Steps by the Hungarian Government to reduce prison overcrowding: far from ideal

By Hungarian Helsinki Committee

The average number of detainees in Hungary has been constantly rising until 2014. By 2014, the average overcrowding rate had reached 141% but overcrowding in certain institutions reached 200%, making the Hungarian prison system one of the most crowded in Europe. Overcrowding was (and still is) often accompanied by further unsatisfactory detention conditions: for example, toilets separated from the rest of the cell by only a textile curtain, or the presence of bedbugs.

 Prison cell in Hungary. Photo credit: Hungarian Helsinki Committee

Prison cell in Hungary. Photo credit: Hungarian Helsinki Committee

In a pilot judgment delivered on 10 March 2015 in the Varga and Others v. Hungary case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concluded not only that the detention conditions of the applicants in the case – including the inadequate moving space per person – amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment, but also that overcrowding of prisons constituted a structural problem in the country. In addition, the ECtHR found a violation of Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, read in conjunction with Article 3, on account of the absence of an effective remedy to complain about the detention conditions. The Court ordered that Hungary should, within six months, produce “a time frame in which to make appropriate arrangements and to put in practice preventive and compensatory remedies in respect of alleged violations of Article 3 of the Convention.” In short, Hungary must develop a plan to reduce prison overcrowding.

The Hungarian Government submitted an action plan for implementing the judgment to the Committee of Ministers (CoM) of the Council of Europe in December 2015. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) is of the view, however, that the measures outlined in the action plan are insufficient to comply with the requirements included in the pilot judgment and fail to address systemic deficiencies. For instance, in contrast to recommendations laid out by the Court in the pilot judgment, the Government’s action plan indicates that it intends to solve the problem of overcrowding almost exclusively by building more prisons, rather than reducing the number of existing detainees.

The HCC’s concerns, which were also presented at one of the regular briefings organized by the European Implementation Network (EIN) and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) to the member states’ representatives to the Council of Europe in February 2016, were reinforced by the CoM’s decision of March 2016. While the Committee welcomed some of the Government’s measures (e.g., the introduction of the “reintegration custody,” which means release in the last six months of imprisonment while monitored with an electronic device, available for certain categories of convicts), it encouraged Hungary to intensify its efforts to promote alternative non-custodial punitive measures and to minimise the recourse to pre-trial detention. It also invited Hungary to submit information on its planned sui generis compensatory remedy. Finally, the CoM noted with regret that it received no information as regards the putting in place of a preventive remedy in respect of alleged violations of Article 3 of the Convention on account of inhuman and degrading conditions of detention, as the pilot judgment had ordered.

The CoM invited Hungary to provide an updated action plan, which the Government did in July 2016, and a related law was adopted in October 2016, introducing a sui generis compensatory remedy and widening the reintegration custody’s scope of applicability. However, the solution introduced remains far from ideal, as the HHC also signalled in the course of the legislative process. Two concerns in particular should be noted:

· The law does not include any preventive remedy, even though the introduction of such a remedy was requested by both the pilot judgment and the CoM.

· The detailed procedural rules for the sui generis compensatory remedy entail the risk that it will not be able to serve as an effective domestic remedy, while putting a huge extra burden on penitentiary staff and penitentiary judges. (For example, detainees are required to submit complaints before they could request compensation, but the complaint must be repeated after every three-month period if the conditions do not improve. Furthermore, the highest possible compensation that may be granted under the new rules is hardly over 50% of the average damages granted by the ECtHR.)

The CoM is yet to deliver a decision on the latest steps of the Hungarian Government concerning the implementation of the pilot judgment. Meanwhile, on 8 November 2016, the ECtHR suspended the examination of the 6,800 applications pending before it concerning conditions of detention in Hungary in light of the new law adopted.

Meanwhile, one year after the ECtHR’s pilot judgment became final, the implementation of Varga, and the issue of prison overcrowding generally, are still not adequately settled in Hungary, with the average overcrowding rate remaining higher than 150% in certain penitentiaries.

The implementation of ECtHR judgments concerning detention conditions in Romania, a political issue

 Penitentiary in Romania. Photo credit: APADOR-CH.

Penitentiary in Romania. Photo credit: APADOR-CH.

