Conditions of detention and strict prison regime amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment

15 May 2017

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has unanimously found in Simeonovi v. Bulgaria that Mr Simeonov’s conditions of detention, in combination with the strict regime under which he was serving his sentence and the length of his period of imprisonment since 1999, had subjected him to an ordeal exceeding the suffering inherent in serving a prison sentence which amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the Court – by 12 votes to 5 – did not consider that the proceedings against had been irremediably prejudiced by the fact that he had been denied access to legal assistance for the first three days following his arrest. In reaching this conclusion, the Grand Chamber emphasised that no evidence capable of being used against Mr Simeonov had been obtained and included in the criminal file during that period; that, assisted by a lawyer of his own choosing, he had voluntarily confessed two weeks after being charged, when he had been informed of his procedural rights, including the privilege against self-incrimination; that he had actively participated in all stages of the criminal proceedings; that his conviction had not been based solely on his confession but also on a whole body of consistent evidence; that the case had been assessed at three judicial levels and that the domestic courts had provided adequate reasons for their decisions in both factual and legal terms and had properly examined the issue of respect for procedural rights.

The Grand Chamber also declined to depart from its approach of only considering those issues found admissible by the Chamber following the latter’s referral to it of a case. It did so notwithstanding that the inadmissibility ruling in this case – which concerned a complaint that a sentence of life imprisonment was irreducible and thus in violation of Article 3 – had been based on the approach to this issue in a judgment of the Grand Chamber, which the latter had subsequently reversed in a manner that would probably have resulted in Mr Simeonov’s complaint being found admissible if it had been determined later.

However, in application of Article 46 of the European Convention, the Grand Chamber did recommend that Bulgaria: (a) remove the automatic application of the special prison regime to life prisoners to which Mr Simeonov had been subjected and (b) put in place provisions permitting the imposition of that regime on the basis of an individual risk assessment.

Mr Simeonov was represented before the Grand Chamber by Jeremy McBride.

To view the Grand Chamber judgment, please click here.