European Rights Watch

ECHR Says UK Bedroom Tax Violates Occupancy Rights of Gender-Based Domestic Violence Victims

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

LONDON, England — On October 24, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”), in a highly significant decision, held that a reduction in housing benefits based on occupancy violated Article 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (Protection of Property) in relation to domestic violence victims.

The UK Government has been ordered to pay “A” 10,000 Euros. Photo Courtesy of Getty.

“A”, a British national, was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, and stalking at the hands of her ex-partner. She was living in a “Sanctuary Scheme” home – properties specifically designed to enable women and children in grave risk of domestic violence to live securely in their own homes – with her 11-year old son. The adaption to the three-bedroom house included the installation of a “panic room” in the attic for herself and her son.

In 2013, new rules on housing benefits in the social housing sector, more commonly known as the “Bedroom Tax,” reduced the benefit by 14% for people with a “spare” room in their home. Proponents of the new rules claimed that the Bedroom Tax was designed to free up much-needed bigger homes. Since “A” and her son were living in a three-bedroom house, their housing benefit decreased as a result. “A” challenged the Bedroom Tax, contending that the reduction in the benefit put them in unstable circumstances, which were not remedied by other payment schemes. The UK Supreme Court dismissed their claim and they appealed to ECHR in 2017 on the basis of gender discrimination as the victim of gender-based violence, relying on Article 14.

The Court noted that “A” and her son would face hardship and a risk to personal safety if they had to move. The Court then stated that the regulation’s aim to urge people to move was in conflict with the Sanctuary Scheme’s goal of allowing victims of gender-based violence to stay in their homes. The progress of gender equality is a major goal for the member States and “very weighty reasons” must be provided before gender discrimination could be considered lawful.

Here, the Court determined that treating all people in Sanctuary Schemes in the same manner was disproportionate as it did not relate to the legitimate aim of the measure. The Government failed to offer any weighty reasons to rationalize prioritizing the aim of the Scheme over that of enabling victims of domestic violence to stay in their homes. Therefore, the Court held that “A” had endured a violation of her rights under Article 14 in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

In the aftermath of this decision by ECHR, lawyers have demanded action on nearly 300 women estimated to be in similar situations. As the vast majority of those in the Sanctuary Scheme are women, this decision will help limit gender-based and domestic violence victim discrimination. This ruling is significant not only because it over-turned a troubling UK Supreme Court decision, but this ECHR ruling can potentially favorably impact other domestic violence victims in similar situations in other member states.

For further information, please see:

24housing – European Court Lands Blow on the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – 25 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – New UK Housing Benefit Regulation Discriminated Against a Woman Who Had Suffered Domestic Violence – 24 Oct. 2019

American Society of International Law – European Court of Human Rights Holds UK “Bedroom Tax” is Discriminatory – 24 Oct. 2019

Mirror – DWP Bedroom Tax Dealt Defeat in European Court of Human Rights – 24 Oct. 2019

Human Rights Court Finds Holocaust Denial Not Protected Under Freedom of Expression

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BERLIN, Germany – On October 3, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that denying the Holocaust happened is not protected expression under Article 10.

Udo Pastörs being arrested by police following a far-right demonstration in May 2012. Photo Courtesy of the Reuters/Fabien Bimmer.

On January 28, 2010, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Udo Pastörs, a far-right politician, a member of Parliament and chairperson of the National Democratic Party (“NDP”) of Germany at the time, delivered a speech in which he declared that commemorations of the Holocaust were “theater” and claimed that “the so-called Holocaust is being used for political and commercial purposes.” In August 2012, he was convicted by the district court for violating the memory of the dead and intentional defamation of the Jewish people. Subsequently, his appeals to the regional court, the Court of Appeals and the Federal Constitutional Court were also rejected. After exhausting all his remedies in Germany, Pastörs filed a complaint with the ECHR in 2014.

The Court firmly rejected Pastörs’ claim that his statements were protected under Article 10 of the Convention, which protects freedom of expression. The Court emphasized that Pastörs had planned his speech in advance and intentionally chose his words while denying the Holocaust, contradicting established historical facts, and exhibiting disdain to its victims. The Court further noted that while an interference with freedom of speech over statements made in a Parliament warranted close scrutiny, these specific statements deserved little protection, if any, given that they were at odds with the democratic values of the Convention. In addition, this case also had to be analyzed in the context of the special moral responsibility of States which had experienced Nazi horrors.

