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European Court of Human Rights; Russian Federation: Katyn Massacre Case Is Closed

(May 11, 2012) On April 16, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued its decision in the case Janowiec and Others v. Russia, stating that while there is no reason for Russian authorities to conduct a new investigation of the Katyn massacre because no new materials or evidence that can justify such an investigation have been found, the murder of Polish officers by Soviet secret police in 1940 is a war crime. The ECHR also stated that the investigation of the massacre conducted by Russia between 1990 and 2004 violated the victims’ rights. (Case of Janowiec and Others v. Russia (Apr. 16, 2012), ECHR portal [click on the link to the case in the Press Release].)


Katyn was the location of a prison camp where more than 21,000 Polish military officers and other prisoners of war were placed in September 1939; almost all of these prisoners were murdered in April and May 1940, but no official figures on the number of victims were ever established. (Aleksandr Koshkin & Aleksei Krizhevskii, Katynskoe Delo Slozhili v Archiv [Katyn Case Goes to the Archive], GAZETA.RU (Apr. 16, 2012).)

The original investigation of the Katyn events was initiated by the then Soviet Prosecutor-General in 1990 and was formally closed in 2004. While Poland requested that the massacre be recognized as an act of genocide, Russian authorities treated all documents related to the murder as classified, top secret information, and a legislative Resolution of December 24, 1991, provided that no Katyn-related document can become public without the permission of the Russian Federation President. (Evgeniia Styshneva, Delo o Katyni [Katyn Case], ROSSIISKAIA GAZETA (Nov. 26, 2010).)

The ECHR Case

In 2007 and 2009, 15 Polish citizens who are relatives of 12 victims of the Katyn massacre submitted a claim to the ECHR, suing Russia for the loss of their relatives and the denial of truthful information about the circumstances of their death. The ECHR found that it cannot examine the Polish applicants’ complaint about Russia’s ineffective investigation into the Katyn massacre, which, according to the complaint, was in violation of article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, because Russia ratified the Convention in 1998, more than 58 years after the events in question occurred. (Koshkin & Krizhevskii, supra.)

However, the ruling states that Russia “had failed to cooperate with the Court, and that its response to plaintiffs’ attempts to find out the truth about what happened in 1940 had amounted to inhumane treatment” in violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result, the court fees of ten petitioners, a widow and the children of the victims, will be reimbursed by Russia in the amount of €6,500 (about US$8,430). The Court found that the rights of five other petitioners who were not close relatives of Katyn victims were not violated. (Id.)

Both parties to the dispute brought to the ECHR, the relatives of the victims and the Russian government, expressed their satisfaction with the decision. (Id.)