The state’s failure to protect a juvenile detainee with a mental disability

In the case I.E. v. the Republic of Moldova (application no. 45422/13, 26.05.2020) the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture) and a violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned the detention of a minor with a mental disability in a prison cell with detainees accused of serious crimes, including rape. 

The applicant, Mr I.E., is a Moldovan national who was born in 1995 and is detained in Chișinău. Mr I.E., who was 17 years old at the time, was arrested on 13 August 2012 on suspicion of murder and stealing from the victim before setting his car on fire to destroy the evidence. A judge ordered his detention pending trial for 30 days on the grounds that there was a danger of him re-offending and interfering with the investigation. During his pre-trial detention, the applicant was placed in a cell with four detainees who had been convicted at first-instance of serious offences, such as murder and sexual violence, while another had been convicted in a final court judgment for the rape of a minor. On 9 October 2012 prison staff noticed that the applicant was limping and had an injury under his eyebrow. He was examined by the prison doctor who confirmed the injuries. He was seen by a doctor again a week later, with new injuries. The applicant admitted that he had been severely beaten and anally raped by his five cellmates either. He lodged an official complaint on 19 October 2012. 

During the investigation the applicant was diagnosed as slightly mentally retarded. These proceedings were, however, still ongoing before the first-instance court until at least May 2017, which is the most recent update available on the case. 

The Court concludes that the applicant’s placement in a cell with persons already convicted of very serious, violent offences, his special vulnerability as a minor and as a person with mental disability, and the insufficient reaction to clear and medically confirmed indications of ill-treatment, all contributed to the creation of conditions in which he was exposed to a serious risk of ill-treatment by co-detainees. The authorities thus did not discharge their positive obligation to protect the applicant from ill-treatment while he was under their full control in detention. Besides that, the Court considered that the manner in which the applicant’s abuse in prison has been investigated, including the delays due to the authorities not interviewing a key specialist at the relevant time and their failure to react to clear signs of ill-treatment (even before a formal complaint was made) – together with the long overall period during which not a single judgment was adopted – allow it to conclude that the authorities have not properly discharged their positive obligation to investigate effectively. Therefore, the Court found that there has been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention.

Turning to the circumstances of the present case, the Court notes that Article 186 § 4 of the Code of Criminal Procedure expressly prohibits the holding of a minor in detention pending trial for a period longer than four months. The Government argued that this provision did not prohibit separate four-month periods of detention for separate offences. The Court has no reason to doubt that such an interpretation is in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of Article 186 § 4 CCP. However, the timing of the initiation of the two new investigations, coinciding as it did with the end of the maximum detention period within the original investigation, is an additional element supporting the applicant’s submission that the authorities acted in bad faith. Indeed, the opening of the two new investigations in the last days of the applicant’s detention allowed for the newly-ordered detention to last, again, for the maximum time allowed under the law – that is to say, for another four months.

The Court considered that such an artificial separation of the charges with the obvious aim of extending the time-limit in respect of the applicant’s detention (which would otherwise have been unlawful) constitutes an element of bad faith on the part of the authorities. As such, the applicant’s detention in respect of newly opened criminal proceedings after 9 December 2012 was arbitrary, within the meaning of Article 5 § 1 of the Convention. There has, accordingly, been a violation of that provision in the present case.

References from the official website of the European Court of Human Rights