European Court: Hungary neglected prisoner with multiple disabilities

17 November 2012. In its judgment of 8 November 2012 in the case of ZH v. Hungary, the European Court of Human Rights has clarified that countries need to “undertake reasonable steps to prevent situations likely to result in inhuman and degrading treatment” when detaining people with intellectual disabilities. They also need to ensure the assistance by a lawyer or another adult when informing a detainee about the reasons for criminal arrest and any charges. The Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) submitted a third party intervention and the Court’s judgment is available here.

“The Hungarian authorities failed to protect Mr H, whose multiple disabilities made him vulnerable to ill-treatment and abuse”, said Lycette Nelson, MDAC Litigation Director. “Hungary and all States must ensure that people with disabilities are accommodated in all phases of criminal proceedings and in detention settings. To prevent abuses the government should establish independent monitoring of all places of detention.”

Mr H is a 25 year-old man who is deaf, does not use verbal communication, cannot read or write, and has an intellectual disability. His only means of communication is a specific sign language and his mother is the only person who understands him. He had been arrested for theft and police interrogated him in the absence of his mother. The police provided a sign language interpreter in the interrogation, following which the police gave Mr H a paper and forced him to sign to confirm that he understood the charges against him. He was held in pre-trial detention for three months

In prison, his mother was only allowed to visit him every two weeks, so he was effectively denied the possibility of communicating with anyone. The government argued that the following measures satisfied the requirement to reasonably accommodate Mr H’s disabilities:

- half-way through his detention (after six weeks) the prison moved Mr H to a cell with one of his relatives

- the cell was close to the prison director’s office-other inmates were asked to help him write letters

In its judgment, the Court established that where someone is in a “particularly vulnerable group”, such as people with intellectual disabilities, the State needs to prove that they have provided “reasonable accommodations”. This term means those necessary and appropriate adjustments which need to be made in a particular case to enable someone with a disability to enjoy their human rights. More importantly the Court established that a person with a disability does not have to prove that he or she has suffered; it is enough for the State to fail to prove that they have provided necessary reasonable accommodation for that person to be exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Court found that the above-listed measures (which the Hungarian government argued constituted reasonable accommodations) were insufficient. Citing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, for the first time in its case-law, the Court said that a State’s failure to provide reasonable accommodation to a person with intellectual disability may amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, which is absolutely prohibited in international law. The Court also found a violation of the Article 5(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets out the right to be informed, in a language which the person understands, of the reasons why someone has been detained and any criminal charges. The Court awarded 16,000 EUR damages to Mr H.

MDAC needs your support to continue to help clients such as Mr H who face discrimination and social exclusion. With your donation, MDAC will provide the best impact for people with disabilities, where your money is needed the most and where your investment will work the hardest. The change which you can help create is long-lasting and will ultimately prevent many more people being subject to abuses in the future. Please help us today by clicking here.

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