Zontul v. Greece: European Court of Human Rights Rules that Rape of Detainees Constitutes Torture
On January 17, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a key ruling in CJA’s effort to gain legal recognition that rape by state actors equals torture. Read the decision here (French only) and an English summary here. In Zontul v. Greece, Necati Zontul, a gay asylum-seeker, filed a complaint to the ECtHR after being denied proper legal recourse for the brutal assault and rape he endured at the hands of Greek coastguard agents.
In 2001, Zontul was traveling by boat with other asylum-seekers when the Greek coastguard intercepted their vessel, brought them ashore to Crete, and detained them—30 men and one child—in a 6.5 by 6.5 feet room. One week into his detention, Zontul was cornered in a bathroom by guards. One coastguard agent raped him with a truncheon, while another stood watch. Zontul’s fellow detainees responded to the assault with a hunger strike, which the guards suppressed with prolonged beatings.
Zontul filed a criminal complaint, but the proceedings were plagued by procedural defects. The investigators mischaracterized the rape as a “slap.” The Greek courts failed to recognize the offense as torture, denied Zontul’s right to participate in the proceedings as a civil party, and sentenced the coastguard officer to a slap on the wrist: a 6-month jail term commuted to an €800 fine. With the help of the UK-based NGO REDRESS, Zontul filed a complaint against Greece before the ECtHR in April 2008.
CJA was granted the rare opportunity to intervene in the case as amicus curiae in July 2010. In our amicus brief, we demonstrated a broad consensus in international jurisprudence that rape by state officials is torture and that even a single instance of penetration with an object amounts to torture. We also argued that the targeting of Zontul because of his sexual orientation violated his right to non-discrimination and should be treated as an aggravating factor in sentencing.
In its January 17th ruling, the Court held that rape of a detainee by state agents is indeed torture under international law and cited the ample case law provided in our brief. The Court ordered Greece to pay €50,000 in redress and found that Greece had breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights in four respects. First, the Greek courts failed to recognize the rape as torture. Second, the Greek authorities failed to conduct an adequate investigation by denying Zontul a medical examination after the assault. Third, the €800 fine was an inadequate deterrent for the serious crime of torture. And finally, by ignoring Zontul’s request for information on the progress of his case, the Greek courts deprived him of his right to seek compensation and to participate in the proceedings.
As the Open Society Foundation Blog points out, this case is the latest in a series of judicial decisions condemning Greece’s treatment of asylum-seekers. On January 21, 2011, in M.S.S. v. Belgium & Greece, the European Court of Human Rights found that Greece’s treatment of asylum-seekers in immigration detention was inhuman and degrading. Later, in December 2011, the E.U. Court of Justice held in the case of NS and ME that conditions for asylum-seekers in Greece were so inhumane that E.U. member states were barred from sending migrants there.
CJA applauds the Zontul decision and its impact in providing accountability for the violent treatment of asylum seekers in Greece.