European Court of Human Rights hears first social care institution case

11 November 2009. It is twenty years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and the collapse of socialist systems in Europe. The first case heard by the European Court of Human Rights since this anniversary deals with a situation which has changed little in the past twenty years: the segregation of hundreds of thousands of people labelled with intellectual disabilities, mental health problems and other types of disabilities.

The two cases which were argued before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg yesterday - Mitev v. Bulgaria and Stanev v. Bulgaria - were both brought jointly by the nongovernmental organisations Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center. Mr Mitev died in a social care institution last year and his case was continued by his sister. My Stanev attended the Court hearing in person, becoming the first person from a social care institution to bring his case before Europe's human rights court.

In both cases, the applicants were deprived of legal capacity and placed under guardianship against their will. They applied to the local municipality as well as the prosecutor's office to restore their legal capacity, these being the two mechanisms which have the discretion under Bulgarian law to apply to a court to have someone's legal capacity restored. The guardians in both cases refused to cooperate. Mr Mitev's guardian was his daughter who wanted his legal capacity to be deprived and wanted him to remain in an institution, while Mr Stanev's guardian was the director of the social care institution where he still resides. The municipality and the prosecutor's office refused to cooperate. In fact, despite numerous attempts, no Bulgarian court has ever considered the merits of restoring the legal capacity of either applicants.

Both of the men were ordered by their guardians to be placed in a social care institution. Mr Mitev's guardian arranged for a private security company to escort him to the Pravda institution, which was featured by the New York Times in January 2009. In December 2002 Mr Stanev was detained in the Pastra institution, which in 2003 was visited by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The Committee's resultant report of their visit stated that "[t]he deficiencies in the living conditions and care of residents [...] created a situation which could be said to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment."

In their applications to the European Court of Human Rights, both applicants alleged:

· That the deprivation of legal capacity was done in such a way as to violate their right to a fair trial
(in violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights);
· That the deprivation of legal capacity affected the enjoyment of their private and family life (Article 8);
· That they were arbitrarily and unlawfully detained in the social care institution (Article 5(1));
· That there was no judicial review of the lawfulness of their detention (Article 5(4));
· That Bulgarian law allows for no possibility to seek compensation for their unlawful detention (Article 5(5));
· That the conditions of detention (in Mr Stanev's case) in the Pastra social care institution constituted inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment (Article 3);
· That institutionalisation is itself a violation of the right to respect for private life and home (Article 8); and · That there were no effective remedies for the above violations (Article 13).

Mr Stanev's trip to Strasbourg was the first time he had left Bulgaria. The authorities created enormous difficulties for him to leave the institution temporarily to attend the Court hearing. His travel was funded by legal aid of the European Court.

Back in 2002 the Bulgarian government told the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture that they would close the Pastra institution. Government representatives told the Court on Tuesday that this is still the plan. The truth is somewhat different. No steps whatsoever have been taken. Mr Stanev returns to the Pastra social care institution today. In the institution he will wear his winter coat (the heating is turned on only on 20 November) and await the Court's judgment, which will be issued in several months.

Mr Stanev has been institutionalised in deplorable conditions with a hundred other people for over seven years. Bulgaria - a Member State of the European Union and a member of NATO - is still in denial that it is responsible for subjecting people labelled with mental disabilities with life-long detention, stripping them of their right to make decisions about their own lives, and turning its back on neglect, abuse and death.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center will continue to remind the Bulgarian government of its commitments under international law to children and adults with disabilities. They call upon the government to issue an immediate moratorium to new admissions to social care institutions: if the government will not take active steps to close these institutions and develop community-based services, the least they could do is to ensure closure by attrition. When a resident dies their bed should be destroyed. This simple act would force local authorities to find alternatives to segregation and neglect.

More information

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center will develop summaries in Bulgarian and English of the judgments in both cases when they become available. Click here to see a webcast of the Court hearing. For further information, please contact Victoria Lee, MDAC Legal Officer on

MDAC's work in Bulgaria is is made possible by a grant from the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, the Open Society Institute - Budapest, and MDAC-UK.

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