Human rights judges have ordered Russia to pay more than €31,000 to a mother who complained about the ill-treatment her son suffered in police custody.
In today’s Chamber judgment in the case Khambulatova v. Russia (application no. 33488/04), which is not final, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
No violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of the applicant’s son;
Violation of Article 2 (investigation) as regards the authorities’ failure to carry out an effective investigation into the death of her son;
Violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) concerning the ill-treatment of her son; and,
No violation of Article 34 (right to individual petition) concerning the authorities’ alleged intimidation of the applicant.
The case concerned the applicant’s claim that her son’s death, despite the official version of a pre-existing heart condition, had been caused by his being subjected to ill-treatment in detention.
The applicant, Amnat Khambulatova, is a Russian national who moved to Poland in 2006.
Her son Timur Khambulatov, born in 1980, was arrested by Russian servicemen during a raid at the family home in the village of Saveliyevskaya (Naurskiy District) in the Chechen Republic in the early hours of 18 March 2004. A home-made explosive device made from a plastic bottle was allegedly found during the raid. Suspected of terrorism, he was taken by the servicemen to the local police station for questioning.
Ms Khambulatova alleged that her son had been found dead in his cell later that day. Although she had not seen him being hit during the raid or handcuffed, on collecting his body from the morgue, she noticed bruising and abrasions to his body.
According to the government, Timur Khambulatov suddenly fell to the floor while being questioned at the police station and never regained consciousness.
An autopsy was immediately carried out. 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 not died as a result of those injuries but from a pre-existing health problem, pulmonary heart disease.
In a decision of 6 April 2004 the military prosecutor’s office refused to bring a criminal investigation into the death. In particular, it was found that witnesses had implicated police officers in the death – they had seen Timur Khambulatov being hit and kicked in the police station – and not servicemen. There was therefore no evidence that any servicemen had broken the law.
The local prosecutor’s office launched its official investigation on 29 June 2004. Both before and after that date a number of witnesses were questioned including servicemen, police officers, the doctor called to provide medical care to Timur Khambulatov, the applicant and her neighbours.
Notably, the numerous servicemen and police officers who had taken part in the raid and arrest stated that no physical violence had been used against Timur; nor were they aware of when or how he could have been injured.
The doctor, questioned on three occasions, stated that she had discovered Timur Khambulatov beaten up but conscious. He had been able to tell her that he had pain all over his body and that it was as if something had been torn off inside him. He died before he could be taken to hospital.
The Head of the Naursky Federal Security Service, also questioned, stated that his officers had beaten Timur when he had attempted to escape on the way to the local police station. He subsequently retracted that statement, however, his officers having stated that no physical force had been used during the arrest and transfer.
Ms Khambulatova, questioned on three occasions, consistently claimed that police officers had killed her son and requested for her son’s body to be exhumed for another autopsy, insisting that it be carried out by an independent expert. She was informed in June 2006 that this would not be possible.
The investigation, suspended and resumed on a number of occasions, is still pending and has produced no tangible results.
Despite specific requests by the Court, the Government did not provide the full contents of the criminal investigation file, claiming that public disclosure of documents in an investigation which was still in progress could be detrimental to the proceedings.
Ms Khambulatova alleged that the police had ill-treated and killed her son and that the domestic authorities had failed to carry out an effective investigation into her allegations. She relied in particular on Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and 13 (right to an effective remedy). She further alleged that the investigators in charge of the case had threatened her with reprisals if she did not stop complaining to the domestic authorities about her son’s death, in breach of Article 34 (right to individual petition).
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 15 September 2004.
Decision of the Court
Right to life
The autopsy had not described the injuries found on Timur Khambulatov’s body as life-threatening but had concluded that he had died from a pre-existing heart condition. In the absence of any other evidence to the contrary, the Court could not conclude beyond reasonable doubt that the authorities were to be held responsible for the death of Ms Khambulatova’s son. Therefore, the Court found that there had been no violation of Article 2 concerning Timur Khambulatov’s right to life.
Indequacy of investigation
Although immediately aware of Timur Khambulatov’s death in the police station, the authorities had not launched an investigation until 29 June 2004, that is more than three months later. Such a delay, for which there had been no explanation, not only demonstrated the authorities’ failure to act automatically but also a lack of diligence and promptness in dealing with such a serious incident.
Furthermore, the investigation had failed to question the officers present at the police station on Timur Khambulatov’s arrival. The investigation had been limited to questioning those officers and servicemen who had participated in the raid, with questions primarily concentrating on the explosive device and not on the circumstances in which Timur Khambulatov had been taken to the police station and questioned.
Nor, for some reason, had there been any follow up on the statement made by the Head of the Naursky Federal Security Service concerning the origin of the injuries to Timur Khambulatov’s body or on his subsequent retraction of that statement. Likewise, no further investigation had been made into the witness statements of the April 2004 decision, according to which police officers had been seen hitting and kicking Timur Khambulatov.
The investigation, repeatedly suspended and resumed and plagued by inexplicable delays, has been pending for many years and has produced no tangible results.
In conclusion, the Court held that the authorities had failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation into the death of Timur Khambulatov, in breach of Article 2.
It was common ground between the parties that Timur Khambulatov had been arrested in apparently good health, then taken to the local Naurskiy police station, where he had died a few hours later, and that – as confirmed by the official autopsy – his body had bruising and numerous abrasions.
The Government failed, however, to provide any plausible explanation as to the origins of those injuries, which, sustained between Timur Khambulatov’s arrest and his death in the police station, had occurred while he had been under the responsibility of State agents. The Court therefore considered that the evidence before it enabled it to find beyond reasonable doubt that Timur Khambulatov had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment while in detention, in violation of Article 3.
Given the above findings, the Court held that it was not necessary to examine separately Ms Khambulatova’s complaint about the lack of an effective investigation under Article 3 and that no separate issues arose under Article 13 in conjunction with Article 2.
It further held that there had been no breach of the State’s obligations under Article 34.
Article 41 (just satisfaction)
The Court held that Russia was to pay the applicant 31,200 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 2,288 for costs and expenses.