By APADOR-CH, Romania

There are currently 28.000 inmates detained in Romanian prisons despite the fact that they can only accommodate a maximum of 17.000. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found 27 Article 3 violations against Romania, the second highest number of cases lost in 2015 that year in respect to inhuman and degrading treatment.[1] The same year, the Court decided to join four applications and ask the parties if the cases were suitable for the application of the pilot judgment procedure.[2]

This decision to join the cases followed a semi-pilot judgment in the case of Iacov Stanciu v. Romania (no. 35972/05, 24 July 2012), in which the ECtHR emphasized that “the Court had regularly found violations of Article 3 of the Convention in respect of the conditions of detention that have existed over a number of years in Romanian prisons, in particular overcrowding, inappropriate hygiene and lack of appropriate health care.[3] Concerning the existence of effective domestic remedies, the Court noticed that they were not present in Romanian legislation and urged the state to take all measures to remedy the situation. The ECtHR emphasized that “the remedy—which, under Romanian law, relies mainly on a “delegate judge’s” should allow the delegate judge and the domestic courts to put an end to the situation and to grant compensation where appropriate”.[4]

In 2016, for the first time in 25 years, the Government (a”technocratic” one, following the resignation of Prime Minister Victor Ponta in November 2015) decided to pay attention to the situation of prison conditions. Thus, on 27 April 2016the Romanian Government adopted a memorandum for the approval of a  timetable for measures aimed to improve the detention conditions and the probation system. The document includes the plans for the construction of new prisons, envisaged to be ready by 2023.

On 1 July 2016, the Ministry of Justice and the National Administration of Penitentiaries adopted the Action Plan aimed at improving detention conditions. Its focus is on social reintegration, primarily on activities which will increase professional training that will facilitate access to work after release. The assumption is that on a long term this would lead to a lower reoffending rate and therefore to a decrease of the prison population.

On 23 November 2016, the Government also adopted a draft law amending and supplementing Law no. 254/2013 on the execution of sentences and custodial measures ordered by the court during the trial. [5]The bill has two purposes: (1) to provide compensation to persons serving sentences of imprisonment in conditions of severe overcrowding; and (2) to contribute at the same time to relieving the prison population. Thus, all persons deprived of their liberty shall automatically have the right to benefit from conditional release if they meet the conditions set by the draft law or who have been or are housed in overcrowded conditions (defined as a space smaller than or equal to 3 sqm). The draft law provides that for every 30 days spent by a prisoner in an inadequate space, three days are deducted from his/her original sentence (the 30 days need not be consecutive).

The measures adopted give us hope that in the future, judgments against Romania finding a violation of Article 3 will decrease. But with December’s parliamentary elections, which will lead to a new Government, it will be up to the new Parliament and Government to stick to the adopted plan.

 

[1]According to official statistics of the European Court of Human Rights, available at: http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Stats_violation_2015_ENG.pdf  (last visited on the 29h of November 2016)

[2] ECtHR, Rezmives and others v. Romania, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-157919 (last visited on the 29thof November 2016)

[3]ECtHR, IacovStanciu v. Romania, Application no. 35972/05, Judgment of 24 July 2012, para. 195

[4] ECtHR, IacovStanciu v. Romania, Application no. 35972/05, Judgment of 24 July 2012, para. 198

[5] This is the law on the enforcement of sentences and of measures involving deprivation of liberty ordered by the judicial bodies during criminal proceeding. 

Polish Parliament – failed guardian of the Convention

Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, Board Member of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Member of the EIN Steering Committee

 

The European system for the protection of human rights can only function properly if the member states of the Council of Europe (CoE) effectively execute the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). This is a consequence of the subsidiarity principle, which defines relations between the Strasbourg Court and member states. According to the recommendations issued by the CoE Parliamentary Assembly in November 2011, one of the guarantees for the execution of the ECtHR judgments is parliamentary supervision of the government’s activities in this regard. Such a system exists in other countries, including the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Romania.

 POLISH SEJM

POLISH SEJM

For a brief while, Poland joined this group of states when, in February 2014, the joint Commission of Justice and Human Rights, together with the Foreign Affairs Commission of the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament (Sejm), created a permanent sub-commission for the execution of judgments of the ECtHR. The appointment of the permanent sub-commission was a step towards making the domestic implementation process more stable and regular, and was the outcome of multiple convenings between the Sejm’s Commission of Justice and Human Rights and the Senate’s Commission of Human Rights, Rule of Law and Petitions. The sub-commission, composed of 11 MPs, was established to control the government’s actions towards the execution of judgments, such as proposals to amend laws, change governmental practices and oversee the dissemination of judgments. They were also analyzing the government’s annual report on the matter.

