The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Harakchiev and Tolumov v. Bulgaria (applications 15018/11 and 61199/12, respectively) found that the conditions in which the two prisoners serving life sentences without parole are held constitute a clear violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Both prisoners were kept under a strict detention regime, including isolation in poorly ventilated and unhygienic confinements and poor lighting, heating, food and medical care. The ECtHR did not just find these conditions inhuman and degrading but also established that the regime for the two prisoners, including their isolation, is the result of the automatic enforcement of national legal provisions regulating prison regimes, rather than as a response to any individual behavior of the applicants that demands heightened security measures.
The Court took into consideration the decision of the Grand Chamber in the 2013 case of Vinter and others v. the United Kingdom and substantially revised the approach used in the case Iorgov v. Bulgaria (No. 2) from September 2010, when the Court ruled that the applicant’s life sentence did not itself violate Article 3, and that the regime he was subjected to while in prison also fell short of violating the Convention on Human Rights.
Although the latest decision largely condemns Bulgaria, it also noted some progress. The Court established that the amnesty given by the Vice President of Bulgaria to a life prisoner in 2012 is an indication that the government plans to follow the ruling of the Constitutional Court from April 2012, which calls for the president and the vice president to exercise the right to give amnesty in a transparent way.
“In its judgment on the present case, the ECtHR gave too much weight to the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Bulgaria from 2012, and the fact that until now there was only one such paroled prisoner. The reform of the penal code could be blocked after the decision that the current legislative level is satisfactory and the mechanism of amnesty – a product of past times and highly irrelevant to the principle of rule of law – should remain," said Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
The ECtHR stated that in order to implement the recommendations of the decision in this case, Bulgarian authorities must reform the legal framework of the prison regime for persons sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, as the current framework allows indiscriminate application of a strict and inhuman regime for all prisoners with life sentences.
As a result of its flawed legislation, Bulgaria must pay Harakchiev and Tolumov compensation of 4,000 euros and 3,000 euros, respectively, as well as 5,600 euros for costs and expenses – a total amount of 12,600 Euro (nearly 24,700 leva), excluding the expenses for the legal defense of the Bulgarian government.
The decision is not final and may be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court.