The ECHR issues ruling on COVID-19 related human rights violations

By: Ryan Ockenden

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On March 11, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) awarded compensation to Joseph Feilazoo after a nearly 13-yearlong immigration battle. In 2008, Mr. Feilazoo was sentenced to 12 years in prison in Malta for drug trafficking. He was also fined €50,000 but was unable to pay the fine. As a result, two years were added to his sentence.

Prisoners like Joseph Feilazoo are kept in detention at Safi Barracks where they are subject to forced quarantine with COVID-19 patients. Photo Courtesy of the Council of Europe.

In 2019, he was scheduled for release. He made it known that he intended to return to Spain, which is where he was living prior to his arrest in 2008. However, Spain refused his return. Shortly after his release, he was charged with violence against prison officers and was resentenced to imprisonment. The sentence was changed from imprisonment to deportation and a fine. Mr. Feilazoo could not pay that fine and Nigeria refused to issue a travel document for his deportation. Malta ultimately placed him in the Safi Barracks immigration detention center.

Mr. Feilazoo complained to the ECHR, based on European Convention of Human Rights, alleging violations of: (1) inhuman and degrading treatment; (2) denial of his right to liberty; and (3) denial of his right to individual petition. First, per the European Convention on Human Rights, Malta is required under Article 3 to provide detention conditions that respect human dignity and avoid unnecessary hardship. The ECHR found that Mr. Feilazoo was subjected to non-functioning toilets, pest infestations, solitary confinement without natural light for 77 days, no exercise, and was forced to be in proximity of people in COVID-19 quarantine. Thus, the ECHR found that Malta violated his Article 3 rights by keeping him in inhuman and unacceptable conditions.

Second, under Article 5, Malta is required to protect detainees against arbitrary interference of their right to liberty. The ECHR found that Maltese authorities had not diligently pursued the travel documentation from Nigerian officials; they essentially gave up on trying. Thus, the ECHR found Malta violated Mr. Feilazoo’s Article 5 rights by keeping him detained for a period of time beyond necessary to complete deportation proceedings.

Third, under Article 34, Malta is required to ensure that a detainee’s access to the courts and judicial process is uninhibited. Unfortunately, the ECHR found that Mr. Feilazoo had not been allowed to access his documentation which was needed to submit a complaint to the ECHR. In addition, there were insufficient lawyer-client contacts and Maltese authorities were found to have done nothing to rectify this except to blame COVID-19 for the issues. Thus, the ECHR found that Maltese authorities inhibited his right to petition.

This is the ECHR’s first ruling on COVID-19 related detention issues. The ECHR makes it clear that placing someone in unfair detention with people who were exposed to COVID-19, and blaming COVID-19 for preventing a detainee from accessing the necessary documents and legal assistance to access justice, is unacceptable. This should set precedent in the ECHR that COVID-19 is not an excuse to deny detainees, or anyone, any rights granted to them by the European Convention on Human Rights.

For further information, please see:

Council of Europe – Torture prevention committee calls on Malta to improve treatment of detained migrants – 10 Mar. 2021

European Court of Human Rights – Deportation Detainee Housed With COVID-19 Quarantine Patients, And Multiple Other Violations – 11 Mar. 2021

Times of Malta – Man Wins €25,000 Compensation For Degrading Treatment At Detention Centre – 11 Mar. 2021

Universal Jurisdiction: Germany’s Conviction of Syrian Officer for Crimes Against Humanity

By: Lauren Della Stua

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

KOBLENZ, Germany – On February 24, 2021, in the first case of its kind, a German court sentenced a Syrian intelligence officer to four and a half years imprisonment for aiding crimes against humanity.

Defendant Eyad al-Gharib covering his face during sentencing. Photo Courtesy of New York Times.

Gharib was a former low-ranking member of Syria’s intelligence service, serving under President Bashar Assad’s regime. During an uprising in 2011, Gharib was ordered to arrest protestors and bring them to al-Khatib, a prison in Damascus. Gharib has been accused of detaining over 30 prisoners who were tortured.