Unfortunately, this initiative now appears to have been a flash in the pan. Since its establishment, the sub-committee met a few times, concentrating on the election of its President, but without really starting substantive discussion about implementation problems. The lack of strong institutionalization of the sub-commission resulted in the refusal of the current Parliament (elected in October 2015) to restore it. The current Government and the Parliament ignore all international obligations and outside pressure. It disregards the opinions of the Venice Commission and the Rule of Law Procedure opened by the European Commission.

In January 2016 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed the Sejm seeking to re-introduce the sub-commission, an appeal that was repeated by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in February and by the Polish Ombudsman in March. None of these institutions received a reply; the sub-commission has not been established. As a result, Poland has lost the opportunity to be one of the European leaders in the execution of ECtHR judgments.

There are several arguments in favor of such a sub-commission. Firstly, it should be natural to discuss human rights in the parliament. The parliament constitutes, in a democratic state, the best forum for such discussions.

Secondly, the permanent sub-commission can effectively monitor legal and practical problems emerging from ECtHR judgments. Sometimes these issues result from the nature of the Polish judicial system, such as lengthy trials and problems with mass surveillance practiced by secret services. Sometimes they can be less deeply rooted and result from practices, such as the practice of conducting illegal searches and the abuse of force by the police.

Thirdly, parliamentary control increases the transparency of the government’s proposals for the execution of judgments. The sub-commission's meetings could have served to analyze specific problems resulting from the ECtHR’s judgments and to thus increase public awareness on such issues. Finally, the parliamentary involvement increases the legitimacy of the Strasbourg Court itself, which is crucial since the ECtHR has vital influence on the shape of legal standards in each of the Council’s member states. 

Needless to say, the mere appointment of the sub-commission was never going to be sufficient: it has to work and meet regularly, and its members have to show initiative and involvement. Taking the example of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the British Parliament, one may notice that it deals not only with execution of specific ECtHR judgments, but also with the review of governmental practices and the drafting of laws in compliance with ECtHR rulings, such as the Human Rights Act 1998. However, such work is not performed systematically by existing parliamentary committees dealing with human rights in the Polish Parliament.

In recent years the Polish Parliament has largely succeeded in implementing decisions of the Constitutional Court. For years, numerous Constitutional Court decisions remained unexecuted and there were significant loopholes in the legal system. Coordinated efforts however resulted in positive developments. The higher chamber of the Parliament – the Senate - started to prepare draft laws aiming to implement decisions of the Constitutional Court. With respect to the execution of the ECtHR judgments, the situation is more difficult, since they usually require complex measures. Therefore, the permanent sub-committee could be an important instrument to supervise the Government's activities. 

Unfortunately, the failure of the Sejm Spokesman to respond to calls for reintroducing the sub-committee should be interpreted as lacking political will to take implementation seriously. Furthermore, the readiness of politicians to discuss the eventual establishment of a supervisory body in the Parliament is very weak. For now, the future of the parliamentary engagement in the implementation process in Poland remains uncertain, and all the achievements of the previous parliament have gone in vain.   

EIN first newsletter: foreword by its co-founder Dr Başak Çalı

 © HERTIE SCHOOL OF GOVERNANCE / DAVID AUSSERHOFER

© HERTIE SCHOOL OF GOVERNANCE / DAVID AUSSERHOFER

Dear readers of the EIN newsletter

It is my great pleasure to write the foreword to the first Newsletter of the European Implementation Network (EIN) as a member of the founding Steering Committee.  

The forging of a European civil society network focused on the implementation of human rights judgments in Europe could not be more timely. In the past two decades the number of human rights violations judgments has steadily increased in Europe. This increase, however, has not been met with full compliance by states.  What is more, the lack of implementation of human rights judgments that concern systemic or structural issues have led to a significant increase in the pending repetitive cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, the case backlog problem of the Court has always reflected a lack of implementation at the national level.

The role of civil society in facilitating, lobbying for and monitoring the implementation of human rights judgments is undeniable. Human rights judgments are often indicators of much deeper human rights problems. A focus on judgments and their implementation improves human rights protections not only for the victims of violations, but for society at large.

Yet, there are too many judgments, too few civil society resources, and not enough knowledge about judgments as a source for human rights advocacy. The Council of Europe institutions and information about the implementation of human rights judgments are also not adequately accessible or transparent.  

We are, therefore, confident that our pan European network that focuses on the implementation of human rights judgments will not only benefit the sharing of information and experiences amongst the members of the network. It will also improve the institutions and processes at the level of the Council of Europe charged with monitoring the implementation of human rights judgments, and contribute to the health and long-term future of the European Human Rights System.

Sincerely

Dr Başak Çalı