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Zontul v. Greece

Supporting Claims of Torture and Violence Against LGBT Refugees before the European Court of Human Rights

Zontul v. Greece

Supporting Claims of Torture and Violence Against LGBT Refugees before the European Court of Human Rights

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.  The Court held that Greece violated international law when it denied proper legal recourse to Necati Zontul, a gay asylum-seeker who was brutally raped by Greek coastguard agents while held in immigration detention.

On July 5, 2010, CJA filed an amicus brief (known as written comments) before the European Court of Human Rights in Zontul v. Greece.  Although the European Court of Human Rights has a substantial body of jurisprudence prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, this is the first case before the Court to address torture and discrimination on account of the victim’s sexual orientation. 


The applicant in the case, Mr. Necati Zontul, is a Turkish national who was raped and beaten by officers from the Greek Coastguard while in immigration detention in June 2001 . Mr. Zontul was one of 164 migrants placed in detention after a boat carrying the migrants was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard and escorted to Crete. The detention environment was harsh, and several of the migrants suffered physical abuse. One coastguard cornered Mr. Zontul in a bathroom, forced him to remove his clothing, and raped him with a baton, while another Coast Guard guarded the toilet door throughout the attack. Mr. Zontul believes that he was targeted for this aggravated form of torture because of his homosexuality. While Mr. Zontul and other migrants complained about their abuse, Greek authorities failed to properly investigate. Mr. Zontul was not kept informed about the proceedings, and was accordingly denied the opportunity to participate in the trial and the appeal. In addition, initially, he was not provided with a Turkish-speaking court interpreter and so chose not to testify on that occasion.

“The events of 2001 made me feel terrible, psychologically and emotionally. Now I feel much stronger because my case is progressing and because my true story is being told.”

The Coast Guard official responsible for the violence was not prosecuted for rape; instead he was prosecuted for "insults to human dignity" and the Appellate Martial Court in Greece determined that the rape was not torture.  The official received a very lenient sentence of only six months suspended imprisonment with the possibility of conversion into a financial penalty.  Not only did he receive a disproportionately low sentence for his acts, to our knowledge he has not served any time in prison and has retained his position in the Coast Guard.  In response to this miscarriage of justice, Mr. Zontul, with the help of the UK based human rights organization REDRESS, filed a complaint in April 2008 before the European Court of Human Rights against the government of Greece.

» See more information about his application here.

In June 2010, the President of the Court granted CJA the rare opportunity to intervene in this case as a third party and to provide expertise on several pressing legal issues.  CJA’s brief provides a comparative analysis of international jurisprudence recognizing sexual violence, including rape with an object, as torture and that even a single act of rape can amount to torture. In addition, CJA argues that there are specific human rights protections that apply to sexual minorities, such as the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition against torture and discrimination. Thus, the Greek authorities’ torture of Mr. Zontul and their subsequent failure to investigate these acts motivated by his sexual orientation violated these protections. In support of this argument, CJA extends the Court’s jurisprudence on racially-based discrimination to support the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

Finally, CJA argues that international and national trends indicate that States must treat crimes motivated by bias relating to sexual orientation as an aggravating circumstance for the purpose of sentencing. A survey of national legislation demonstrates growing consensus around the importance of protecting sexual minorities’ rights, putting an end to violent intolerance, and enforcing States’ responsibilities to protect their citizens. 

Through these innovative arguments, CJA’s intervention lends important support to Mr. Zontul’s claims and helps place them within developing human rights norms and international practice.


In a ruling on January 17th, 2012, the ECtHR 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.

Read more on the decision here.


Jan 17 2012 Decision by the European Court of Human Rights (Eng. summary)

Jul 5 2010    CJA Written Comments to the European Court of Human Rights
Jul 5 2010    Addendum I: Non-ECHR National Legislation on Hate Crimes

Apr 2008    Application to the European Court of Human Rights (REDRESS)