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‘Abduction of Europa’ (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Amsterdam - 1632 - fragment)

Thursday, 27 February 2014

This week in Strasbourg - A roundup of the European Court of Human Rights' case law - 2014 week 9

 

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE - On Thursday the the European Court of Human Rights held, by a majority, in the case of Karaman v. Germany that a fraud suspect's presumption of innocence was not violated by a court’s statements about him in separate proceedings against his co-suspects.The case concerned Mr Karaman’s complaint that his right to be presumed innocent was breached on account of references to his participation in a criminal offence in a judgment handed down by a German court in criminal proceedings against several of his co-suspects, who were tried separately from him. The Court found in particular that: the trial court could not have avoided mentioning the role played by Mr Karaman in order to assess the guilt of one of the co-suspects in the fraud case; the language used by the trial court had made it sufficiently clear that any mention of Mr Karaman did not entail a determination of his guilt; and, the German courts had emphasised that it would be contrary to the presumption of innocence to attribute any guilt to him on the basis of the outcome of the trial against his co-suspects. The Court held:

63.  The Court, with reference to its interpretation of the scope of application of Article 6 § 2 as set out above in paragraphs 40-44, reiterates that the presumption of innocence will be violated if a judicial decision or a statement by a public official concerning a person charged with a criminal offence reflects an opinion that he or she is guilty before that person has been proved guilty according to law. A fundamental distinction must be made between a statement that someone is merely suspected of having committed a crime and a clear declaration, in the absence of a final conviction, that an individual has committed the crime in question. In this connection the Court has emphasised the importance of the choice of words by public officials in their statements before a person has been tried and found guilty of a particular criminal offence (see Daktaras, cited above, § 41; Böhmer, cited above, §§ 54 and 56; Nešťák v. Slovakia, no. 65559/01, §§ 88 and 89, 27 February 2007; Khuzhin and Others v. Russia, no. 13470/02, § 94, 23 October 2008; and Borovský, cited above, §§ 45 et seq.). While the use of language is of critical importance in this respect, the Court has further pointed out that whether a statement of a public official is in breach of the principle of the presumption of innocence must be determined in the context of the particular circumstances in which the impugned statement was made (see Daktaras, cited above, § 43; Y.B. and Others v. Turkey, nos. 48173/99 and 48319/99, § 44, 28 October 2004; A.L. v. Germany, no. 72758/01, § 31, 28 April 2005; and Allen, cited above, §§ 125 and 126). Even the use of some unfortunate language may not be decisive when regard is had to the nature and context of the particular proceedings (Allen, cited above, § 126).
64.  The Court accepts the Government's argument that in complex criminal proceedings involving several persons who cannot be tried together, references by the trial court to the participation of third persons, who may later be tried separately, may be indispensable for the assessment of the guilt of those who are on trial. Criminal courts are bound to establish the facts of the case relevant for the assessment of the legal responsibility of the accused as accurately and precisely as possible, and they cannot present decisive facts as mere allegations or suspicions. This also applies to facts related to the involvement of third persons. However, if such facts have to be introduced, the court should avoid to give more information than necessary for the assessment of the legal responsibility of those persons who are accused in the trial before it.
65.  Turning to the circumstances of the present case, the Court first notes that the provisions of German law are clear as not allowing the drawing of any inferences on the guilt of a person from criminal proceedings in which he or she has not participated. The impugned statements in the judgment of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court must be read in that context (see, mutatis mutandis, Allen, cited above, § 125). Nevertheless, the Court has also to examine if the criminal court's reasoning in the concrete case has not been worded in such a way as to give rise to doubts as to a potential pre-judgment on the applicant's guilt, and thus to jeopardise the fair examination of the charges brought against him in the separate proceedings in Germany and/or in Turkey.
66.  In the present case the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court had to assess, among other things, in how far G. had, as he maintained himself, decided alone on the use of the donated funds without having consulted any contact persons in Turkey, or, as argued by the witnesses and co-accused, in how far G. had been integrated into a criminal organisation's hierarchy which had its leaders in Turkey. In order to decide on this question the court had to find out who had made the plans to misuse the donations and, on this basis, who had given which instruction to whom. The Court accepts that in this context it was unavoidable for the court to mention the concrete role played and even the intentions held by all the persons behind the scenes in Turkey, including the applicant.
