Prisoner’s detention 8000km away from home breaches right to respect for family life

7 March 2017

Today the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian Government violated the right to respect for family life of the wife and children of a prisoner, who was sent to a penitentiary facility around 8000km away from his home in Chechnya.[1] His wife, Ms. Natalya Kibalo, and their two daughters were represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and Memorial Human Rights Centre (Moscow).

Ms. Kibalo’s husband was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment on 27 May 2007 by the Supreme Court of Dagestan. In February 2008, he was sent to a ‘strict regime’ penitentiary facility (where the conditions of serving a sentence are most severe, according to Russian law) in Blagoveschensk, a town in the far east of Russia bordering north east China. Ms. Kibalo applied to the Federal Penal Authority (FSIN) to request his transfer to a nearer facility, but this was rejected. She argued that she had been deprived of the possibility of visiting her husband in practice because it would take at least eight days to travel to Blagoveschensk from their home in Dubovskaya village (Chechnya). Although Ms. Kibalo’s husband had the right to three four-hour visits and three three-day visits each year, he could not fully enjoy his right: his family were only able to make the necessary journey on eight occasions over four years, on account of the prohibitive ticket price and distance. Ms. Kibalo’s expenses were sponsored on the first six occasions, until 2010; she could not afford to travel at all in 2013 or 2014. Their youngest daughter, born in 2009, has never seen her father.

In their application before the European Court, Ms. Kibalo and her daughters complained that sending her husband to a facility so far away interfered with their right to respect for family life (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – ECHR). They further argued that the Government provided no evidence to justify her husband’s internment in a penitentiary facility outside the North Caucasus region, nor was it necessary or proportionate to place him in Blagoveschensk specifically. In today’s judgment, the Court reiterated that an essential part of a prisoner’s right to respect for family life is that the authorities assist them in maintaining contact with close family. In finding a violation of Article 8, it stated that that the distance between the penitentiary facility and the Kibalo family home was

“remote to the extent of inflicting hardship”.

The applicants were awarded €6000 in compensation.

Inadequacies in Russian legislation

The Court examined the applicants’ complaints with regards to whether the 1997 Code of Execution of Criminal Sentences (CES) satisfied the test for “quality of law” under Article 8§2. In finding that the CES failed this test, the Court held that the interference with the applicants’ family life was not “in accordance with the law” and violated their right to family life within the meaning of Article 8 ECHR. Referring to the CES, it concluded that the Russian domestic legal system did not provide adequate safeguards in three respects:

  • during the initial allocation of prisoners to a penal facility, Russian law does not require FSIN to consider the possible implications that a penal facility’s location may have on prisoners’ and their relatives’ family life;
  • the law does not provide a realistic opportunity to transfer a prisoner to another penal facility on grounds relating to Article 8 ECHR; and
  • Russian law does not enable individuals to obtain judicial reviews of FSIN decisions, as domestic courts are not required to consider Article 8 ECHR arguments by those complaining against FSIN decisions.

This case is part of EHRAC’s broader litigation to protect prisoners’ rights, which are often poorly protected in our target region (Russia, Ukraine and the South Caucasus). Prisoners’ deaths in custody are sadly regular occurrences. In Georgia, for example, the issue became especially pertinent in light of the Gldani prison scandal in September 2012, where footage was leaked of torture and rape in a Tbilisi prison. The Georgian Government admitted in December 2015 that it had violated the right to life in one of our cases, in which a man who, having refused to become an informant, was allegedly bullied by prison staff and prisoners, until he was found hanged in his solitary confinement cell. Moreover, prisoners are often not provided with adequate medical treatment, exacerbating the already poor conditions of detention. We are litigating several cases of formerly imprisoned human rights defenders in Azerbaijan, and in 2016, the European Court ruled in the case of Leyla and Arif Yunus, finding that the inadequacy of medical provision amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.

[1] The case was part of a group of four judgments, Polyakova and others v Russiadelivered by the European Court of Human Rights on 7 March 2017.