While Gharib was eligible for a sentence of more than 10 years, the court considered mitigating factors. His attorney argued “necessity as defense”, in that Gharib feared for his life and his family’s lives if he did not follow orders.

The primary defendant Anwar Raslan, Gharib’s ranking supervisor, has also been charged with overseeing the torture but has not yet been sentenced. He is accused of supervising the torture of over 4,000 people, resulting in at least 58 deaths. 

So, how did the German court become involved?

After leaving Syria in 2013, both defendants sought asylum in Germany in 2019. Raslan approached German Police claiming that the Syrian Secret Service was after him. Following an investigation of his claims, the German Police discovered he was accused of torture. A Syrian refugee also came forward after recognizing Raslan on the street. Gharib was originally a witness in the case against Raslan but became a suspect in torture accusations.

Germany is not only home to over 800,000 Syrian refugees, but also has adopted a policy of universal jurisdiction. The policy allows the German courts to prosecute crimes against humanity that occurred anywhere in the world, regardless of whether the plaintiffs or defendants are German citizens.

But there are international implications that have arisen out of the universal jurisdiction policy, including this landmark case decision. Russia and China have blocked attempts by the United Nations Security Council to prosecute Syrian war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Mohammad Al-Abdallah, the director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, claimed that the decision will “deter anyone else from defecting or joining the opposition or supplying information to human rights groups.”

Conversely, many believe that the ruling of aiding crimes against humanity will set an international precedent and facilitate more convictions of crimes against humanity.

For further information, please see:

Associated Press News – Conviction in Landmark Case over Syrian Government Torture – 24 Feb. 2021

Deutsche Welle – Defense calls for acquittal of Syrian on trial for torture – 24 Feb. 2021

NPR – Landmark Verdict in Germany Sentences Syrian Official for Crime Against Humanity – 24 Feb. 2021

The New York Times – An Old Legal Doctrine that puts War Criminals in Reach of Justice – 28 Feb. 2021

ECHR Demands the Release of Opposition Leader Navalny from Russian Prison Over Concern for his Life

By: Hannah Gavin

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – In February, the European Court of Human Rights (ECRH) stood in clear opposition against Russian leader Vladimir Putin by issuing a written statement calling for the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Woman examines poster depicting opposition leader Navalny in Rome. Photo Courtesy of the Washington Post.

Navalny has created a firestorm of opposition in recent months against Vladimir Putin and his regime. However, Navalny’s calls have been silenced as he sits in a Russian Prison. The ECHR stated in their press release that Navalny’s arrest was necessary for his own safety. The Court cited a recent attack on his life as the main catalyst for their opinion.

Navalny was arrested in mid-January on a return flight from Germany to Moscow. His flight to Russia was following his absence in the country for months following an extended hospital stay in Berlin. In late August of 2020, Navalny had been traveling on a flight from Siberia to Moscow when he suddenly fell into a coma. He was eventually taken to a hospital in Berlin where a Soviet-era nerve agent was found to have poisoned him. Although Putin has denied Navalny’s accusations that he was behind the poisoning, much of the World assumes Putin was involved. A week prior to his arrest, the Russian Prison Service issued a warrant for Navalny’s arrest stating that he violated the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement. This charge was already ruled on by the ECRH in 2017 and found to be unreasonable. Although the warrant was issued, Navalny believed his arrest would be “impossible” upon his arrival to Moscow and chose to fly back regardless. Since his arrest, Navalny has now also been charged with insulting a WWII veteran. Another move that many believe is meant to silence his opposition. 

