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The Grand Chamber Vindicates Russian Opposition Leader Navalny (ECtHR)

On 15 November 2018, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously in the case of Navalny v Russia (App. no.: 29580/12) that the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by the Russian government had violated his rights under:

  • Article 5 of the Convention (concerning arbitrary arrest on 7 occasions and pre-trial detention on 2 occasions);
  • Article 6 of the Convention (concerning 6 out of 7 administrative proceedings leading to his conviction of administrative offences);
  • Article 11 of the Convention (concerning the inability to peacefully assemble).

Furthermore, the Court also held 14-3 that there had been a breach of Article 18 considered in conjunction with Article 5 and Article 11 of the Convention. At the end, the Court ordered the Russian government to pay €50,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage, €1,025 in respect of pecuniary damage and €12,653 in respect of costs and expenses, which adds up to €63,678 in total. The ruling comes after the Russian government appealed against the original judgment of the Third Section of the European Court of Human Rights. The Grand Chamber has now upheld the main bulk of the Third Section’s reasoning unanimously dismissing the Government’s objection:

  • of non-exhaustion of domestic remedies under Article 5 of the Convention;
  • of non-exhaustion of domestic remedies under Article 11 of the Convention;
  • as to the failure to comply with the six-months rule under Article 18 of the Convention.

Mr Navalny lodged a complaint against the Russian government in 2014 effectively claiming a political persecution through different methods and over an extensive period of time. In respect of Article 5, Navalny complained about having been arbitrarily arrested on 7 occasions while attending peaceful demonstrations, including twice for an alleged failure to obey a police order (on 9 May 2012 and 24 February 2014) and about having been detained for over 3 hours in violation of the statutory time-limit pending his trial (paras. 68-9). In respect of Article 6, Navalny argued that on all 7 occasions when he was arrested, he was unfairly convicted of an administrative offence in violation of his right to a fair hearing, including the right to the equality of arms, presumption of innocence, impartiality of the tribunal and the adversarial nature of the proceedings (para. 73). In respect of Article 11, Navalny claimed that arresting him 7 times while attending peaceful demonstrations had violated his freedom of peaceful assembly (para. 85).

Finally, in respect of Article 18 (stipulating that “the restrictions permitted under [the] Convention to the said rights and freedoms shall not be applied for any purpose other than those for which they have been prescribed”), arguably the most interesting element of Mr Navalny’s claim, he:

“156. … submitted that since the 2011-2012 protest rallies in which he played a leading role, the authorities had become wary of his participation in any kind of informal gathering. They sought to punish him for his political criticism and took steps to discourage his supporters. He was specifically and personally targeted by the authorities who acted to suppress political dissent. He referred, in particular, to the footage of his arrest in front of the courthouse on 24 February 2014 (the sixth episode). He also alleged that he had been arrested even though the gatherings in question had been peaceful and had raised no public-order issues. The procedure set out by law for drawing up the administrative offence report had been manipulated so as to remove him from the event venue unnecessarily and to detain him without a lawful purpose. Whilst he had promoted the ideas and values of a democratic society … and as the most prominent opposition figure advocating these values, he had been harassed precisely because of his active engagement in political life and the influence that he had on the political views of the Russian people.

On that subject, the Court held that:

“168. … It cannot be overlooked that the arrests took place in the context of the applicant exercising his Convention right to freedom of assembly. The Court finds that a certain pattern may be discerned from the series of seven episodes. Moreover, the pretexts for the arrests were becoming progressively more implausible, whereas the degree of potential or actual disorder caused by the applicant diminished. It is also noteworthy that in the first four episodes the applicant was one of the leaders of the gatherings, and this could explain to a certain extent why he was among the first persons to be arrested. However, this was not the case in the subsequent episodes where the applicant did not play any special role.

169. In the fifth episode (on 27 October 2012) the applicant was one of some thirty activists taking part consecutively in a stationary demonstration. There were several prominent public figures among the participants and no obvious leadership. Moreover, according to the official version, the applicant was arrested not in connection with the demonstration itself but for holding a “march” when he was walking away from the venue followed by a group of people, including journalists. Nothing suggests that the applicant had arranged for these people to accompany him, or that he was somehow in charge of his followers or that he was in a position to control them in the very brief moments before his arrest (see paragraph 32 above).

170. An equally evident example was the sixth episode (on 24 February 2014) with his arrest in front of the courthouse, where he was merely one of the persons waiting to be allowed inside the building to attend the public hearing. The police deliberately divided the crowd to retrieve the applicant and remove him from the venue, although nothing in his conduct or appearance distinguished him from other peaceful individuals quietly waiting behind the police cordon. In this episode it is particularly difficult to dismiss the applicant’s allegation that he was specifically and personally targeted as a known activist, even in the most innocuous situation remotely resembling a public gathering (see paragraph 156 above).