Ultimately, the Court held that Pastörs had deliberately stated lies in order to defame the Jewish people and the oppression they had endured. Therefore, the conviction by the domestic courts had been proportional to the goal pursued and was an essential decision in a democratic society.

Interestingly enough, Pastörs, who is a clockmaker by trade, had previously run into trouble with the German authorities as well. In 2010, he was convicted of treason for calling Turkish-German men “semen cannons” and for referring to Germany as a “Jew Republic.” He also referred to famous American economist, Alan Greenspan, as a “hooknose.”

The NDP was founded by the supporters of the former Hitler regime and has an extensive history of being rallying point for new generations of German Nazis. The party has consistently failed in local and national elections and has been unable to make a significant impact in the European Parliament. If their chairperson had not been disciplined for his remarks in the Parliament, the NDP could have gained some momentum. However, the ECHR and the domestic courts correctly determined that the freedom of expression defense was ill-founded in this scenario.

For further information, please see:

The Algemeiner – Denying Holocaust is not a Human Right, Eu Court Determines in Ruling Against German Neo-Nazi – 4 Oct. 2019

Courthouse News Service – Court Rules Holocaust Denial Not Protected by Rights Law – 3 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Holocaust Denial is not Protected by the European Convention on Human Rights – 2 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Pastörs v. Germany – Oct. 2019

Stoian v. Romania: Disabled Boy’s Right to Education Denied by European Court of Human Rights

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BUCHAREST, Romania — On June 25, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”), in a highly controversial decision, held that Romania did not deny the right to education and did not discriminate against a disabled boy and his single mother.

Stefan Stoian, now 18 years old. Photo Courtesy of Validity.

Stefan Stoian, a young boy with quadriplegia born in 2001, and his single mother, Luminita Stoian, complained that two state schools failed to accommodate Stefan and were mostly inaccessible for wheelchair users. They allege that learning was not customized with respect to teaching or testing the curricula, and the variety of therapies that Stefan required were not available. Luminita had to provide her son with personal assistance during school time, including carrying him around, helping him go to the toilet, and helping him with his physiotherapy exercises.

Luminita turned to a number of authorities in Romania to request the support that Stefan needed. The Government argued that both schools had adequate facilities and authorities had taken steps to enhance and modify them over time. They argued that he benefited from some educational support, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy, and he was also provided a personal assistant for short periods. Minimal change resulted from years of litigation and complaints, so Luminita turned to ECHR in 2013.

The complaint alleged a violation of the right to respect for private and family life, prevention of discrimination, and right to education violations, claiming that the authorities failed to take required measures to conform with their obligations under both national law and the European Convention. The Court noted that the authorities determined that Stefan should attend mainstream schools, which aligned with international standards. The Government admitted that there were delays in making sure that the school buildings in question met adequate standards.

The applicants also relied on United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Romania ratified in 2011. It acknowledges the right to education in comprehensive settings for children with disabilities and requires governments to provide support (reasonable accommodation and personal assistance) to attain full participation and inclusion for children with disabilities in mainstream schools. The Court held that the authorities had not turned a blind eye to Stefan’s needs, but had apportioned resources to his schools to accommodate his special needs. There were certain issues along the way, but some of those problems had been generated by Luminita herself. As a result, the Court found that the authorities had complied with their obligations, and therefore, did not violate the Articles of the Convention.

The Court’s holding that fundamental rights of persons of disabilities are predominantly a matter of resources that prohibits them from protection under the Convention is discouraging. Furthermore, how the Court reached their judgment is troublesome: the case was downgraded to a three-judge Committee level, facts were distorted, Government’s views were given more weight and meaningful scrutiny was not applied. This case exposes the degree to which children with disabilities are marginalized and denied justice, and they are running out of options regarding what litigation strategies may produce an encouraging result at the Court.

For further information, please see:

Strasbourg Observers – Stoian v. Romania: The Court’s Drift on Disability Rights Intensifies – 5 Sept. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Romania Took Sufficient Steps to Make Reasonable Accommodation for Disabled Child to Attend School – 25 June 2019

Validity – Romania: Justice denied for Stefan Stoian after a decade of legal action – 28 June 2019

Akdağ v. Turkey: Right to a Lawyer While in Police Custody

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — On September 17, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that the Turkish government unfairly restricted a citizen from gaining access to a lawyer, thus violating Article 6 §1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hamdiye Akdağ was arrested in November 2003 and while in police custody, she confessed to being a member of the PKK/KADEK (the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan), an illegal organization. On her statement form, in the “no lawyer sought” section, she printed an “X” next to it, and was not provided a lawyer subsequently. However, once she was brought before the public prosecutor and the investigating judge, she instantly retracted her statement.

