European Court rules that there are no grounds to examine investigation into Katyn massacre

Published: 21 Oct 2013

At a public hearing today at the European Court of Human Rights, the final judgment in the case Janowiec & Others v Russia was heard by relatives of the victims of the Katyn massacre.

The relatives, who first lodged applications with the European Court in 2007 and 2009, claimed that the Russian authorities had failed to properly investigate the Katyn massacre, and that the Russian authorities’ ‘dismissive’ attitude to the investigation had amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment.

Although the Court called the facts of the execution of the applicants’ relatives ‘indisputable’,it ruled that it could not examine the effectiveness of the investigation, given that the events happened before the European Convention on Human Rights came into force (1950). Although it also said did not question the “profound grief and distress that the applicants have experienced as a consequence of the extrajudicial execution of their family members”, as the deaths of the Polish prisoners of war had become “established as a historical fact”, this did not amount to a violation of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia, however, did fail to provide a copy of the decision of September 2004 to discontinue its investigation into Katyn, and therefore had failed to comply with its obligation under Article 38 of the Rules of Court.

The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, which has been taking cases against Russia at the European Court for ten years, acted as a ‘third party intervener’ in this case. It offered expertise on the obligation of states to investigate gross human rights violations and the right of relatives to know the truth about the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths or disappearance.

Joanna Evans, EHRAC Senior Lawyer, commented on the judgment:

“This decision will of course be hugely disappointing to the relatives of the victims of the Katyn tragedy, who continue to hope for an effective investigation into the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths. However the case does highlight the significance of the European Convention, the protection it has offered since 1950 and continues to offer for victims of gross human rights violations.”

Background information

Following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, thousands of Polish army officers, teachers, prisoners of war, were killed without trial on the order of the highest officials of the USSR and buried in mass graves in the Katyn forest near Smolensk.

The Soviet Union only accepted responsibility for Katyn in 1990, having initially blamed it on the Nazis. In 1990 a criminal investigation into the murders was opened but it was suspended in 2004 by the Russian Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office. The decision was classified. On attempting to gain access to certain ‘top secret’ classified files, the relatives, as foreign nationals, were denied access.

In 2010 the Russian Duma published a statement, reiterating that the mass murder of Polish citizens had been carried out on Stalin’s orders and it was necessary to continue “verifying the lists of victims, restoring the good names of those who perished in Katyn and other places, and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy…”.