67.  The Court will further examine if the criminal court has made it sufficiently clear that it did not implicitly also decide on the applicant's guilt.
68.  Concerning the statements of the presiding judge at the occasion of the oral pronouncement of the decision of the court, on 17 September 2008, the Court emphasises that it has not been provided with the explicit wording of this statement. The applicant only refers to a report in a newspaper article published on the internet on 18 September 2008. He himself expressed the view that the judgment's subsequent media coverage was not material for a possible finding of a violation of Article 6 § 2 (see paragraph 49 above). On the basis of the material in its possession the Court therefore cannot find that the presiding judge made statements that violated the applicant's presumption of innocence. In any event, these statements were superseded by the written version of the judgment, which was delivered some time later.
69.  It is true that the court used the full name of the applicant in the written version of the judgment sent to the accused persons, while it used acronyms in the version of the judgment published on the internet on 25 November 2008. The Court does not consider, however, that the use of acronyms in the official version was necessary in order to avoid any wrong conclusions. It is more important to note that, by referring to the applicant as “separately prosecuted” throughout the judgment, the court underlined the fact that it was not called upon to determine the applicant's guilt but, in line with the provisions of domestic law on criminal procedure, was only concerned with assessing the criminal responsibility of those accused within the scope of the proceedings at issue. The legal assessment in part III of the judgment alludes to the “persons behind the scenes” and does not contain any statement that might be understood as an assessment of the applicant's guilt.
70.  The Court finally observes that in the introductory remarks to the judgment's internet publication as well as in the Federal Constitutional Court's decision of 3 September 2009 dismissing the applicant's constitutional complaint, it was emphasised that it would be contrary to the presumption of innocence to attribute any guilt to the applicant and that an assessment of his possible involvement in the crime had to be left to the main proceedings to be conducted against him. The Court is thus satisfied that the courts avoided, as far as possible in the context of a judgment involving several co-suspects of which not all were present, to give the impression of prejudging the applicant's guilt. There is nothing in the judgment of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court that makes it impossible for the applicant to have a fair trial in the cases in which he is involved.
71.  In view of the above considerations, the Court concludes that the impugned statements in the reasoning of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court's judgment dated 17 September 2008 did not breach the principle of the presumption of innocence. There has accordingly been no violation of Article 6 § 2."

Judges Villiger and Yudkivska expressed a joint dissenting opinion, which is annexed to the
judgment:
"We regret that we cannot follow the conclusion of the majority. Rather, we find that the impugned statements in the reasoning of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court's judgment of 17 September 2008 indeed breached the applicant's right to be presumed innocent.
We acknowledge, like the majority, that in complex criminal proceedings involving several suspects who cannot be tried together, references to the participation of separately prosecuted co-suspects by the trial court may be indispensable for assessing an accused's guilt. The applicant himself conceded that such references were necessary with a view to establishing the circumstances of a case involving several accused and in order to determine their individual contribution in the commission of an offence.
We further accept that in the proceedings at issue the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court was not called upon to determine the applicant's guilt and that its jurisdiction, in line with the provisions of domestic law on criminal procedure, was limited to assessing the criminal responsibility of those accused within the particular trial conducted by it.
However, in our view these considerations are not sufficient to conclude that the impugned references to the applicant's contribution in the investigated crime have not breached the presumption of innocence, one of the fundamental principles enshrined in the Convention.
In this context we would recall the Court's case-law that in determining whether a judicial decision or a statement by a public official amounts to a prejudgment of a person's guilt, a fundamental distinction must be made between a statement that someone is merely suspected of having committed a crime and a clear declaration, in the absence of a final conviction, that an individual has committed the crime in question. While the choice of words by public officials is of critical importance in this respect (see, among other references, Daktaras v. Lithuania, no. 42095/98, § 41, ECHR 2000 X), the Court has emphasised in its recent judgment in the case of Allen v. the United Kingdom ([GC], no. 25424/09, ECHR 2013) that even the use of some unfortunate language may not be decisive when regard is had to the nature and context of the particular proceedings (ibid., § 126).
