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Police violence in Poland: HFHR submits amicus curiae opinion in Strasbourg Court

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has presented an amicus curiae opinion to the European Court of Human Rights in a case that involved a violent assault on two men during a police action.

The incident took place in 2015 in Kraków when officers raided the apartment of one of the applicants on false intelligence that a crime suspect was hidden on the premises. According to the applicants, the police breached the door and deployed tear gas indoors in spite of the presence of a five-month-old infant. The officers knocked the man to the floor and started beating him. The second applicant arrived at the scene shortly after he had learnt about the situation. He was also beaten by the intervening officers. Both men were arrested and brought to a police detention centre but were soon taken to hospital as their medical condition deteriorated.

A prosecutor’s office and the court did not find any grounds for launching an official inquiry into the alleged abuse of police powers.

Police violence – widespread problem?

The HFHR amicus is thought to help the ECtHR to recognise that the case at hand fits into a wider context of police violence in Poland. “We are aware that this is not the first case of this kind brought against Poland that the ECtHR heard. The Court has already found violations of the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment”, says Katarzyna Wiśniewska, a lawyer working for the HFHR. “Plus, also other international bodies have already noted that Poland does not have appropriate torture prevention laws or mechanisms; this sentiment was expressed by the UN Committee Against Torture, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the UN Human Rights Committee, to name only a few”, Ms Wiśniewska adds. The ECtHR judgement in this case may be another step towards the development of procedural standards that would apply to cases involving the suspected use of torture by police officers.

Police violence perceived by police officers – Interior Ministry’s report

In its amicus curiae opinion, the HFHR refers to a survey conducted among police officers, which reveals that the officers themselves note how widespread the problem is among their ranks. According to a 2015 report of the Ministry of the Interior and Administration, as much as 45 percent of police officers admitted to having participated in interventions during which actions taken by some officers might be seen as unreasonably aggressive behaviour. Nearly 13 percent of the surveyed said that at least one-fifth of their recent 100 interventions had turned unreasonably violent.

The HFHR draws similar conclusions for its casework experience: each year, several of our clients report facing unreasonable police violence. A summary of selected cases of police violence can be found here.

Attorneys: our clients are routinely mistreated by police

The HFHR also investigated whether criminal defence attorneys notice police brutality in their everyday practice. According to all surveyed lawyers, they have clients complaining that police officers have mistreated them in a way amounting to a violation of the prohibition of torture under the European Convention on Human Rights. The attorneys consistently observed that the basic problems they faced while conducting police violence cases were not only difficulties with proving the violent behaviour but also the law enforcement’s general disregard and downplaying of such accusations.

“The overwhelming majority of the surveyed defence attorneys said that police mistreatment can be prevented if access to a lawyer is given at the very onset of criminal proceedings. According to the law, each person arrested has the right to a lawyer, but our studies show that this rule is defunct for all practical purposes”, says Adam Klepczyński, a member of the Foundation’s legal team. Moreover, as all the lawyers pointed out, another way to prevent abuse of police powers would be the obligatory recording of police interventions.

The amicus curiae opinion prepared by the HFHR may be accessed here.

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