Court finds Georgia’s failures in investigating killing of teenager breached right to life

3 Март 2023
Court finds Georgia’s failures in investigating killing of teenager breached right to life

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found that the Georgian authorities’ failure to adequately investigate the killing of a teenager as part of a special operation by State Security Service (SSG) Officers was a breach of his right to life.

Temirlan Machalikashvili was fatally shot during a raid on his family home in Duisi, Georgia, on 26 December 2017. According to the security forces, the victim attempted to detonate a hand grenade during the raid and was shot in response. Temirlan’s family have always rejected the claim that he had a hand grenade.

The 19 year old, who was from the Kist community, a small Muslim minority who live primarily in the Pankisi Gorge area that includes Duisi, was one of five local people accused of providing ongoing support – food, household items, help with finding accommodation – to members of a terrorist group.

On 19 January 2023, the ECtHR handed down its judgment in Machalikashvili and Others v Georgia, finding a procedural violation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the right to life). The Court found the Georgian authorities’ investigation was too slow and narrow, flawed in key respects and not sufficiently independent. Delays in scheduling interviews with the officers involved carried a risk of collusion and the applicants – Temirlan’s parents, sister and grandmother – were not sufficiently involved in the investigation, with delays in them being given access to investigation materials and persistent refusals regarding the granting of victim status.

The case was litigated by EHRAC and our Tbilisi-based partner Social Justice Center.

“The Court has identified serious shortcomings in the investigation into Temirlan’s death, including the way in which the key evidence from Temirlan’s room was collected and handled. Largely because of those deficiencies, the Court could not resolve the crucial question of whether or not the use of force by security forces was justified.”

Tamari Samkharadze, Strategic Litigation Lawyer, Social Justice Center

The Court did not find a substantive breach of the right to life, though Judge Gnatovskyy issued a strong dissenting opinion on this point.

Дело

We argued that the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death raised a violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life – both on substantive and procedural grounds. We also argued there had been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention on the basis that the manner of the SSG raid had subjected the family to inhuman and degrading treatment, and of Article 13, on the grounds that the authorities’ failure to conduct an adequate investigation had deprived the family of the right to a remedy.

Procedural violation of Article 2

On the procedural violation of Article 2, we argued a long list of shortcomings in the investigation into the victim’s death.

The ECtHR agreed, and found a procedural violation of Article 2 on the grounds that:

  • the investigation was not sufficiently independent, as it was commenced by officers of the State Security Services, the authority that carried out the operation, and not by the prosecution authority
  • authorities had undertaken only a limited investigation of the planning and control of the operation
  • there were deficiencies with respect to examining and securing the crime scene
  • interviews with security officers were unduly delayed, leading to the risk of collusion or failure to accurately remember events
  • the applicants had not been adequately involved in the investigation, with delays in their being allowed access to investigation materials and persistent refusals in granting victim status.

Substantive violation of Article 2

On the substantive violation of the right to life, we argued that the domestic legal framework regulating the use of force was deficient, that the planning of the operation was inadequate, and that the government had failed to show that the shooting was absolutely necessary: the authorities had failed to prove that the victim ever held a hand grenade, and failed to explain a number of other factors, including evidence that the victim was, in fact, on his phone and using headphones at the time of the raid.

The Court found no substantive violation of Article 2. It ruled that the domestic legal framework was appropriate for the use of force. As regards the planning and operation of the raid, and whether the loss of life was absolutely necessary, while the Court was critical of the domestic authorities, and recognised the deficiencies in the investigation had rendered a definitive account impossible, it found it was impossible to decide between the conflicting version of events, and that the authorities had given a ‘plausible explanation’ for the events leading to the victim’s death. It found that the current case was not one where the ‘burden of proof’ was reversed – the authorities were not, therefore, required to explain and justify the circumstances of the death, and the applicants could not prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the victim had died in circumstances that engaged the responsibility of the authorities.

Judge Gnatovskyy, in a dissenting opinion, found that the Court was incorrect to find the ‘burden of proof’ had not shifted to the authorities, given that authorities had exclusive control over the crime scene and key evidence that would have shed light on the events; and that there were clear instances of deficient planning and operation of the event.

Articles 3 and 13

In relation to the alleged violation of Article 3, while the Court accepted that the family were severely affected by the operation, it rules that this did not go beyond what would be expected. Given the finding of a procedural violation of Article 2, the Court found no need to examine our complaint that the investigation deprived the family of the right to a remedy under Article 13 of the Convention.

You can read more about the circumstance of this case in our Key Cases summary.