The presumption of innocence implies that a moral and legal qualification of an accused's acts may only be given by a court and only within the scope of adversarial judicial proceedings. In the present case, however, the court gave an assessment and legal qualification of the applicant's actions in the separate proceedings against his co-accused. Contrary to the majority, we consider that the references to the applicant's participation in the organised crime and the language employed by the Regional Court in this respect, even when considered in the context of the particular proceedings, amounted to a prejudgment of the applicant's guilt.
Not only does the Regional Court's judgment cite the applicant's full first and last name on numerous occasions, it also follows clearly from these references read in conjunction with the passages describing the contribution of the further perpetrators abroad that “the persons behind the scenes” in Turkey have pulled the strings in the criminal enterprise and that the applicant played “a preeminent role” in this respect.
Thus the Regional Court established actus reus in the applicant's actions in the course of the separate proceedings against his co-accused, whilst the only task of the court in such proceedings was to establish if the co-accused had committed any crime. It is true that these issues are connected and interdependent to some extent, and cross-reference is inevitable as mentioned above. However, in order to establish the proven limits of the co-accused' actions the court was not obliged to determine with precision the role of the applicant, reference to an alleged role of the separately prosecuted person would have been sufficient.
We would emphasise in this respect that the Regional Court stated in the judgment that the circumstances of the case (Sachverhalt), including the applicant's role, “have been established” (steht fest) on the basis of the available means of evidence (see p. 22 of the Regional Court's judgment). There can be no clearer statement!
In view of these considerations, we find that the relevant passages in the judgment's reasoning were not limited to the description of a mere “state of suspicion” against the applicant and consequently went beyond what was necessary for establishing the convicts' guilt. They implied, by contrast, that the Regional Court had found it established that the applicant had been one of the main perpetrators involved in the joint criminal enterprise, thus prejudging the outcome of future criminal proceedings against him. The statements taken as a whole could not but have encouraged the public to perceive the applicant as the head of a criminal organisation established for fraudulent purposes – and all this despite the fact that the applicant was not a party to the criminal proceedings.
In our view, neither does the qualification of the applicant's status as “separately prosecuted” in the judgment's reasoning constitute a sufficient reservation in this respect nor could the introductory remarks to the judgment's subsequent internet publication reverse the prejudicial effect of the judgment's reasoning.
We therefore conclude that the relevant passages of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court's judgment taken together and viewed as a whole ran contrary to the applicant's right to be presumed innocent and that there has accordingly been a violation of Article 6 § 2 of the Convention."
PATERNITY - In  the case of Ostace v. Romania the Court held, unanimously, that Romanian authorities should have granted request to reopen proceedings to establish paternity. The case concerned Mr Ostace's inability to obtain the revision of a judgment establishing his paternity in spite of an extra-judicial forensic examination proving the contrary. The request was rejected on the ground that the document in question did not exist at the time of the initial proceedings. The Court held that by declaring inadmissible Mr Ostace's request to reopen the paternity suit the authorities had breached his right to respect for his private life. The Court held (French only):
“33.  La Cour rappelle que, si l'article 8 de la Convention tend pour l'essentiel à prémunir l'individu contre des ingérences arbitraires des pouvoirs publics, il n'impose pas seulement aux États de s'abstenir de telles ingérences ; il peut engendrer de surcroît des obligations positives inhérentes à un respect effectif de la vie privée ou familiale. La frontière entre les obligations positives et négatives de l'État au titre de cette disposition ne se prête pas à une définition précise. Les principes applicables sont néanmoins comparables. Dans les deux cas, il faut avoir égard au juste équilibre à ménager entre les intérêts concurrents de l'individu et de la société dans son ensemble ; de même, dans les deux hypothèses, l'État jouit d'une certaine marge d'appréciation (Shofman c. Russie, no 74826/01, §§ 33-34, 24 novembre 2005).
34.  La Cour rappelle également qu'elle n'a point pour tâche de se substituer aux autorités nationales compétentes pour trancher les litiges touchant aux relations des individus entre eux au niveau national, mais d'examiner sous l'angle de la Convention les décisions que ces autorités ont rendues dans l'exercice de leur pouvoir discrétionnaire (voir, par exemple, Mikulić c. Croatie, no 53176/99, § 59, CEDH 2002 I).
