Coselav v Turkey  ECHR 1789 (9 October 2012)
On 16 December 2005, 16 year old Bilal Çoşelav committed suicide whilst in the custody of Turkish authorities, by hanging himself using a bed sheet and the bars in his jail cell. In recent finding, handed down on 9 October 2012, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously decided that the Turkish government had breached article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, relevantly by failing to protect Bilal’s right to life and to carry out an effective investigation in relation to his death.
The case was brought by the parents of Bilal Çoşelav, Turkish nationals, residing in Istanbul.
The applicants’ son had twice before attempted to take his own life whilst in the custody of the state. The first instance occurred in 2003, in circumstances where Bilal attempted to hang himself in the courtyard at a juvenile correction wing. Prison wardens resuscitated Bilal and disciplinary proceedings were brought against him for “setting a bad example to other inmates.” In 2004, Bilal took an overdose in a second attempt to end his life. At this time, he was taken to hospital for treatment and subsequently transferred to another facility for adult prisoners (which was said to be at his request).
For a period of almost twelve months in 2004, Bilal sent 22 letters to the prison governor and other relevant authorities urgently requesting the opportunity to discuss his personal problems and asking to be transferred to another wing in the prison facility. In December 2004, after his requests were denied, Bilal attempted to attack a prison officer with a razor blade, kicked and broke a sink in his cell and set fire to his mattress.
Earlier on the day of his death, Bilal had injured himself by repeatedly hitting his head against his cell wall. He was taken to the prison infirmary for treatment and returned back to his cell without supervision. Later on that day, Bilal was found hanged in his cell. A doctor attended the scene and tried for five minutes to resuscitate him. It was nearly a fortnight after his death when Bilal’s parents were informed of his death.
Relevant law and admissibility
The applicants brought proceedings under article 2 (right to life) and article 3 (prohibition against torture and inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment) of the Convention. Additionally, the applicants relied on articles 6 and 13 in bringing their claim that Turkish authorities had failed to effectively investigate their son's death. The ECHR determined that all aspects of the complaint should be addressed solely on the basis of article 2.
The Government submitted that the applicants’ claim was inadmissible, as they had failed to exhaust domestic remedies prior to lodging the complaint. This submission was rejected by the ECHR, owing to a finding that the national Courts did not exhibit diligence in expediting those proceedings.
Responsibility for Bilal’s death whilst in custody
The Court found that Turkish authorities had breached article 2 in failing to protect Bilal’s right to life. They concluded that the government was not only responsible for the deterioration of Bilal’s problems by virtue of detaining him with adult prisoners, but also patently failed to provide him with the necessary medical and specialist care to address his mental health issues.
The Court confirmed the vulnerability of prisoners and the duty of authorities to protect those in their custody. They made the factual finding that, in light of documents relating to Bilal’s past suicide attempts and requests for help, authorities would have been put on notice of his condition. This knowledge was held to trigger an obligation to take “measures within the scope of their powers which, judged reasonably might have been expected to avoid the risk” of self-harm. The Court considered that, in the circumstances, such an obligation required authorities to keep constant watch of Bilal and also provide him with appropriate medical help for his mental health problems.
In this regard, the Court criticised the clear indifference demonstrated by prison authorities towards Bilal and his condition and clearly stated that providing medical assistance by way of an examination at the prison infirmary post his first and second suicide attempts did not equate to providing adequate medical care. The Court emphasised that the relevant inquiry is whether reasonable steps were taken to prevent Bilal from attempting to commit suicide in the first place, which the Court found the prison authorities had clearly failed to do, thereby violating article 2.
Effectiveness of the investigation into Bilal’s death
The Court also found that Turkish authorities failed to carry out an effective investigation into the death of Bilal and therefore had breached article 2 of the Convention in its procedural limb. In so finding, the Court stressed that an effective investigation requires the existence of a sufficient level of public scrutiny to ensure accountability both in practice and in theory.
It was almost a fortnight before the applicants were informed of their teenage son’s death. They were therefore not only deprived of the right to participate in the investigation but also were not informed regarding steps taken into the prosecution of Bilal’s death. Submissions by the government that they were unable to contact Bilal’s family were found to lack credibility in light of the weight of evidence to the contrary. Another fundamental deficiency of the investigation was the failure to inquire why Bilal had committed suicide and any responsibility on the part of the prison officers. The Court also pointed to the delays and lack of expedition prevalent in the administrative proceedings regarding Bilal’s death as another indicator of the ineffectiveness of the Turkish government’s investigation process.
The acute vulnerability of those in State custody and the critical need for independent oversight of detention centres demonstrated by this case is an issue of continued international and domestic importance. In Victoria, section 9 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities protects the right to life and is most relevant to the principles expounded and confirmed in this case. Interestingly for practitioners, the Court found that the Government’s actions could be challenged by virtue of article 2 on both a substantive and procedural level. The ECHR’s ruling rightly calls to account authorities whose responsibility it was to ensure the protection of the life of a 16-year-old in their custody.
This decision is available online at: http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2012/1789.html
Alysia Abeyratne is a Solicitor with King & Wood Mallesons' Human Rights Law Group.