Investigation into disappearance of four men in St Petersburg in 2009 violated European Convention

Published: 19 Dec 2013

The European Court of Human Rights ruled today in the case Dobriyeva and Others v Russia and found that the investigation into the disappearance of the applicants’ four relatives from St Petersburg in 2009 was ineffective, and therefore violated their right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The applicants were represented by lawyers at the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and the Russian NGO Memorial, based in Moscow. The Court awarded the applicants €15,000 each in non-pecuniary damages.

The applicants, Tanzila Dobriyeva, Milana Adzhiyeva, Yelizaveta Dobriyeva and Fatima Dzhaniyeva are Russian nationals. The first three are distant relatives of a well-known Ingushetia businessman and politician who was killed in October 2009 in the North-Caucasus region by unidentified gunmen. The fourth applicant, Ms Dzhaniyeva, whose current whereabouts are kept confidential due to security reasons, is his widow.

On 25 December 2009, Fatima Dzhaniyeva and four of her relatives arrived in St Petersburg from Ingushetia. She was 8 months pregnant at the time and was in St Petersburg seeking medical treatment after surviving a car explosion in Ingushetia, during which she lost several members of her family.

At around midnight the same day, the four relatives left to visit one of their family members. One of the applicants claims her husband called her to say their car was being followed by a suspicious vehicle. After this call all telephone contact was cut off. Within a couple hours of losing contact, the applicants complained to the authorities with the relevant details of the circumstances of the disappearance of their relatives, but a criminal investigation was opened only one month after, on 25 January 2010, when any valuable evidence and information (CCTV records) required for investigating the case had already been destroyed.

In their application to the Court the applicants alleged that their four relatives disappeared after having been detained by State officials and that the investigation into the circumstances (which in December 2011 remained pending without having established who was responsible) was ineffective. Along with violations of Article 2 of the ECHR, the applicants also complained of violations of Article 3 and Article 5 as a result of their mental suffering caused by the disappearance of their close relatives, who they claimed had been unlawfully detained. Finally, they complained that they did not have any effective remedy at national level in respect of those complaints, in breach of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy).

The Russian Government argued that there was no evidence to suggest that the detainees were held under State control or that they were dead. They also claimed that ‘all necessary measures’ were being taken to conduct an effective investigation.

The Court found that although there was insufficient evidence to support the fact that the abductors were State servicemen, the investigation into the incident was found to be ineffective in violation of Article 2 of the ECHR: “No reasonable steps were taken to secure the evidence and demonstrate diligence and promptness in dealing with such a serious matter.” They further ruled that the fact the authorities had not linked the disappearance to the preceding events involving the applicants (namely, the sequence of attacks involving members of the extended family) “weighs particularly heavily against a finding of overall effectiveness”. It also considered that the investigators should have taken more proactive steps to obtain a statement from the fourth applicant as a key witness, given that they were aware of her ‘exceptionally vulnerable situation’, being in the final stages of pregnancy and having lost her husband, sister-in-law, mother, and four brothers (including one who disappeared in St Petersburg) and survived a car explosion within a two month period.