35.  En l'espèce, la Cour note qu'en 1980, peu après la naissance de H. A., la mère de ce dernier assigna en justice le requérant par une action en recherche de paternité. Cette action a été accueillie sur la base des témoignages qui attestaient d'une liaison entre la mère de l'enfant et le requérant, bien que l'expertise médicolégale ayant effectué la comparaison des groupes sanguins des intéressés n'ait pas prouvé avec certitude qu'il était le père de son fils putatif (paragraphe 6 ci-dessus).
36.  Ultérieurement, à la suite d'une expertise médico-légale extrajudiciaire réalisée avec l'accord de H.-A. indiquant qu'il était exclu qu'il soit son père biologique, le requérant demanda la révision de la décision de 1981 en se fondant essentiellement sur l'article 322, point 5 du code de procédure civile qui prévoit la possibilité de réouverture d'une procédure lorsque l'impossibilité de présenter des documents lors de la procédure initiale relevait d'un événement étranger à la volonté des parties.
37.  La demande du requérant fut déclarée irrecevable par les juridictions nationales, au motif que la condition définie par la jurisprudence, selon laquelle lesdits documents devraient déjà exister au moment de la procédure initiale n'était pas remplie.
38.  La Cour relève que les parties ne contestent pas que le rejet par les juridictions nationales de la demande du requérant de réouverture de la procédure en recherche de paternité était « prévu par la loi » et qu'il poursuivait un but légitime.
39.  Il reste à déterminer si, dans les circonstances de l'espèce, la décision litigieuse était « nécessaire dans une société démocratique ».
40.  La Cour rappelle avoir déjà jugé, dans plusieurs affaires relatives à des présomptions légales de paternité, qu'une situation dans laquelle il était impossible de faire prévaloir la réalité biologique sur une présomption légale de paternité n'était pas compatible avec l'obligation de garantir le respect effectif de la vie privée et familiale, même eu égard à la marge d'appréciation dont jouissent les États (Mizzi c. Malte, no 26111/02, § 113, CEDH 2006 I (extraits) ; Shofman, précité, § 45).
41.  À la différence de ces affaires, en l'espèce, il ne s'agit pas d'une présomption légale de paternité mais de l'établissement de la paternité du requérant par une décision de justice définitive, à la suite d'une procédure en recherche de paternité.
42.  Toutefois, la Cour a également conclu à la violation de l'article 8 de la Convention dans des affaires dans lesquelles les requérants n'avaient aucune possibilité de contester, à la lumière de preuves biologiques nouvelles, la déclaration judiciaire, par décision de justice définitive, de leur paternité (Paulík c. Slovaquie, no 10699/05, § 46, CEDH 2006 XI, et Tavlı c. Turquie, no 11449/02, § 36, 9 novembre 2006).
43.  Or, tel est le cas en l'espèce. En effet, en vertu du droit interne applicable, le requérant n'a aucune possibilité de contester la déclaration judiciaire de sa paternité. La Cour est disposée à admettre que l'absence d'un mécanisme juridique permettant au requérant de protéger son droit au respect de sa vie privée peut s'expliquer de manière générale par l'« intérêt légitime » de garantir la sécurité juridique et la stabilité des liens familiaux et par la nécessité de protéger les intérêts de l'enfant. Il reste à déterminer si, dans les circonstances particulières de l'espèce, un juste équilibre a été ménagé entre l'intérêt du requérant et l'intérêt général.
44.  Le requérant souhaitait obtenir une révision de la déclaration judiciaire de paternité le concernant à la lumière de preuves biologiques dont il n'avait pas connaissance à l'époque de la première procédure en recherche de paternité. H.-A., qui est majeur, a lui-même consenti, ainsi que sa mère, au test ADN.
45.  Dès lors, la Cour estime qu'en déclarant irrecevable sa demande de réouverture de la procédure en recherche de paternité de l'enfant né hors mariage, alors que tous les intéressés semblaient favorables à l'établissement de la vérité biologique concernant la filiation de H.-A., les autorités nationales n'ont pas eu égard au juste équilibre à ménager entre les intérêts en présence (Tavlı, précité, § 36).
