21 April 2021
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in the case of Laptev v. Russia. It was published on the website of the ECHR on 9 February 2021.
In April 2013, Oleg Laptev, a resident of Mari El Republic, submitted an application to the Court in Strasbourg accusing the Russian government of violating article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights -the right to life – in relation to his brother Sergei Laptev, who died in pre-trial detention in 2011.
The essence of the case and its significance in the context of human rights are in the following material.
The applicant’s brother, Sergey Laptev, who was working as a policeman at the time, was arrested on suspicion of rape on 4 January 2011 and placed in the IVS of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Mari El together with an unknown person Ch., the identity of which the Russian side did not disclose. It was a police officer who was playing the role of a prisoner in another criminal case that was not related to him. The applicant believes that he was put together with Laptev in order to force the latter to admit guilt.
The next day, on January 5, Laptev had two conversations with the investigator. According to the applicant, the brother complained about the pressure exerted by the police to force a confession out of him. Among other things, the suspect was threatened with rape by other prisoners.
On 6 January, at 6.40 am, three employees of the IVS found Laptev dead, and he was hanged. His neighbor Ch. said he’d been asleep all night and didn’t know anything. At 7 a.m., paramedics determined death by strangulation. They found a furrow on his neck, scratches on both forearms, and a bruise on his right calf. Experts have established that the injuries found on the body of S.L. occurred four to six days before death.
During the internal investigation, the investigators of the Ministry of Internal Affairs came to the conclusion that Laptev had committed suicide. The traces of physical violence found by doctors, according to the police, were inflicted at the time of the arrest on 4 January, when the police prevented Laptev from escaping.
The employees of the IVS who were on duty on the night of January 5 to 6 were punished for unfair performance of duties. Two of them were fired, and the rest of the employees were reprimanded.
The interrogated investigator who worked with the case on Laptev’s accusation of rape denied pressure on the suspect.
The applicant, Laptev’s brother, appealed the results of the internal investigation to the court. The Yoshkar-Ola City Court agreed with many of the applicant’s arguments. In particular, it noted that the identity of Ch., his address and other personal data remain unclear. The exact circumstances of his stay in the same cell as Sergey Laptev were also unclear and had to be established. The court also noted the loss of a number of key pieces of evidence, such as the underwear with which Laptev apparently strangled himself, and a video recording of that night from the prison’s archive. As a result, the court overturned the decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of 4 July 2011, and the decision of the first instance was upheld on appeal in June 2012.
The applicant tried three times to initiate a criminal investigation into the death of his brother, but the Investigative Committee of Mari El refused. These decisions were consistently overturned by the court. The applicant’s attempts to initiate a civil case for compensation for non-pecuniary damage were unsuccessful.
On 30 November 2012, the Investigation Committee of Mari El Republic notified the applicant of the termination of the investigation into his complaint. The letter said that “the investigation led to the correction of all shortcomings.” This decision reproduced the version of events set out in the first investigation on 4 July 2011. The investigation found that the staff of the detention center did not properly examine Laptev when he arrived at the pre-trial detention center on 4 January and did not report his injuries.
Also, the investigation did not confirm the applicant’s argument about pressure on his brother by the investigator in the rape case.
In general, the Russian authorities recognized the shortcomings in the supervision of Laptev, but insisted on the version of his suicide.
The European Court found Oleg Laptev’s application admissible.
The court decided that there was not enough data to say that Laptev’s death was not a suicide.
Another claim of the applicant to the Russian authorities is that their investigation does not meet the minimum standards of efficiency. The ECHR confirms that all internal investigations, except the last one, were superficial. No formal criminal proceedings have ever been initiated. The evidence was not reliably collected immediately after Laptev’s death, and over time it became almost impossible to establish what actually happened.
“Earlier, the Court in a number of cases against Russia ruled that the refusal of the authorities to open a criminal case in a situation where a person died while in custody is in itself a serious violation of internal procedural norms, which can undermine the validity of any evidence collected,” the ECHR judgment says.
“The Court further reiterates that in the context of the Russian legal system, a ‘pre-trial investigation’ is not in itself capable of punishing the perpetrators, since the initiation of a criminal case and a criminal investigation are prerequisites for bringing charges against the alleged perpetrators, which can then be considered by the court,” it is stated below.
Despite the fact that the ECHR did not find sufficiently strong, clear and consistent facts indicating that Laptev could have died at the hands of state officials, this does not absolve the state from responsibility for his death.
“The Court notes that the officials of the IVS were aware of the unstable psychological state of SL., as testified by S., the duty officer at the time of the SL.’s admission to the IVS, who admitted that he knew about the SL.’s propensity for “suicidal behavior” and knew about the IVS’s duty to take care of him in this regard,” the judgment says.
The ECHR decided that the applicant suffered as a result of the death of a relative and the inability to achieve an effective investigation of the case, and awarded him compensation for non-pecuniary damage in the amount of 23 thousand euros. In addition, Russia will pay the applicant legal costs in the amount of 3,430 euros.
Co-chairman of NGO “Man and Law” Sergei Poduzov:
– 2011 is the time when the law “On public control over ensuring human rights in places of forced detention and on assistance to persons in places of forced detention” was already in force for three years. We were a member of the public monitoring commission of the Republic of Mari El. I remember this incident quite well, and it raised a lot of questions, because it really was an emergency. Firstly, it was an active police officer who was detained for a serious crime. Secondly, there was a death in a temporary detention center. Thirdly, the circumstances of Laptev’s death did not become known to me.
When we work with the authorities, we always say that a person’s life is a value, and the state should be responsible for its actions if it has not fulfilled its obligations. In the case of Laptev, the police officers had to create conditions for his life to be saved. This is what the ECHR says in its judgment.
Members of the public monitoring commission should always ask whether there have been any deaths since the last visit, and what the causes of death of people are during the inspection of places of forced detention. It is necessary to ask questions to employees:
In the event of a person’s death in places of incarceration, the state is obliged to conduct an effective investigation. It is now possible for the applicant’s relatives to ask the State to initiate a criminal case. The Russian Federation will report to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the execution of the judgment after some time, and it will be useful for the members of the PMC to study what general measures the Russian Federation has taken to ensure that similar cases do not occur.