Case No. 33488/04
Judgment date: 3 March 2011
The applicant’s son was arrested by Russian servicemen allegedly for possession of a home-made explosive device. Suspected of terrorism, he was taken to the local police station for questioning. The same morning he signed a confession, written out by an interior department officer, stating that the object they had found in the applicant’s house was an explosive device he had made. Later that day the applicant was told that her son had died in his cell and that she could collect his body. An autopsy was carried out immediately. Numerous injuries were noted to his head, torso and extremities caused by blows from a hard blunt object. The report noted, however, that he had died from a pre-existing health problem, pulmonary heart disease, rather than as a result of the injuries.
The local prosecutor’s office launched its official investigation on 29 June 2004. The investigation, suspended and resumed on a number of occasions, was still pending at the time of judgment and had produced no tangible results. The applicant, questioned on three occasions, consistently claimed that police officers had killed her son. She had requested for her son’s body to be exhumed for another autopsy, insisting that it be carried out by an independent expert. In June 2006 she was informed that this would not be possible.
The Court found no substantive breach of Article 2, as it could not conclude beyond reasonable doubt that the applicant’s son’s death was a result of the injuries sustained in the custody, as opposed to the pre-existing heart condition.
However, it did find a violation of the procedural aspect of Article 2, noting that the investigation had been repeatedly suspended and delayed, and had “produced no tangible results”.
The Court found a violation of the substantive limb of Article 3, on the basis that the applicant’s son was arrested in apparently good health and his body bore numerous abrasions and haematomas. The Court held that the Government had “failed to put forward any plausible explanations” for the injuries.
The Court awarded EUR 35,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damages.
The decision of no substantive violation of Article 2 was disappointing. Whilst reiterating its well-established principle that “strong presumptions of fact” arise in respect of injuries and death occurring in custody, the Court felt constrained “in the absence of any evidence to the contrary” to rely on the autopsy report obtained by the district prosecutor’s office and to conclude that the authorities were not responsible for the death of the applicant’s son. The applicant had presented evidence countering the conclusions of the autopsy report that her son suffered from a pre-existing heart condition (submitting, among evidence, witness statements from relatives and a certificate from a medical clinic). Giver her lack of access to the investigation file and the refusal of her request for an independent autopsy, there was little additional evidence the applicant could adduce. Despite the circumstances of her son’s death, the Court made no reference to the applicant’s evidence and drew no inferences from the fact that the request for an independent post-mortem was refused by the district prosecutor’s office on multiple occasions.