Tag: government

Members of non-State Groups Liable to Prosecution for Torture (UKSC)

On 13 November 2019, the UK Supreme Court ruled 4-1, in the case of R v TRA [2019] UKSC 51, that members of non-State groups may be prosecuted in the UK for crimes of torture under international law. The case makes it easier for countries to punish persons responsible for torture.

TRA was involved in the first Liberian civil war where the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), an armed group led by Charles Taylor, attempted to takeover Liberia by deposing the then President, Samuel Doe. TRA was arrested in the UK in June 2017 and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit torture and seven counts of torture contrary to section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (CJA 1988), which states:

“A public official or person acting in an official capacity, whatever his nationality, commits the offence of torture if in the United Kingdom or elsewhere he intentionally inflicts severe pain or suffering on another in the performance or purported performance of his official duties.” (p2)

Before the matter proceeded to a full trial at the Central Criminal Court, TRA made an application to dismiss the charges under paragraph 2 of Schedule 3 to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 asking for the clarification as to the correct legal test of ‘official capacity’ under CJA 1988, s134. The prosecution argued that at the relevant time and place, the NPFL was the de facto government authority with an effective control of the area where the alleged offences took place and that Charles Taylor and his subordinates were acting in an official capacity for the NPFL (p3).

In July 2018, the Judge concluded that CJA 1988, s 134 “applies, not only to acting for entities either tolerated by, or acting under the authority of the government of a state, but also, in situations of armed conflict, to individuals who act in a non-private capacity and as part of an authority-wielding entity”. He also dismissed a subsequent application for ‘no case to answer’ on the grounds that “while the questions whether the appellant was acting in a non-official capacity on behalf of the NPFL and whether the NPFL was an authority-wielding entity would ultimately be for the jury, the dismissal application turned on whether the evidence, taken at its highest, was sufficient for a jury properly to so conclude” (p4).

TRA appealed the ruling and the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal in December 2018. TRA expressed his intention to appeal to the UK Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal certified the following question of law of public importance:

“What is the correct interpretation of the term ‘person acting in an official capacity’ in section 134(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988; in particular does it include someone who acts otherwise than in a private and individual capacity for or on behalf of an organisation or body which exercises or purports to exercise the functions of government over the civilian population in the territory which it controls and in which the relevant conduct occurs?” (p2)

On appeal before the UK Supreme Court, the Court held that CJA 1988, s134 must be examined in light of the UN Convention against Torture 1984 (CAT 1984) which it implemented and also that a distinction must be made between torture under CAT 1984, which required the involvement of at least one person in an official capacity, and torture under international humanitarian law and international criminal law, where there was no such requirement (Prosecutor v Kunarac, IT-96-23 & 23/1) (pp18-20).

Article 1 of CAT 1984 provides that:

“1. For the purposes of this Convention, ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

The UK Supreme Court directed itself to interpret CJA 1988, s134 through interpreting Article 1 of CAT 1984 in accordance with the rules of interpretation of international treaties prescribed by Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969:

“1. A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose” (p9)

Accordingly, the UK Supreme Court considered the meaning of Article 1 of CAT 1984 under three different approaches. In regards to the ordinary meaning of the words of Article 1 of CAT 1984, the Court found that:

“Those words are apt to describe a person performing official administrative or governmental functions but provide no suggestion that those functions must be performed on behalf of the government of the State concerned. The dichotomy drawn by the provisions is between official conduct and purely private conduct, not between State and nonState activity. While in most normal circumstances, such as those prevailing in the United Kingdom to which the appellant refers, official conduct will usually be performed on behalf of a State, it is necessary to consider the applicability of the Convention in less stable situations, including those where more than one body may be performing administrative or governmental functions within the territory of the State. Unhappily, examples of such situations arise not infrequently. In my view the words used do not support a limitation of the kind proposed. On the contrary, the words “person acting in an official capacity” are apt to include someone who holds an official position or acts in an official capacity in an entity exercising governmental control over a civilian population in a territory over which it holds de facto control” (p11)

Then the UK Supreme Court moved to consider the meaning of Article 1 of CAT 1984 in light of the object and purpose of CAT 1984. The Court found that the object of CAT 1984 :

“has been to make torture as defined in article 1 a criminal offence of universal jurisdiction enforceable by domestic courts and, by virtue of very extensive State participation in the Convention, to establish a machinery capable of reducing the likelihood of perpetrators of “official torture” escaping justice before national courts” (p13)

At that point, the UK Supreme Court engaged in a deep analysis of travaux preparatoires, finding, however, that they were inconclusive as to the intended meaning of Article 1 of CAT 1984 in terms of its application to members of non-State groups (pp13-19).