171. In this context, the Court’s observation in Merabishvili to the effect that in a continuous situation the predominant purpose may vary over time (§ 308) assumes particular significance. It may well appear that the predominant purpose of the measures taken against the applicant has indeed changed over the period under examination. What might possibly have seemed a legitimate aim or purpose at the outset appears less plausible over time. Thus, as held in paragraphs 126 and 127 above, whereas the Court has serious doubts that any legitimate aim as claimed by the Government existed on the first four occasions, it has found that no such aim was present on the fifth and sixth occasions, and was again highly questionable on the seventh occasion. Also, as noted above, the violations in the present case occurred despite the authorities’ increasing awareness that the practices in question were incompatible with Convention standards (see paragraph 149 above). In this connection, the Court considers that regard should also be had to the wider context (ibid., § 317), notably to its similar findings in Navalnyy and Yashin (cited above) with regard to a demonstration three months before the first of the seven episodes in the present case. Equally relevant to the general context are its findings with regard to the sequence of events that unfolded in two sets of criminal proceedings which were being conducted against the applicant in parallel. In one case it found that the national courts had “omitted to address” and “had heightened … concerns that the real reason for the applicant’s prosecution and conviction had been a political one” (see Navalnyy and Ofitserov, cited above, §§ 116-19). In the other it held that the applicant’s criminal sentence was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”, that the law was “extensively and unforeseeably construed” and applied in an arbitrary manner which flawed the proceedings “in such a fundamental way that it rendered other criminal procedure guarantees irrelevant” (see Navalnyye v. Russia, no. 101/15, §§ 83-84, 17 October 2017).

172. In addition, there is converging contextual evidence corroborating the view that the authorities were becoming increasingly severe in their response to the conduct of the applicant, in the light of his position as opposition leader, and of other political activists and, more generally, in their approach to public assemblies of a political nature. The Court has previously noted the important legislative changes which took place in the reference period, increasing and expanding liability for a breach of the procedure for conducting public events (see Lashmankin and Others, cited above, §§ 301-06). In particular, the maximum amount of the fine payable for such offences was increased by twenty times; new types of aggravated offences were introduced with correspondingly severe sanctions; and the limitation period for the offences in question was extended. Further restrictions of the legislative framework on freedom of assembly introduced in July 2014, including criminal liability for assembly-related offences, although falling outside the period under consideration, may be noted as a continuous trend…

173. Against this background, the applicant’s claim that his exercise of freedom of assembly has become a particular object for targeted suppression appears coherent within the broader context of the Russian authorities’ attempts at the material time to bring the opposition’s political activity under control. At this point, the Court considers it appropriate to have regard to the nature and degree of reprehensibility of the alleged ulterior purpose, bearing in mind that the Convention was designed to maintain and promote the ideals and values of a democratic society governed by the rule of law (seeMerabishvili, cited above, § 307).

174. At the core of the applicant’s Article 18 complaint is his alleged persecution, not as a private individual, but as an opposition politician committed to playing an important public function through democratic discourse. As such, the restriction in question would have affected not merely the applicant alone, or his fellow opposition activists and supporters, but the very essence of democracy as a means of organising society, in which individual freedom may only be limited in the general interest, that is, in the name of a “higher freedom” referred to in the travaux préparatoires (see paragraph 51 above). The Court considers that the ulterior purpose thus defined would attain significant gravity.

175. In the light of all the above-mentioned elements, and in particular the sequence and pattern of the events in the present case (see paragraphs 167-68 above), viewed as a whole, the Court finds it established beyond reasonable doubt that the restrictions imposed on the applicant in the fifth and the sixth episodes pursued an ulterior purpose within the meaning of Article 18 of the Convention, namely to suppress that political pluralism which forms part of “effective political democracy” governed by “the rule of law”, both being concepts to which the Preamble to the Convention refers (see, mutatis mutandisŽdanoka v. Latvia [GC], no. 58278/00, § 98, ECHR 2006‑IV, and Karácsony and Others v. Hungary [GC], nos. 42461/13 and 44357/13, § 147, ECHR 2016 (extracts)). As the Court has pointed out, notably in the context of Articles 10 and 11, pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are hallmarks of a “democratic society”. Although individual interests must on occasion be subordinated to those of a group, democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of people from minorities and avoids abuse of a dominant position (see, among other authorities, Young, James and Webster v. the United Kingdom, 13 August 1981, § 63, Series A no. 44; Gorzelik and Others v. Poland [GC], no.44158/98, § 90, ECHR 2004‑I; Leyla Şahin, cited above, § 108; and Karácsony and Others, cited above, § 147).”

