“Skype hearings” erode safeguards against torture and ill-treatment

April 8, 2020

Belgrade Centre for Human Rights alarms the public on the problems that can be caused by conducting court hearings using technical means of transmitting sound and images (Skype) in light of the absolute prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. According to the Centre, conducting hearings using technical means of transmitting sound and images would erode guarantees for protection against ill-treatment arising from Article 25 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia and Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which are of non-derogable nature.

A defendant who has been a victim of ill-treatment and who is during the hearing under control by officers who ill-treated him or are in a close hierarchical or organizational relationship with the perpetrators, may be discouraged from disclosing allegations of ill-treatment to the court. Furthermore, the situation whereby the defendant does not make a personal contact with his defence counsel but rather communicates through technical means of transmitting sound and images, as requested by the Protector of Citizens in a recently issued opinion, would significantly contribute to the discouragement of the defendant to bring out the ill-treatment allegations.

Moreover, according to the European Court of Human Rights’ case-law, even when strictly speaking no complaint of ill-treatment has been made, an investigation must be initiated if there are sufficiently clear indications that ill-treatment occurred, i. e. bruises and injuries on the defendant’s body (Stanimirovic v. Serbia, App. no. 26088/06, Judgment of 18 October 2011, § 39). In this respect, the possibility of a judge to notice injuries into the defendant’s body during the hearing, in which the defendant is present only via technical means of transmitting sound and image, is questionable. In some cases, European Court of Human Rights took into consideration such possibility of the judge during the hearing when examining the violation of the material aspect of Article 3 of the Convention (Almaši v. Serbia, App. no. 21388/15, Judgment of 8 October 2019, § 82).

Since the state of emergency was declared in Serbia on 15 March 2020, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights filed three criminal charges against police officers on suspicion of committing torture and ill-treatment (Article 137 of the Criminal Code) by using unjustified force against citizens who violated the prohibition of movement.