Strasbourg rules on Russian jail conditions

The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing its Chamber judgment in the case of Babushkin v. Russia. The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On 25 January 2000 Mr Babushkin was arrested on suspicion of aggravated robbery with violence. He was convicted as charged in April 2000 and sentenced to 11 years and six months’ imprisonment. He is currently serving that sentence in prison UZ-62/12 in the region of Nizhniy Novgorod (Russia). From 11 February 2000 to 17 July 2000 he was detained in SIZO 32/01, also in Nizhniy Novgorod.

According to the applicant, that facility was severely overcrowded: cells intended for between eight and 34 inmates, had in fact held between 50 to 70, sometimes even 90, inmates. Due to the shortage of beds, they had to sleep in shifts, which meant no more than four hours sleep per day.

For the rest of the time, inmates had to stand as there was not enough room to sit down. Overcrowding meant poor hygiene due to limited access to sanitary facilities: there was only one, permanently filthy, wash basin and toilet per cell, and one weekly 15 minute communal shower with faulty equipment.

The Government did not indicate the number of inmates actually held in the cells. They did, however, claim that the applicant had at all times had an individual bed and that the sanitary conditions corresponded to regulatory norms which were enforced through regular inspections and maintenance.

The applicant also alleged that there was a lack of natural light and fresh air in the cells because, as corroborated by the Government, metal plates blocked the windows. He further complained that the ventilation, heating, quality of food and pest control were indequate.

Relying on Article 3, Mr Babushkin complained in particular about having been subjected to appalling detention conditions for over five months in the SIZO 32/1 facility.

As the Government had not given any explanation for their failure to provide information on the number of inmates per cell, the Court decided to examine the issue on the basis of the applicant’s submissions, that is to say, the cells in which he had been detained had constantly been filled to twice or three times their capacity.

The Court considered that it was up to the Russian Government to organise its penitentiary system in such a way as to ensure respect for the dignity of detainees, regardless of financial or logistical difficulties. Indeed, the Court had frequently found a violation of Article 3 on account of detainees’ lack of personal space.

The Government had not put forward any fact or argument capable of persuading it to reach a different conclusion in the applicant’s case. It could not be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that the ventilation, heating, quality of food and pest control had been unacceptable.

However, the fact that Mr Babushkin had been obliged to live, sleep and use sanitary and other facilities in the same severely restricted space as so many other inmates for over five months, had in itself been sufficient to cause distress or hardship of an intensity which exceeded the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention, and to arouse in him feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him. That situation had been aggravated by the lack of natural light in the cells.

The Court therefore held unanimously that the applicant’s detention conditions were in violation of Article 3.

European Court of Human Rights
Press Release, 18.10.2007

Case of Babushkin v. Russia
Judgment, 18 October 2007

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