In a nation long shut off from the progressing World in many respects, Navalny offered promises of globalism. His goal for Russia was simple, in theory. He wanted a European Russia. A nation connected with the whole of the continent and one that participated in free and fair commerce, communication, and travel. Navalny pushed against the Putin regime which has continued to rule without the true will of the people. For a younger generation of Russians and many of their elder cohorts, Navalny signaled change. However, despite his poisoning and arrest, Navalny continues to inspire. After his poisoning, last year and continuing to today, widespread and often violent protests have ignited across Russia. Navalny’s return to Russia amidst imminent threat only bolsters his supporters. Such an extreme show of bravery and care of Russia reminds the people that what they are fighting for is worth it.

However, regardless of how the ECRH or the globe has responded to Navalny’s arrest, Russia has a different tale. Top Russian officials described the ECRH release as unlawful and claimed it was the Western World attempting to meddle in a domestic issue. Russia’s Justice Minister said that the opinion was not based on even a single fact. He claimed there was no reason to release Navalny under Russian law. He further went on to say that the Court’s issue is impossible to fulfill and was a political move that only exacerbates an already strained relationship.

The implications for Russia’s arrest of Navalny extend beyond the obvious threat he posed to Putin’s grip on unwavering power. Navalny became the figurehead of a movement in Russia, the force of which has not been seen in decades. Navalny’s principals stood in stark opposition to those and gave millions in Russia a sense of hope for the future. With Russia facing potential expulsion from the European Council and sanctions by many Western nations, this may be a turning point for the country. Although Russia is notoriously secretive, the World will wait with bated breath to see if the ECHR ruling will hold any ground. Until then, Russian citizens supporting Navalny will continue to organize and fight for the nation at the center of it all.

For further information, please see:

AP News – Russia Rejects European Rights Court’s Order to Free Navalny – 17 Feb. 2021                     

DW News – ‘Release’ Alexei Navalny, European Court of Human Rights tells Russia – 17 Feb. 2021

DW News – Alexei Navalny: Prosecutors Urge Fine in Slander Case – 16 Feb. 2021

European Court of Human Rights – The Court Grants an Interim Measure in Favour of Aleskey Navalnyy and Asks the Government of Russia to Release him – 17 Feb. 2021

Politico – Kremlin Critic Navalny Arrested After Landing in Moscow – 17 Jan. 2021

Reuters – Russia Dismisses European Court of Human Rights’ Call to Free Navalny – 17 Feb. 2021

British Lawyer Elected Chief Prosecutor of the ICC

By: Jamie McLennan

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Karim Khan, a lawyer from the United Kingdom, was recently elected Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Khan won 72 out of the 123 represented countries, beating out individuals from Spain, Italy, and Ireland. The previous Chief Prosecutor, Gambian judge Fatou Bensouda, completed his six-year term in June. Diplomatic correspondents believe that the victory will frame the United Kingdom positively among other foreign nations. After Britain’s recent withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the country is attempting to form diplomatic relations in other legal arenas. Karim Khan’s election to the ICC will likely show Britain’s continued commitment to foreign relations, despite their recent departure from the EU. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, celebrated the election and commended Mr. Khan’s commitment to international justice. 

Mr. Karim Khan speaking at the United Nations. Photo Courtesy of the United Nations.

Mr. Khan’s experience in the international legal system is extensive. During his 27 years as a lawyer, he worked for the prosecution in the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide. In 2018, he began an investigation of war crimes in Iraq. Mr. Khan aimed to identify perpetrators that committed heinous crimes during the Iraq War with support from the United Nations. He also represented politically notorious figures at the ICC- such as Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto. During the trial, Mr. Khan successfully argued for the ICC to drop all charges against President Ruto, including murder, deportation, and persecution following Kenya’s 2007 election. 

Among his first tasks as Chief Prosecutor, Mr. Khan must decide how to move forward with existing controversial investigations, including war crimes in Afghanistan. Currently, the United States does not recognize court-imposed sanctions by the ICC for the American occupation of Afghanistan during the early 2000s. As a result, Mr. Khan may face difficulty if he intends to further investigate the alleged war crimes. 