46.  Elles ont, donc, porté une atteinte à ses droits protégés par l'article 8 de la Convention.
47.  Il faut également rappeler que dans d'autres affaires connues par la Cour, l'action en justice entamée par les pères putatifs visait l'obtention d'une preuve afin de connaître la réalité biologique, en obligeant l'enfant putatif à se soumettre à un test biologique. Dans ces affaires, la Cour a attaché au fait qu'il n'y avait pas de preuve biologique contredisant la filiation légalement établie une importance décisive, lorsqu'elle a procédé à la mise en balance des intérêts en cause. Dans ce contexte, la Cour n'a pas estimé déraisonnable que les tribunaux internes donnent plus de poids aux intérêts de l'enfant et de la famille dans laquelle il vit qu'à ceux que peut avoir le requérant à vérifier un fait biologique (İyilik, précité, § 32, et la décision I.L.V. c. Roumanie, précitée, § 40).
48.  Tel n'est toutefois pas le cas en l'espèce. En effet, contrairement à la situation présente dans les affaires İyilik et I.L.V. c. Roumanie, précitées, en l'espèce, le requérant est en possession d'un rapport d'expertise biologique, réalisé avec l'accord de H.-A. donné alors qu'il était devenu majeur, et prouvant qu'il n'était pas son père.
49.  De plus, d'après les informations fournies par l'Institut national de médecine légale (paragraphe 14 ci dessus), la preuve scientifique qu'il a obtenue en 2003 ne lui était pas accessible avec les moyens disponibles en 1981.
50.  Qui plus est, la Cour constate que la décision rendue en l'espèce par la juridiction nationale n'est pas conforme à l'évolution du droit roumain dans le domaine de la filiation, apportée notamment par le nouveau code civil. Cette évolution se montre favorable à la prévalence de la réalité biologique sur les fictions légales, en renonçant, par exemple, aux délais de prescription inflexibles. En effet, le nouveau code civil prévoit que, pour renverser la présomption de paternité d'un enfant né dans le cadre du mariage, le délai de prescription de l'action en contestation de paternité est calculé, pour le père présumé, à partir de la date à laquelle ce dernier a appris qu'il était présumé être le père de l'enfant ou à partir d'une date postérieure à la première, à laquelle il a appris que cette présomption ne correspondait pas à la réalité (paragraphe 24 ci dessus). Par ailleurs, selon le nouveau code civil, l'action en recherche de paternité est imprescriptible tout au long de la vie de l'enfant (paragraphe 18 ci dessus). Toutefois, cette évolution du droit roumain, étant intervenue après les faits de l'espèce, n'a pas pu profiter au requérant.
51.  La Cour admet que la situation du requérant est peut-être différente à certains égards de celle des pères putatifs dont la paternité est présumée légalement mais n'a pas été déterminée judiciairement. Cependant, l'existence de différences entre plusieurs individus n'empêche pas leurs situations et leurs intérêts respectifs d'être suffisamment comparables (mutatis mutandis, Paulik, précité, § 54).
52.  A la lumière de ce qui précède, la Cour conclut qu'il n'a pas été ménagé un juste équilibre entre les intérêts du requérant et ceux de la société, et que, partant, le système juridique interne n'a pas garanti comme il se devait le « respect de la vie privée » du requérant.
Il y a donc eu violation de l'article 8 de la Convention.”
ENFORCEMENT OF JUDGMENTS - In the case of Avotiņš v. Latvia the Court held, by a majority, that there had been no violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the enforcement in Latvia of a judgment delivered in Cyprus concerning the repayment of a debt. The applicant, an investment consultant who had borrowed money from a Cypriot company, complained that the Cypriot court had ordered him to repay his debt under a contract without summoning him properly and without guaranteeing his defence rights. Like the Senate of the Latvian Supreme Court, the Court noted that the applicant should have appealed against the Cypriot court's judgment. It took the view that the Latvian authorities, which had correctly fulfilled the legal obligations arising from Latvia's status as a member State of the European Union, had sufficiently taken account of Mr Avotiņš' rights.

Texts build on the press releases of the European Court of Human Rights. 
This selection covers categories 1 and 2 judgments. 


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