European Court: Katyń relatives remain in the dark about relatives’ deaths
At a public hearing today at the European Court of Human Rights, the final judgment in the case of Janowiec & Others v Russia was heard by relatives of the victims of the Katyń massacre (in which several thousands of Polish prisoners of war were killed by the Soviet secret police in 1940).
The relatives, who first lodged applications with the European Court in 2007 and 2009, claimed that the Russian authorities had failed to properly investigate the Katyń massacre, and that the Russian authorities’ ‘dismissive’ attitude to the investigation had amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment.
Although the Court called the facts of the execution of the applicants’ relatives ‘indisputable’ and did not question the “profound grief and distress that the applicants have experienced as a consequence of the extrajudicial execution of their family members”, it ruled that it had no competence to examine the effectiveness of the investigation. The Court noted that not only had the massacre happened before the European Convention on Human Rights had been adopted in 1950 but no significant investigative steps had taken place since Russia’s ratification of the Convention in 1998.
Russia, however, was found to have failed in its obligation to comply with the Court’s evidential requests. Specifically, the Court noted that the investigation’s key decision (to discontinue the investigation) remained classified, without the Russian Courts having conducted a substantive analysis of the reasons for maintaining that classification more than 70 years after the events in question.
The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, which has been taking cases against Russia at the European Court for ten years, acted as a ‘third party intervener’ in this case together with Memorial and Essex Transitional Justice Network. They offered expertise on the obligation of states to investigate gross human rights violations and the right of relatives to know the truth about the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths or disappearance.
Joanna Evans, EHRAC Senior Lawyer, commented on the judgment:
“This decision will of course be hugely disappointing to the relatives of the victims of the Katyń massacre, who continue to hope for an effective investigation into the circumstances of their relatives’ deaths. However the Court’s reasoning in this case serves to highlight the significance of the rights protected by the European Convention since 1950 and the importance of its continued protection for victims of gross human rights violations in the present day.”
Following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, thousands of Polish prisoners of war killed without trial on the order of the highest officials of the USSR and buried in mass graves in the Katyń forest near Smolensk.
The Soviet Union only accepted responsibility for Katyń in 1990, having initially blamed it on the Nazis. In 1990 a criminal investigation into the murders was opened but it was suspended in 2004 by the Russian Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office. The decision was classified.
In 2010 the Russian Duma published a statement, reiterating that the mass murder of Polish citizens had been carried out on Stalin’s orders and it was necessary to continue “verifying the lists of victims, restoring the good names of those who perished in Katyń and other places, and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy…”.
The European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) has been working for the protection of human rights in the former Soviet Union since 2003 and has taken over 300 cases, mainly against Russia, to the European Court of Human Rights. This has led to judgments in 98 cases (so far) including the first six judgments ever to be secured against Russia for gross violations in Chechnya. 96% of these cases have found at least one violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and more than €6,500,000 have been awarded to the applicants.