Political representatives from Israel recently vocalized their criticisms when they accused the court of impeding domestic issues that the country should resolve internally. In the past, Mr. Khan also expressed interest in the investigation of war disputes in Palestinian territories. Although Israel is not a member of the ICC, the country is likely to protest the ICC’s external involvement in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. The United States also expressed concern about the court’s efforts to exercise jurisdiction in the disputed area. However, the ICC recently decided by a majority that the court’s jurisdiction extends to territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including East Jerusalem. In sum, Mr. Khan’s legal experience combined with his new position as Chief Prosecutor may interestingly shape policy for the International Criminal Court.

For further information, please see:

BBC News – ICC rules it has jurisdictions over West Bank and Gaza abuses – 6 Feb. 2021

BBC News – Karim Khan: UK Lawyer Elected Chief Prosecutor at ICC – 13 Feb. 2021

International Criminal Court – Office of the Prosecutor – 19 Feb. 2021

United Nations – Karim Asad Ahmad Khan – 12 Feb. 2021

Ukraine Brings New Inter-State Application Against Russia

By: Rebecca Buchanan

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On February 19, 2021, the Ukrainian Government lodged a new inter-state application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), against the Russian Federation. The application concerns the Ukrainian Government’s allegations of routine state-sponsored assassinations by the Russian Government.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo Courtesy of Unian.

Inter-state applications allow countries to lodge complaints against one another, and they make up a minority of the cases handled by the ECHR. This is the ninth inter-state application made by Ukraine against Russia. In addition to the newest application, three cases between the two nations are currently pending before the Court.

The first of the three pending cases, Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea), concerns human rights violations by the Russian Federation in Crimea from February 27, 2014, to August 26, 2015. The application alleges that the Russian Government’s conduct, during that period, violated 12 separate articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 2’s right to life and Article 3’s prohibition of inhumane treatment and torture. This application was declared partly admissible by the Grand Chamber on January 14, 2021, and a Grand Chamber judgment is expected shortly.

The second pending case, Ukraine and the Netherlands v. Russia, was joined by the Grand Chamber on November 27, 2020, combining three separate inter-state complaints against the Russian Federation. Notably, the joined case addresses the alleged abduction of three groups of Ukrainian children who were temporarily held in Russia from June to August 2014, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

The third case, Ukraine v. Russia (VIII), concerns the capture of three Ukrainian Naval vessels in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. The Russian Government captured and held 24 Ukrainian sailors without communication with the Ukrainian Government. Ukraine alleges that the sailors were deprived of their liberty, were refused medical care, and were held without authority under International law. This case is currently pending before the First Section of the Court.

The Ukrainian Government’s newest inter-state complaint, registered under application no. 10691/21, alleges that Russian state-sanctioned assassination operations have targeted opponents of the Russian government within Russia and have extended into the territory of other nations. The application indicates complicity by the Russian Government in continuously covering-up and failing to investigate assassination operations. Ukraine alleges that these assassinations, and the Russian Government’s alleged complicity, violate both the procedural and substantive aspects of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

February 20, 2021, marked the 7th year anniversary of the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in the Crimean Peninsula. In addition to the inter-state applications, 7000 individual applications remain before the ECHR regarding Russian conduct in Ukraine. These applications allege various and extensive violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by the Russian Federation and map the increase in hostilities between the two nations. Proceedings regarding the newest inter-state application are pending and the Russian Federation has yet to submit written observations on its own behalf.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – ECHR puts questions in new inter-State case brought by Ukraine against Russia – 30 Nov. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – European Court joins three inter-State applications – 04 Dec. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Grand Chamber decision Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea) – 14 Jan. 2021

European Court of Human Rights – New inter-state application brought by Ukraine against Russia – 23 Feb. 2021

European Court of Human Rights – Q & A on Inter-State Cases – Jan. 2021

Statecraft – Ukraine Lodges Ninth Complaint Against Russia at ECHR – 24 Feb. 2021

Unian – Zelensky: I think Putin understands Ukraine is big, independent country – 20 Jan. 2020