Slovakia: European Court of Human Rights condemns failure to protect the life of a girl with intellectual disability in police custody
In September, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Slovakia for failing to protect the life of a 17-year-old girl with an intellectual disability who almost died in police custody. The victim described being verbally and physically abused by the police while being taken to the police station. Then, under unclear circumstances, she fell out of a second-floor window, sustaining life-threatening injuries.
Validity intervened in the case to emphasise the broader context which resulted in the horrific events that occurred, particularly the lack of age and disability appropriate accommodations in justice proceedings. Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are grossly disproportionately affected by law enforcement interventions. As explained in our intervention, existing research indicates that justice systems and its professionals are not prepared to effectively understand their situation and communicate with them.1 It is indispensable that law enforcement provides persons with disabilities with accessible information and communication, ensuring quick and appropriate procedural accommodations, instant presence of legal aid and a support person, and adequate training of the law enforcement in all above aspects. Research carried out within our Voices for Justice last year demonstrates that Slovakia has significant structural problems in ensuring all above elements. in ensuring all above elements.
Denial of some of these elements while in police custody may cause severe distress to a person with intellectual disability. The facts of the case indicate that these cumulative effects may have led to an attempted escape of the young woman from the police station.
Šárka Dušková, Validity’s Legal Manager, said:
“We welcome the Court’s condemnation of Slovakia’s failure to protect the young woman’s life. But the judgment also disappoints. It fails to examine the events through disability-sensitive lens and to critically assess the broader context which resulted in the life-changing injuries faced by the claimant. The police investigation which brought her to the station should have been conducted in line with access to justice principles, in an age and disability-appropriate manner. In such case, the trauma which prompted the young person to likely seek such an extreme form of escape could have been prevented.”
As Validity argued in its intervention, the access to justice lens is essential for proper examination of the case. Failing to engage with it, the Court neglects the root causes of such events. Moreover, the Court also displays fundamental misunderstanding of the rights of persons with disabilities in accessing justice. For instance, it seems to require the applicant to actively inform the authorities of their diagnosis to establish the state’s duty to provide procedural accommodations (para 69). Such requirement goes against the spirit and purpose of such duty. The state itself must have procedures which identify persons who may need such accommodations, and actively in an accessible manner inform them of this right. (International Principles and Guidelines on Access to Justice for Persons with Disabilities, p. 17). Moreover, a diagnosis should not be the sole guiding indicator of a disability.
When the judgment indicates that the police were not aware of the applicants’ disability because she had previously been convicted of a minor offence (ibid.), it outright conflates intellectual disability with legal capacity and capacity to stand trial, a false connection that is discriminatory (UN CRPD General Comment no. 1, para 15). The judgment is thus another indication that the Court would benefit from more robust and consistent interaction with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the leading global disability rights convention.
Validity calls on the Slovak Government to review their criminal justice procedure and ensures that it is compliant with their international human rights obligations, particularly the right to access to justice. Validity’s Voices for Justice research report on Slovakia contains recommendations which could guide them in this effort.