards to the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, the Court found that the authorities’ failure to provide Mr. Togonidze with appropriate medical treatment, the general conditions of his detention, and the unventilated transportation to the airport were “particularly inhuman and degrading”, and that Ms. Dzidzava had no access to an effective remedy (Articles 3 and 13). Ms. Dzidzava was awarded €40,000 compensation.

“These cases have established a plethora of egregious human rights violations arising directly from the Russian authorities’ policy decision to arrest, detain and expel Georgian nationals en masse. The Court’s judgment underscores the point that collective expulsions can never be justified.

 

The appalling treatment of Tengiz Togonidze, an asthma sufferer, in over-crowded and airless conditions, was particularly shocking given his obvious need for urgent medical care, and led directly to his death during the deportation process.”

Prof. Philip Leach, EHRAC Director

The Court’s judgments in the present cases come ten years after the applicants and/or their relatives were expelled from Russia.

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[1] N.B. The European Court delivered three judgments regarding Georgians expelled from Russia between September 2006 and January 2007: Berdzenishvili and others v Russia, Dzidzava v Russia and Shioshvili and others v Russia. Chokheli and others v Russia was joined to Berdzenishvili and others v Russia, along with six other cases. EHRAC and GYLA also represented the applicants in Chokheli and others v Russia and Dzidzava v Russia.