CASE OF ŁABUDEK v. POLAND
(Application no. 37245/13)
4 June 2020
This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Łabudek v. Poland,
The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:
Pere Pastor Vilanova, President,
Pauliine Koskelo, judges,
and Renata Degener, Deputy Section Registrar,
the application against the Republic of Poland lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Polish national, Mr Zdzisław Łabudek (“the applicant”), on 15 April 2013;
the decision to give notice to the Polish Government (“the Government”) of the complaint concerning the alleged violation of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention on account of the allegedly excessive length of the applicant’s detention on remand after 23 July 2011 and to declare inadmissible the remainder of the application;
the Government’s observations;
the decision to reject the Government’s objection to examination of the application by a Committee;
Having deliberated in private on 28 April 2020,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
The case concerns allegedly excessive length of the applicant’s detention on remand after 23 July 2011.
1. The applicant was born in 1961 and is detained in Wojkowice Detention Centre
2. The Government were represented by their Agent, Mrs J. Chrzanowska, and subsequently by Mr J. Sobczak, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
3. The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
I. Background to the case
4. On 18 January 1999 the applicant was arrested and detained on remand on charges of participating in an organised armed criminal group and of committing numerous violent offences (including two murders) while acting as a member of that group. The trial before the Katowice Regional Court began on 20 February 2001.
5. On 13 February 2008 the Katowice Regional Court gave judgment in relation to the applicant and thirty-five other accused. The applicant was convicted of participating in an organised armed criminal group, arms trafficking, two counts of murder, three counts of robbery, three counts of attempted robbery, illegal possession of firearms and several other offences. The applicant was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of applying for conditional release after serving thirty years.
6. On 18 February 2010 the Katowice Court of Appeal partly quashed the first-instance judgment and remitted the case, particularly in so far as it concerned the applicant.
7. On 11 February 2011 the Supreme Court dismissed cassation appeals lodged by the applicant and other accused.
8. Meanwhile, on 25 May 2010 the applicant’s detention on remand was lifted. However, the applicant was at that time serving a prison sentence imposed on him in another set of criminal proceedings, which would continue until 22 July 2011.
II. Detention on remand in the present case
9. On 27 June 2011 the Katowice Regional Court again decided to detain the applicant on remand, in the course of the same set of criminal proceedings (see paragraph 4 above). The court applied the measure owing to the high probability that the applicant had committed the offences with which he was charged and in view of the severity of the maximum sentence provided by law for such offences. The court relied on the evidence which had been gathered so far, particularly witness testimony, including the testimony of a key prosecution witness, known as a “crown witness”.
10. The court stressed that since the applicant had already been sentenced to life imprisonment, there was an increased risk that he would obstruct the proceedings. It noted that the applicant had a close relationship with his co-accused and some of the witnesses, given that they had all been members of the same organised criminal group. Within the group, the applicant’s role had been maintaining discipline and punishing others for disobedience. Therefore, it could not have been excluded that he might use the same methods in respect of persons involved in the trial.
11. The court further noted that the applicant had already made attempts to contact and influence one of the witnesses and he had also threatened another witness. Moreover, as it transpired from the evidence collected during the proceedings, the applicant had undertaken preparations in order to murder a person who had been a witness in another case. The court concluded that in view of those facts, none of the other preventive measures could secure the proceedings sufficiently.
12. Subsequently, the applicant’s detention on remand was extended on several occasions (specifically, in 2012: on 17 January, 21 June, 18 December; in 2013: on 13 June and 10 December; in 2014: on 9 June and 17 December; in 2015: on 11 June and 3 December; in 2016; on 10 May and 12 October).
13. The trial court continued to rely on the same grounds as in the initial decision. It noted a reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed the offences concerned, the maximal severity of the anticipated penalty and the risk of collusion, or the applicant absconding or his committing other serious crimes. The court also stressed that the applicant had tried to illegally contact and influence one of the witnesses and had threatened another witness. Furthermore, the applicant had undertaken preparations to murder a person who was a witness in another case. The court also relied on the fact that the case was very complex, related to a number of accused and concerned numerous charges.
14. In addition, the trial court stressed in its decisions of 10 December 2013, 9 June 2014 and 17 December 2014 that evidence from the crown witness had not been obtained yet. In its decision of 11 June 2015 the court noted that there had been an interruption in the proceedings caused by the fact that one of the accused had been detained on remand in another criminal case.
15. The applicant unsuccessfully appealed against at least some of the decisions prolonging his detention on remand (namely the decisions of 17 January and 18 December 2012, 13 June and 10 December 2013, 9 June and 17 December 2014, 11 June and 3 December 2015).