Interestingly, the issue of Article 18, unlike other issues in this case, divided the Grand Chamber. Accordingly, the ruling includes a Partly Concurring and Partly Dissenting Opinion of Judges Pejchal, Dedov, Ravarani, Eicke and Paczolay in which the Judges argued that the abuse of the Convention rights perpetrated by the Russian government should have been dealt with on the basis of Article 17 (stipulating that “nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention“) rather than Article 18 of the Convention (para. 3). The Judges admit in their Joint Opinion that the Court could not have properly considered Article 17 since the complaint had originally been made under Article 18 (paras. 4-5) but they nevertheless decided to elaborate on this subject. Firstly, they claim that Article 17 is clearly applicable to abuses of Convention rights perpetrated by states, not only individuals or groups (paras. 6-19). However, the Judges recognise that such an application of Article 17 is extremely rare. Secondly, the Judges, while admitting that Article 17 and Article 18 have a similar scope of application, distinguish the two on the basis of the difference between an ‘abuse of power’ and a ‘misuse of power’ claiming that

“26. If misuse of power is also undoubtedly an abuse of power, the opposite is not necessarily true. There may be instances of abuse of power when the authorities in taking an individual decision do not, in fact, pursue an ulterior purpose. To use the paradigm of the theory of sets, Article 18 is a subset of Article 17. The concept of abuse of rights is broader than that of misuse of power, meaning that certain acts will be considered “abusive”, not because the purpose is unlawful, but because of the way in which the power was used.”

The Judges conclude:

“33. In light of the above, we are of the view that, if the case had been presented in those terms, an examination of the facts of the present case under Article 17 would have enabled the Court to assess whether the number of individual episodes addressed in the judgment, taken together, are evidence or isolated manifestations of a system that abusively seeks to limit, by legislative, administrative and/or judicial means, the democratic rights of the applicant in a way that substantially runs counter to the purpose and general spirit of the Convention and is aimed at unduly limiting those rights; and to do so without (a) having to adopt a narrow focus on the (administrative) authorities involved in the individual incident under consideration and (b) having to address the difficult issue of whether those authorities, in their response to each individual occasion on which the applicant sought to exercise his fundamental freedom of assembly, pursued an ulterior purpose.”

It seems that the Joint Opinion of Judges Pejchal, Dedov, Ravarani, Eicke and Paczolay by no means was designed to limit the scope of liability on the part of the Russian government, as recognised in the Majority Opinion. To the contrary. Under the approach to Article 17 and Article 18 advocated in the Joint Opinion, the liability of the Russian government for a repeated pattern of abuse of power towards Mr Navalny would probably only deepen. In any event, the Joint Opinion in this case is a rather rare example of the Court, or at least a part of it, trying to clarify confusing rules of application of Articles which are rarely relied on by applicants and therefore not sufficiently explained in the Court’s jurisprudence.

Payment of Widowed Allowance to Spouses Only Violates Human Rights

At the end of August 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled In the matter of an application by Siobhan McLaughlin for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) [2018] UKSC 48 that the current rules for the payment of Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights read in conjunction with Article 14. WPA is a contributory-based social benefit offered under s39A of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to widowed parents with dependent children whose spouse or civil partner has died. The Court ruled that the requirement of a formal marriage or civil partnership as a precondition for receiving WPA discriminated against couples who although had children together, never formalised their relationship.

The Court was however cautious to say that not every type of social benefit requiring a formal union is necessarily incompatible with the Convention. It was held that WPA could not be dependent on the prior existence of marriage or civil partnership because it was designed to benefit children who have lost one of their parents rather than to make any form of compensation to the surviving parent him or herself. Accordingly, to condition the payment of WPA on the existence of a formal union between parents is to effectively discriminate between the so called legitimate and illegitimate children – a policy which was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Marckx v Belgium (App. no.: 6833/74), back in 1979. It is on this basis that the Lady Hale, writing for the majority, attempted to distinguish the case of Shackell v United Kingdom (App. No.: 45851/99) where the European Court of Human Rights had held inadmissible complaints that the lack of a formal marriage should not deprive the surviving widow of an analogous benefit (paras. 25-28). The attempt was nevertheless not entirely convincing and Lord Mance in his Concurring Opinion (with which Lady Hale agreed) further elaborated on this point ultimately considering the reasoning in Shackell to be simply unsatisfactory (para. 49).