Before the trial court, Akdağ maintained her position, claiming that she was forced into signing her statement. She also noted that she was illiterate. Ultimately in 2009, Akdağ was found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to over six years in prison. In 2010, the Court of Cassation upheld the conviction.

Here, the Government argued that Akdağ had specified on her statement form that she did not require legal assistance. Therefore, the Government noted that she justifiably waived her right to a lawyer. However, the Court held that Akdağ did not waive her right to a lawyer because she immediately withdrew her statement before the public prosecutor and the investigating judge, and also asserted that position before the trial court. In addition, her statement form just had a printed “X” next to the type-written “no lawyer sought.” With regards to her contention that she was illiterate, the trial court did not perform a proper assessment. Lastly, the Government failed to show that Akdağ had explicitly been advised about the consequences of not requesting the assistance of a lawyer.

The Court stated that while Akdağ had been allowed legal representation during the trial, the national courts had failed to examine the validity of the waiver or of the statements she had made to the police in the absence of a lawyer. As a result, the Court found the Government violated Article 6 §1 of the ECHR and the trial was unjust because the insufficiency of close scrutiny had not been resolved by any other procedural measures.

The ECHR dedicates an entire section of the Convention to rights to access court, the right to a fair trial, and the right to access a lawyer. In this decision, the ECHR ensured that Akdağ was not deprived of this fundamental right after the lower courts failed her. This decision will help set the precedent for citizens from member states who find themselves in a similar situation.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Case of Akdag v. Turkey – 17 Sept. 2019

ECHR Case Law – Invalid Resignation of an Illiterate Accused of the Right to a Lawyer, Infringement of Fair Trial – 17 Sept. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Guide on Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights – 30 Apr. 2019

Russian Film Producer’s Freedom of Expression Rights Violated

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

MOSCOW, Russia — On September 10, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the refusal to grant a film reproduction license is a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights which concerns freedom of expression. 

Russian national, Sergey Pryanishnikov, is a producer who owns the copyright for over 1,500 erotic films. After receiving approval for public distribution of his films, Pryanishnikov’s application for a film reproduction license was rejected by the Russian Ministry of the Press in 2003 because he was deemed to be “involved in illegal production, advertising and distribution of erotic and pornographic material and films.”

In 2004, Pryanishnikov contested the rejection before the Commercial Court of Moscow, but the court upheld the decision. The court reasoned that while Pryanishnikov had never been officially charged with the distribution of pornography and had only been interrogated by the police as a witness, since no determination had yet been made in the criminal proceedings, “it could not be ruled out that he was involved in the illegal production of pornographic films.”

Later in 2004, the Appeal Court and Court of Cassation upheld the judgment of the lower courts with both courts using similar reasoning to make their decision. In 2005, relying on Article 10, Pryanishnikov filed a complaint with the ECHR.

The Court concluded that the refusal to issue a film reproduction license interfered with Pryanishnikov’s freedom of expression. The Court conceded that protecting morals and the rights of others, in particular shielding children from access to pornographic material, were justifiable goals. However, when determining whether the interference was also “necessary in a democratic society”, the Court noted that the lower court decisions had been based on assumptions rather than reasoned findings of fact. More specifically, the Russian courts did not rely on any document from the criminal case file indicating that Pryanishnikov was suspected of that offense. As a matter of fact, they had explicitly mentioned that he had been involved in the investigation as a witness rather than a suspect.

Additionally, the Court stated that the lower courts did not weigh either the impact their decision would have on Pryanishnikov’s ability to distribute all the films for which he had distribution certificates or his freedom of expression in general. In particular, they failed to perform a balancing test between the right to freedom of expression and the need to protect public morals and the rights of others, resulting in an unjustifiable restriction of freedom of expression. 

This decision is significant because it overturned four consecutive domestic judgments suppressing freedom of expression in Russia. Ideally, following this ECHR decision, citizens’ rights to freedom of expression in other member states will be respected more. By applying the suggested balancing test, future freedom of expression decisions might be more uniform and proportionally reasoned to reach sound judgments. 

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Film Reproduction License Refused Because of Mere Suspicions: Violation of the Right to Freedom of Expression – 10 Sept. 2019

BAILII – Case of Pryanishnikov v. Russia – 10 Sept. 2019