16. The Katowice Court of Appeal, when examining the applicant’s appeals, agreed with the assessment of the Katowice Regional Court and concluded that such an extension was necessary in order to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings and to prevent the applicant from committing another serious offence.
17. Between 11 June 2015 and 6 April 2016 the applicant served a prison sentence imposed on him in another set of criminal proceedings.
18. On 12 October 2016 the Katowice Regional Court gave judgment. The applicant was convicted as charged and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of applying for conditional release after serving thirty years of the sentence.
19. The applicant appealed and the appeal proceedings are pending before the Katowice Court of Appeal.
III. Conduct of the criminal proceedings against the applicant
20. From the remittal of the case to the Katowice Regional Court (see paragraphs 6,7 above) to the applicant’s conviction on 12 October 2016 a total of 174 hearings was held. The first hearing was held on 26 May 2011 and subsequent hearings were held at regular intervals. In particular, in 2011 twenty eight hearings were held, in 2012 forty four, in 2013 thirty four, in 2014 twenty six, in 2015 twenty four and in 2016 eighteen. In total, the Katowice Regional Court scheduled 276 hearings out of which 102 were adjourned for various reasons, in particular due to witnesses’ illness, the accused or judges’ illness or justified absence of forensic experts.
21. During the proceedings the Katowice Regional Court obtained extensive evidence, heard evidence from numerous witnesses including a “crown witness” and obtained forensic reports. At the time of the final judgment the case-file comprised 75 000 pages.
IV. RELEVANT LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND PRACTICE
22. The relevant domestic law and practice concerning the imposition of detention on remand (aresztowanie tymczasowe), the grounds for its extension, release from detention and rules governing other, so‑called “preventive measures” (środki zapobiegawcze) are set out in the Court’s judgments in the cases of Gołek v. Poland (no. 31330/02, §§ 27‑33, 25 April 2006), Celejewski v. Poland (no. 17584/04, §§ 22-23, 4 May 2006), and Kauczor v. Poland (no. 45219/06, §§ 26-27, 3 February 2009).
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 5 § 3 OF THE CONVENTION
23. The applicant complained that the length of his detention on remand after 23 July 2011 had been excessive. He relied on Article 5 § 3 of the Convention which, in so far as relevant, reads as follows:
“Everyone arrested or detained in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1 (c) of this Article shall be ... entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial. Release may be conditioned by guarantees to appear for trial.”
24. The Court notes that the application is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.
1. Period to be taken into consideration
25. The applicant’s detention on remand in the present case lasted from 27 June 2011, when the Katowice Regional Court decided to detain him on remand, until 12 October 2016, when he was convicted by the first‑instance court (see paragraphs 9 and 18 above). However, up to and including 22 July 2011 and subsequently between 11 June 2015 and 6 April 2016 the applicant had been serving prison sentences imposed in different sets of criminal proceedings against him (see paragraphs 8 and 17 above). Therefore, during that time, he was detained “after conviction by a competent court”, within the meaning of Article 5 § 1 (a) and those periods fall outside the scope of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention. Accordingly, the period to be taken into consideration in the present case amounted to four years, four months and twenty-five days.
2. The parties’ submissions
(a) The applicant
26. The applicant argued that the length of his detention on remand had been unreasonable.
(b) The Government
27. The Government submitted that, given the particular circumstances of the case, the length of the applicant’s detention was compatible with the standards under Article 5 § 3 of the Convention. They argued that the grounds stated in the decisions of the domestic courts were “relevant” and “sufficient” to justify the entire period of the applicant’s detention, particularly given the seriousness of charges against him. In particular, the reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed the offences in question had persisted throughout the whole period of detention. There had further been a high likelihood that the applicant would be sentenced to a severe penalty or that he could interfere with the course of the proceedings, particularly given his position in the organisation.
3. The Court’s assessment
(a) General principles
28. The Court reiterates that the general principles regarding the right to a trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial, as guaranteed by Article 5 § 3 of the Convention, have been stated in a number of its previous judgments (see, among many other authorities, Kudła v. Poland [GC], no. 30210/96, § 110 et seq., ECHR 2000‑XI, and McKay v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 543/03, §§ 41-44, ECHR 2006-X, with further references, and Buzadji v. the Republic of Moldova [GC], no. 23755/07, §§ 84-91, 5 July 2016).
