Russia: Children with disabilities face double discrimination in criminal justice system

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will consider whether Russia subjected a 12 year old boy with physical and mental disabilities to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and denied his right of access to justice. MDAC submitted its comments on international law and the rights of people with disabilities to the Court last Friday.

In January 2005, Russian police arrested the 12 year old on charges of extortion. He was detained in a cell without windows and the lights were turned off. He was told that if he signed a confession he would be immediately released but if he refused, he would be kept in custody.

Although he was too young to be tried for the offence, in February 2005 he was placed in a temporary detention centre for juvenile offenders for thirty days. The judge stated that he was detained for behaviour correction because he “has not learnt his lesson”.

In the centre, he spent days in a large empty room with no furniture and was provided with minimal educational classes. He received no specialised medical care for his disability and was only allowed outside twice in the entire month. Inmates at the detention centre were often subject to collective punishment requiring them to stand in line against a wall without moving, talking or being allowed to sit down. The boy’s disability required him to frequently go to the bathroom but inmates were only taken in groups of three and he was made to wait until the group was complete. He was punished for asking to go to the bathroom too frequently.

"This was a boy subjected to particularly harsh treatment which failed to take account of his age or disability," said Ann Campbell, MDAC Legal Officer. "He was failed by the Russian criminal justice system. His case provides an important opportunity for the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to deal with people who experience multiple discrimination."

Children with disabilities face a double disadvantage in the Russian criminal justice system, both as children and as individuals with mental disabilities. Such failures are not unique to Russia but also occur across the Council of Europe region. When fundamental rights such as the right to liberty are at stake, states must provide them with appropriate support at every step of their conflict with the law. The importance of this is highlighted by research which found that “people with a learning disability will more often answer ‘yes’ to a question to try to be helpful and can incriminate themselves.”[1]

The susceptibility of children with disabilities to abuse, ill-treatment, torture and violence increases when they are placed in detention. Detention must be used as the last resort, and for the shortest time possible. Failure to provide reasonable accommodation for children with disabilities in detention may amount to a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which absolutely prohibits torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

MDAC’s comments will help the Court to consider how the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) can inform how the Court interprets the principles of equality and non-discrimination when it decides cases affecting the rights of children with disabilities. Barristers Paul Bowen QC, Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Louise Price from Doughty Street Chambers in London have helped MDAC submit these comments, which can be found here.

MDAC calls upon police authorities and members of the judiciary to fully respect the rights of all children, particularly those with disabilities, when they come into contact with the criminal justice system or are detained in any way.

[1] Reported by Corin Williams, ‘People with Learning Disabilities in Prison,’ Community Care, 2nd March 2009; No One Knows: Learning Disability and Learning Difficulty in Prisons, PRT, 2008.  


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