European Court: Russian State failed to protect humanitarian worker Zarema Gaysanova’s life

12 May 2016

On 12 May 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russian authorities did not take prompt and effective measures to protect Zarema Gaysanova’s right to life, following her disappearance from her home during a security operation. Zarema, who was at the time working for the Danish Refugee Council in Grozny, disappeared on 31 October 2009 and has not been seen since. In its judgment, the Court recognised, once again, the persistent and systemic practice of enforced disappearances in the North Caucasus.  Her mother Lida Gaysanova, the applicant in this case, is represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, based at Middlesex University, and Memorial Human Rights Centre (Moscow).

On 31 October 2009, Zarema was at her mother’s home in Kalinin in Grozny, where she regularly stayed. Chechen law enforcement authorities launched a special operation on their street targeted at illegal armed groups. The house was cordoned off, shelled, and caught fire. A man’s body was subsequently recovered from the house. The authorities claimed that the deceased man was a member of an armed group, and that he cohabited with Zarema. The President of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and the Minister of the Interior arrived at the house soon after. The operation received much media coverage, and President Kadyrov gave an interview saying that a member of illegal armed groups had been “liquidated”. Several of Zarema’s neighbours confirmed that they had seen her at the house at the time of the operation, and one neighbour claimed that she had been pushed into a UAZ vehicle and driven away by law enforcement authorities. Zarema has not been seen or heard from since. The investigation into her disappearance has been suspended and resumed a number of times, and is still pending. Lida Gaysanova applied to the European Court on 25 November 2009, less than a month after her daughter’s disappearance; the application was granted priority status just three months later in February 2010, testament to the gravity of the nature of the case.

In today’s judgment, the Court recognised the “life threatening context to unacknowledged detention” and the systemic problem of disappearances in Chechnya and Ingushetia.  The Court found three separate violations of the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) with respect to Zarema’s disappearance. Firstly, the Court stated that it presumed Zarema to be dead, as there is sufficient evidence to suggest that “victims of disappearances often do not survive for very long after their abduction” and that Russia was liable for her death. The Court also held that the authorities failed to promptly take important steps to investigate Zarema’s disappearance, and did not “demonstrate necessary diligence in collecting evidence of the crime” (a violation of the procedural limb of Article 2 ECHR).

In a particularly strongly-worded section, the Court concluded that Russia had failed in its positive obligation to protect Zarema’s right to life.  It reiterated that the “problem of enforced disappearances and its life-threatening implications for detained individuals” was known to the regional authorities, that Zarema’s detention and disappearance was rapidly reported to law-enforcement authorities and that the security operation received widespread publicity.  Despite this, no urgent steps were taken to investigate Zarema’s disappearance or secure her release.   As the Court stated, “it does not appear […] that the authorities demonstrated an urgent and appropriate reaction with the aim of saving Ms. Gaysanova’s life.” The Court drew attention to the State’s failure to “act rapidly and decisively” and to undertake a number of operative measures, including interviewing witnesses, launching a criminal investigation and even confirming that the operation had taken place, which could have avoided the risk to Zarema’s life. Noting the widespread problem of unresolved disappearances in Chechnya, the Court stated:

“An effective and rapid response by the authorities is vital in such cases and one could reasonably expect that in view of the number of previous similar crimes in the region an adequate system would have been set up by the time of the events in question….It is difficult to reconcile [the authorities’] more than lenient attitude with the apparent seriousness of the threat to the person’s life and the obligation to protect it from unlawful threats.”

Additionally, the Court reiterated that, as the mother of a ‘disappeared’ person, Lida Gaysanova had suffered, and continued to suffer, distress and anguish on account of her daughter’s disappearance and presumed death, as well as the authorities’ indifference to the investigation, and was herself a victim of a violation of the prohibition of torture (Article 3 ECHR). It also held that Zarema’s unjustified and unacknowledged detention by state agents was “a particularly grave violation” of the right to liberty (Article 5 ECHR).

Lida Gaysanova was awarded €60,000 in damages.

Zarema’s disappearance was featured in “Stories without endings: Violence and impunity in the North Caucasus”, an exhibition by Czech NGO People in Need which showcases the events which led to the imprisonment, disappearance and/or killing of twelve individuals, including prominent human rights defender Natalia Estemirova, who was killed on 15 July 2009.