(b) Application of the above principles to the present case
29. The Court notes at the outset that the inordinate length of the applicant’s detention on remand - more than four years - is a matter of grave concern and requires the domestic authorities to put forward very weighty reasons in order for it to be justified (see Lisovskij v. Lithuania, no. 36249/14, § 74, 2 May 2017).
30. In their detention decisions, the domestic courts relied on the reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed the offences in question, the severity of the penalty to which he could be sentenced and the risk that he might interfere with the conduct of the proceedings, particularly since he had been charged with offences committed in the context of an organised criminal group (see paragraphs 9-11 above). The judicial authorities also considered that, in view of the complexity of the case, which involved numerous defendants, multiple charges and a number of witness statements, including the testimony of a “crown witness”, the applicant’s detention was necessary to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings.
31. The Court accepts that the reasonable suspicion that the applicant had committed serious offences in question and the severity of the anticipated penalty might have justified his initial detention. Also, the need to secure the proper conduct of the proceedings, in particular the process of obtaining evidence from witnesses, constituted a valid ground for the applicant’s initial detention. In this respect, the Court reiterates that the severity of the sentence faced is a relevant element in the assessment of the risk of absconding or re‑offending (see Górski v. Poland, no. 28904/02, § 57, 4 October 2005). However, the Court has repeatedly held that the gravity of the charges cannot by itself serve to justify long periods of detention on remand (see for instance Ilijkov v. Bulgaria, no. 33977/96, §§ 80-81, 26 July 2001; and Michta v. Poland, no. 13425/02, § 49, 4 May 2006).
32. Furthermore, the judicial authorities had presumed the risk of obstruction of the proceedings, basing themselves on the fact that the applicant had been charged with being a member of an organised armed criminal group. In the Court’s view, the fact that the case concerned a member of such a criminal group should be taken into account in assessing compliance with Article 5 § 3 (see Bąk v. Poland, no. 7870/04, § 57, 16 January 2007). In this regard, the Court reiterates its case‑law according to which, in cases concerning organised crime, a relatively longer period of detention on remand could be justified given the particular difficulties in dealing with those cases in the trial courts (see Celejewski v. Poland, no. 17584/04, § 36, 4 August 2006). However, it does not give the authorities unlimited power to extend this preventive measure. Firstly, with the passage of time, the initial grounds for pre-trial detention become less and less relevant and the domestic courts should rely on other “relevant” and “sufficient” grounds to justify the continued deprivation of liberty (see, among many other authorities, I.A. v. France, judgment of 23 September 1998, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1998-VII, p. 2979, § 102; and Labita v. Italy [GC], no. 26772/95, § 153, ECHR 2000‑IV). Secondly, even if, due to the particular circumstances of the case, detention on remand is extended beyond the period generally accepted under the Court’s case-law, particularly strong reasons would be required to justify this (see Pasiński v. Poland, no. 6356/04, § 44, 20 June 2006).
33. The Court notes in this respect that, apart from the general risk flowing from the organised nature of the applicant’s alleged criminal activities, the domestic courts relied on specific facts. It was noted that the applicant had attempted to contact and influence witnesses. Moreover, he had undertaken preparations in order to murder a witness in another case (see paragraph 11 above). The Court accepts that the risk of collusion flowing from the nature of the applicant’s criminal activities existed initially. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, the grounds invoked to justify detention on remand should have been carefully reassessed in the circumstances of the case at later stages of the proceedings. In this respect the Court notes that in their decisions extending the applicant’s detention the domestic courts often repeated the wording of the decisions previously given (see, in particular, paragraph 13 above).
34. The Court notes that the criminal trial in the present case began in 2001 and has not yet ended (see paragraphs 4 and 19). The case was remitted on one occasion and in 2011 the proceedings started anew (see paragraphs 6 and 9 above). It is true that following the remittal, the Katowice Regional Court fixed a tight schedule of hearings. Nevertheless out of 276 hearings, 102 were cancelled for various reasons (see paragraph 20 above). In view of the overall length of the proceedings, even taking into account the fact that the courts were faced with the particularly difficult task of trying a large organised group, it cannot be said that the authorities displayed the required diligence in the conduct of the criminal proceedings against the applicant.
35. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention.
II. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
36. Article 41 of the Convention provides:
“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”
37. The applicant did not submit a claim for just satisfaction. Accordingly, the Court considers that there is no call to award him any sum on that account.
FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,
1. Declares the application admissible;
2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 5 § 3 of the Convention.
Done in English, and notified in writing on 4 June 2020, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Renata Degener Pere Pastor Vilanova
Deputy Registrar President