The Human Rights Action (HRA) condemns Podgorica High Court’s decision to sentence all ten prison officers convicted of torturing prisoners in the Administration for execution of criminal sanctions on 15 January 2015, exclusively with suspended sentences, and thus, practically, forgive them torture. Such a scandalous verdict defies the international standards on the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and encourages further use of torture in prisons and the police premises. With such court decisions, the state is distancing itself from the Council of Europe and the European Union.
HRA emphasizes that ten prison guards in this case were convicted of torturing and inflicting severe bodily injuries on eleven prisoners, whereby, for example, medical examination found that one of the prisoners, D.J, suffered as many as 46 blows (!). None of those prison officers has ever been suspended from duty, contrary to the Labor Law, international standards and the explicit recommendations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to Montenegro.
The responsibility of the superior prison officers who were inside prison at the time of torture and were recorded on videos have never been seriously investigated.
Both the UN Committee against Torture and the European Court of Human Rights pointed out the inadmissibility of imposing suspended sentences for the crime of torture, because in practical terms it means impunity for perpetrators, which cannot provide even the purpose of preventing abuse.
The Podgorica High Court justified the suspended sentences with the defendants not having previous convictions, having families, having insufficient finances stan as well as with the fact that the victims had not joined the prosecution. On the other hand, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly criticized giving too much importance to such mitigating circumstances, and warned states that not joining the prosecution may come as a consequence of intimidation of torture victims, especially if they continue to remain in prison, as in this case. HRA points out that judges in Montenegro for the past two decades have had at their disposal various seminars as well as translations of the relevant European case law on the prohibition of torture, so passing this type of verdict today is completely unjustified.
HRA reminds that following the marathon first instance criminal proceedings in this case, the Basic Court in Danilovgrad on 23 September 2019, determined the responsibility of ten prison officers for torturing eleven prisoners and imposed minimal prison sentences on them. In the first-instance verdict was laid down that all the defendants committed the criminal offense of torture (some of them even in conjunction with serious bodily injuries). Only one of the defendants was sentenced to 13 months in prison, which was at the legal minimum, and the other nine from 3 months to 11 months, all below the statutory minimum sentence of one year for torture by an official.
Torture of prisoners was preceded by an attack by prisoners on six prison guards, for which nine prisoners were accused and convicted, six of whom were then among the group of those tortured by prison guards. Prisoners were sentenced for that attack to serious prison terms of 5 years, up to a minimum sentence of 2 years and 7 months, for assaulting an official and inflicting serious bodily injuries, and were swiftly convicted, within 20 days in the first instance, and finally within a year and 9 months. In contrast, it took more than five years to convict the prison officers, who were then practically forgiven for exercising torture over prisoners.
Dramatic differences in the approach to prosecuting the two cases show the discriminatory treatment of prisoners and the state’s tolerance towards torture conducted by civil servants. Such an approach should be inconceivable for a candidate country for accession to the EU, which has been negotiating over membership for eight years to date.