Moscow’s Respect for Strasbourg

Peter Finn writes in the Washington Post that despite the Russian government’s problematic relationship with the rule of law, it has actually been quite good at complying with rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, aka Strasbourg. Of course, it would have to: Since 2002, the court has issued 362 judgements concerning Russia; 352 of them have gone against the Russian government.

Finn starts with the Salvation Army’s seven-year struggle with the city government in Moscow. The city had maintained with a straight face that the Salvation Army was a foreign paramilitary organization and suggested that it might involve itself in the violent overthrow of the state. Strasbourg was not amused.

Russians now file more complaints with the court than any other member nation. They account for more than 10,000 of the 45,000 petitions Strasbourg receives annually. The vast majority are never heard.

In another case:

For Alexei Mikheyev, redress came even before the court ruled. In 1998, he was subjected to nine days of torture, including electric shock, in a local police station after being picked up as a suspect in the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl in the central Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod.

Mikheyev confessed to raping and killing the girl but retracted his statement after he was taken to the prosecutor’s office. Returned to the police station and facing more torture, he threw himself out of a third-story window and was left partially paralyzed. The girl he had confessed to killing returned home the next day.

Prosecutors opened and then dropped 23 preliminary investigations into the police force’s treatment of Mikheyev, in what human rights activists call an effort to stymie any trial. After the European Court agreed to hear Mikheyev’s case in 2004, prosecutors reopened the case and finally secured the conviction of two police officers, who were given four-year sentences for abuse of power. In January, Mikheyev was awarded approximately $300,000 in compensation.

(As if another datapoint were necessary to show torture’s ineffectiveness.)

Still, while the Russian government takes its obligations seriously enough to pay fines, Strasbourg does not have enough leverage to force systematic reforms. Still, it is an effective lever, one that deserves to be more widely known outside judicial and activist circles.