Next, the UK Supreme Court considered how the scope of Article 1 of CAT 1984 was understood in practice, among others, in a series of decisions of the Committee against Torture, which oversees the implementation of the convention. In the decisions in SV v. Canada, CAT/C/26/D/49/1996GRB v Sweden, CAT/C/20/D/083/1997 and MPS v. AustraliaCAT/C/28/D/138/1999, the Committee against Torture ruled that CAT 1984 did not apply to torture perpetrated by persons without any association with the State governments. On the other hand, in Sadiq Shek Elmi v AustraliaCAT/C/22/D/120/1998 (concerning Somalia), the Committee against Torture came to the opposite conclusion (p24).

Nevertheless, in HMHI v. AustraliaCAT/C/28/D/177/2001 (also concerning Somalia), Sadiq Shek Elmi v AustraliaCAT/C/22/D/120/1998 was distinguished on the grounds that “in the exceptional circumstance of State authority that was wholly lacking, acts by groups exercising quasi-governmental authority could fall within the definition of article 1” while “…with three years elapsing since the Elmi decision, Somalia currently possesses a State authority in the form of the Transitional National Government, which has relations with the international community in its capacity as central government, though some doubts may exist as to the reach of its territorial authority and its permanence.” A couple of years later, in SS v. The NetherlandsCAT/C/30/D/191/2001, the Committee against Torture recognised the applicability of Article 1 of CAT 1984 to actions of non-State groups in Sri Lanka where “the non-governmental entity occupies and exercises quasi-governmental authority over the territory” (p25).

Ultimately, the UK Supreme Court held that “despite its manifest inconsistencies, therefore, this line of authority does provide some support for the view that the conduct of non-State actors exercising de facto authority over territory which they occupy can fall within” Article 1 of CAT 1984 (p26),

At this point, the UK Supreme Court turned to domestic case law. It considered the judgment in R v Zardad, Case No T2203 7676 (2004) concerning Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996 when the Hezb-I-Islami faction was in control of Laghman Province. In this case, Zardad, who had been a chief commander of Hezb-IIslami and the military controller of the area of Sarobi at the material time, was charged with conspiracy to commit torture contrary to CJA 1988, s134. As part of his defence, he maintained that he had not been a public official as his group was not a part of a government but the Judge rejected this argument (pp30-31).

Ultimately, the UK Supreme Court ruled that:

“the words of those provisions in their ordinary meaning support this reading. They are sufficiently wide to include conduct by a person acting in an official capacity on behalf of an entity exercising governmental control over a civilian population in a territory over which it exercises de facto control. In particular, I can see no justification for imposing the limitation on those words for which the appellant contends, which would require the conduct to be on behalf of the government of the State concerned. On the contrary, the words in their ordinary meaning are apt to include conduct on behalf of a de facto authority which seeks to overthrow the government of the State. This reading also conforms with the object and purpose of the provisions. Here I attach particular significance to the purpose of the Convention in seeking to establish a regime for the international regulation of “official” torture as opposed to private acts of individuals. Torture perpetrated on behalf of a de facto governmental authority is clearly a matter of proper concern to the international community and within the rationale of the scheme. In addition, some support for this conclusion can be found in the decisions of the CAT under article 22(7), UNCAT and it is favoured by the preponderant weight of academic comment” (p38)

Lord Reed dissented. He argued that the ordinary meaning of the words used in Article 1 of CAT 1984 excluded “a member of an insurgent group engaged in armed insurrection against the government of the country.” Furthermore, he claimed that the context of Article 1 of CAT 1984 dictated that it was “concerned with conduct for which the state bears responsibility.” Lord Reed invoked Article 2 of CAT 1984 arguing that:

“If torture carried out by insurgents in territory under their de facto control falls within the scope of UNCAT, it follows that article 2(1) imposes an obligation on states with which they cannot comply: they cannot take “effective” measures in relation to territory which they do not control. UNCAT cannot sensibly be interpreted in a way which would have the effect of imposing an obligation on states with which they cannot comply: lex non cogit ad impossibilia. That strongly suggests that article 2(1) cannot have been intended to apply in those circumstances, which in turn implies that the definition of torture in article 1 cannot have been intended to apply to torture committed by insurgent forces, without the consent or acquiescence of the state in question” (pp41-42)

Lord Reed also referred to academic opinions, other jurisdictions as well as the case law of the Committee Against Torture, arguing that, despite what the Majority claimed, it supported the argument that CAT 1984 was never meant to apply to members of non-State groups (pp42-49).

The ruling of the UK Supreme Court in R v TRA [2019] UKSC 51 was only the third case brought under CJA 1988, s134. The judgment, however, is important because it makes it clear that members of a non-State group could be prosecuted for the crime of torture under Article 1 of CAT 1984 (as applicable in the UK by virtue of CJA 1988, s134) wherever they act in an ‘official capacity’. This, undoubtedly, makes it easier for countries to punish torturers. However, ultimately, whether a person is to be considered to have acted in an ‘official capacity’ is for the jury to decide in each case based on available evidence.

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Vindicated (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.