This approach of the majority however prompted Lorde Hodge to claim, in his Dissenting Opinion, that the majority was departing from a settled line of case law of the European Court of Human Rights which had recently been confirmed in the case of Burden v United Kingdom (App. no.: 13378/05). Moreover, Lord Hodge pointed out that although the WPA could be construed as designed to ultimately benefit children, it was nevertheless payable directly to the surviving spouse and depended heavily on his or her circumstances so that “if she remarries or enters into a civil partnership, so long as she cohabits with a partner of either gender, or if she dies, the WPA ceases to be payable” and “the sums payable to the Survivor are not related to the children’s needs or increased by reference to the number of children for whom she is responsible.” (paras. 76-78). At the end of the day, the UK Supreme Court under the presidency of Lady Hale again took an active approach to the protection guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Civil Partnerships for Everyone

On 27 June 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in the case of R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary), that the unavailability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples was incompatible with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights read in conjunction with Article 8. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was introduced by the Labour Government to offer some form of formalised unions to homosexual couples at the time when British society was not ready for ‘gay marriage.’ Since it was designed to introduce formal relationships akin to marriage, the Act expressly applied to same-sex couples only as heterosexual couples could enter into actual marriage instead. This rationale was justified so long as same-sex couples could not marry. But this changed with the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Since then, homosexual couples have been able to choose between civil partnership and actual marriage while heterosexual couples could only marry. This has been challenged as a form of direct discrimination based on sexual orientation contrary to Article 14 of the Convention as applied by virtue of Article 8. Now the UK Supreme Court held that the need to “wait and evaluate” before enacting any reform, an argument the Government put forward to justify the discrimination, does not, in this case, constitute a legitimate aim under the Convention as this is not an instance of a discrimination with a long tradition which is only gradually becoming unacceptable but rather a novel issue whose discriminatory nature was apparent as soon as it was introduced (paras. 42-43). At the end, the Court did not hesitate to issue a declaration of incompatibility explaining that absent any legitimate aim, deference to a parliamentary process is not justified (paras. 54-57). The ruling goes a step further than the hitherto jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights which held in 2013, in the case of Vallianatos v Greece (App. Nos.: 29381/09 and 32684/09), that the availability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples only violated Article 14 of the Convention read in conjunction with Article 8 because homosexual couples were not in a ‘comparable situation’ as they could neither marry nor enter into civil unions while heterosexual couples could do both (paras. 78-79). The same, however, could not be said about the situation of heterosexual couples in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in April 2018, in the case of Ratzenbock and Seydl v Austria (App. No.: 28475/12), that the unavailability of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples did not violate the Convention given that they could enter into marriage while same-sex couples could not. The Court was of the opinion that “the institutions of marriage and the registered partnership are essentially complementary in Austrian law.” (para. 40) – the same state of affairs one could observed in the UK between 2004 and 2013 but not since then. Accordingly, the judgment of the UK Supreme Court appears to have been built on the existing jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights while shrinking any deference to the legislature within the presumed margin of appreciation. Now it is only a matter of time before Parliament amended the Civil Partnership Act to remedy the injustice.

The European Court of Human Rights Continues to Exercise Jurisdiction over Tax Rates

On 24 July 2018, the European Court of Human Rights found, in the case of ZG v. Hungary (App. No.: 65858/13), that the state’s ‘severance tax’ of 98% violated the applicant’s right to the peaceful enjoyment of property under Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the Convention. This case marks the tenth time this year the Court adjudicated on the same issue with the same effect. The line of cases dates back to the summer of 2013 when, in the cases of  N.K.M. v. Hungary (App. No.: 66529/11) and R.Sz. v. Hungary (App. No.: 41838/11), the Court ruled that the 98% tax on severance payments for public employees did not strike a fair balance “between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights” (para. 49) – a requirement which the Court read into Section 1 of Article 1. This is despite the clear wording of Section 2 of the same Article stipulating that “the preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State … to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.” This line of cases is remarkable as nowhere else has the European Court of Human Rights held a tax incompatible with the Convention solely for the reason of its rate. Although the Court was also concerned with the fact that the tax was levied on the payment which was contractually guaranteed when the employee was undertaking the employment, this could be said about any new tax, as any new tax is necessarily levied, to a certain degree, on a state of affairs which has already been initiated. Furthermore, even though the Court indicated that in different circumstances such a high tax rate might be allowed, nevertheless, it seems that the European Court of Human Rights has, with this line of cases, brought taxation rates within the ambit of the Convention rendering them fully reviewable. This move widens considerably the protection of private property under the Convention, which, as originally enacted in Protocol 1, was rather weak. If a severance tax can be held incompatible with the Convention based on its high rate, there is nothing stopping the Court from holding any other type of taxation, including an income tax, to be equally incompatible. Of course the Court remains cautious in this respect granting Member States the highest level of margin of appreciation, nevertheless, by maintaining its ‘severance tax’ jurisprudence, it sends a strong message that extraordinarily high taxes levied with no apparent justification are not beyond the Court’s jurisdiction.