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Strasbourg court rules that 16 year old had been subjected to “degrading” treatment at police station in breach of Article 3

Zherdev v Ukraine, 34015/07

The European Court of Human Rights found that a child was subjected to “degrading” treatment contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by being kept handcuffed and wearing just his underwear for at least two and a half hours and, subsequently, by being placed in a cell with adult detainees for three days. The Court stated that ill-treatment is liable to have a greater impact – especially in psychological terms – on a child and emphasised the need for police officers to show even greater vigilance and self-control when dealing with children than they should with adults.

Details

The applicant, a 16 year old boy at the time of the original arrest, was interviewed at a police station in connection with a murder investigation. He complained, amongst other things, that he had been detained handcuffed and wearing just his underwear for at least two and a half hours on the day of his arrest (his clothes had been removed for evidence gathering) and that he had subsequently been placed in a cell with adult detainees for three days, both of whom were drug addicts and one of whom had a contagious disease. He relied on Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The Court’s judgment stated that the relevant general principles of case-law concerning the substantive aspects of obligations under Article 3 of the Convention are summarised in Bouyid v. Belgium ([GC], no. 23380/09. In Bouyid, the Court held that any conduct by law-enforcement officers in relation to  an individual which diminishes human dignity constitutes a violation of Article 3 of the Convention. The judgment states that police behaviour towards children may be incompatible with the requirements of Article 3 of the Convention “simply because they are minors, whereas it might be deemed acceptable in the case of adults”. Therefore, law-enforcement officers must show greater vigilance and self-control when dealing with minors (para. 86).

Even though there was no conclusive evidence that the authorities had intended to humiliate or debase the child, the applicant was a child and there was no explanation for the failure to provide him with replacement clothes or some other covering sooner or for their actions in keeping him handcuffed for at least two and a half hours. Moreover, the applicant’s placement with adult detainees, which immediately followed and which was in violation of domestic law, must have contributed to creating in him feelings of fear, anguish, helplessness and inferiority, diminishing his dignity (para. 93).

The Court stated that the treatment did not amount to “torture” or “inhuman treatment” (para. 85) but that it did amount to “degrading” treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention. As such, there had been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention under its substantive limb.

Read the full judgment – Zherdev v Ukraine, 34015/07

Commentary

This judgment makes clear that there is a lower threshold for violation of Article 3 for children than for adults. Lawyers can play an essential role in ensuring that such violations do not occur. Lawyers who represent children at police stations should be vigilant for any signs of possible abuse, injuries or other possible violations of Article 3.