The European Court of Human Rights condemns Russia for violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment)
International Justice and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
On Tuesday 02 May 2023, the Chamber judgment in the case of S.P and Others v. Russia (application no. 36463/11), the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and a violation of Article 13 on the right to an effective remedy. To be more precise, Article 3 prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.
The principal facts of the case are as follows. The applicants are 11 Russian nationals. There has been a conviction for each of them and they have either served their prison sentences or are currently incarcerated.
The Court reports that “inter-prisoner relations in the Russian penal system are governed by an informal code of conduct known as “the rules” (понятия). Under these “rules”, prisoners are divided into four main “castes” (масть): the “criminal elite” or “made men” (авторитеты or блатные), the highest grouping; “collaborators” or “reds” (козлы or красные), who enforce order alongside the prison officers; “lads” (мужики), who make up the vast majority of inmates; and a category of “outcasts” called “cocks” (петухи), “untouchables” or “downgraded” (опущенные, обиженные)”.
The applicants testify that the detainees considered “outcasts” are the ones who perform the most degrading tasks and are not treated in the same way as other prisoners from other castes. The reasons why a prisoner may be placed in this caste vary greatly: it may be because of the offence for which he has been convicted or because of his behaviour with other prisoners while in prison.
The applicants, classified as “outcasts”, have denounced these practices to the competent authorities within the various penitentiaries. However, the authorities (prison staff or the federal ombudsman) remained inactive. In addition, some applicants have submitted domestic remedies which have proved unsuccessful. This implies that the Russian authorities are complicit and accept this informal hierarchy within many of the country’s prisons.
One of the most fundamental values of a democratic society is found in Article 3 of the Convention, which makes torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment illegal regardless of the circumstances. the Court found that found it established that the informal prisoner hierarchy existed and that the domestic authorities had been, or ought to have been, aware of both the impugned hierarchy and the applicants’ inferior status. In its ruling, the Court found that the applicants had suffered mental anxiety and physical suffering for an extended period that exceeded the unavoidable suffering accompanying detention. As such, it could be qualified as inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 of the ECHR.
Moreover, concerning the State’s responsibility, the Court found that the Russian authorities took no steps to acknowledge the issue or to protect the applicants from the ill-treatment they had suffered. Additionally, the applicants could not complain effectively because no effective remedy was available to them.
Russian authorities were ordered by the Court to pay the applicants the amounts claimed for nonpecuniary damage up to a maximum of 20,000 euros (EUR) and the amounts claimed for costs and expenses up to a maximum of 850 euros (EUR).
Sources and further readings:
Third Section, European Court of Human Rights, Case of S.P. and Others v. RUSSIA (Applications nos. 36463/11 and 10 others), Judgment, Strasbourg, 2 May 2023 :
Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court, 02 May 2023, Government failure to deal with inhuman treatment of so-called “outcast” prisoners: https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-224652
 Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court, 02 May 2023, Government failure to deal with inhuman treatment of so-called “outcast” prisoners: https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-224652