ECHR rules in Cervanová case

SLOVAK courts did not err in renewing the Cervanová case, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled.

SLOVAK courts did not err in renewing the Cervanová case, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled.

The case has become one of the most traumatising cases in the history of the Slovak, and Czechoslovak, judiciary. Some consider it among the ultimate examples of the crimes committed by the communist-era courts, claiming that the seven men who were sentenced for the murder of a young woman were not the real culprits.

In its recent decision from October 2, 2014, the ECHR dismissed the complaint filed by six of the seven men whom the communist courts in the 1980s convicted of the 1976 murder of medical student Ľudmila Cervanová. The applications of Milan Andrášik, František Čerman, Pavol Beďač, Stanislav Dúbravický, Miloš Kocúr, and Juraj Lachman, concerned the later ruling from 2006, when Slovakia’s Supreme Court, in a renewed process, confirmed their sentences from the early 1980s and even sent two of them, Andrášik and Kocúr, to serve additional time in prison. The six men complained that the courts in the renewed process did not take into consideration new evidence and new testimonies that were discovered only after the fall of communism.

The Strasbourg court, however, found no issues with the rulings of the Slovak courts in the renewed proceeding, arguing that the applicants “were able to adduce arguments which they considered relevant to their case, and had the opportunity of challenging the arguments and evidence before the courts”, the ECHR ruling reads, adding that both the trial court and the court of appeals explained comprehensively which facts they considered established and for what reason. The ECHR also upheld the Slovak courts’ decision not to include some new evidence in the case, which threw considerable doubts on the guilty verdict of the communist courts.

The case

Ľudmila Cervanová disappeared from Bratislava’s Mlynská Dolina in July 1976 and a body reported to be hers was later found in a brook near Kráľová pri Senci. Seven young men from Nitra, who were later given “guilty” verdicts in the case, were detained by the police in 1981. The prosecution charged that they had kidnapped, raped and murdered Cervanová.

All seven suspects were found guilty by the Bratislava Regional Court in 1982 and sentenced to between four and 24 years in prison. Originally, the prosecution had requested death sentences for four of the accused despite their repeated claims of innocence.

In 1990, after the fall of the communist regime, the Supreme Court of Czechoslovakia overruled the original sentences and returned the case to the lower court while ordering the release of the men who were still in prison. The Supreme Court found 72 mistakes or imperfections in the judicial process, including both the investigation and the trial, and in essence the Supreme Court cancelled the original sentences.

The Bratislava Regional Court, however, did not make a decision for well over a decade, leading Slovakia’s Constitutional Court to rule in 2003 that the regional court was hindering the process. In January 2004 the regional court found the men guilty of the crime for which they had already served a considerable part, or all, of their prison sentences.

The defendants appealed the regional court’s verdict and their lawyers gathered dozens of new and original documents that cast further doubt on the defendants’ involvement in the crime: new testimonies were found in the archives of the Interior Ministry in Levoča and an expert report written by forensic medical expert, Peter Fiala, in 2004, stated that back in the 1980s the investigators made numerous serious mistakes, misinterpretations of the evidence, and acted unprofessionally.

Slovakia’s Supreme Court did not admit these new documents, allegedly in favour of the defendants, into evidence, and in 2006 confirmed the verdict of the regional court and ordered even greater prison terms for three of the defendants, forcing two of them to return to the prison to serve the remainder of their sentences. All of the men have now served their sentences, with the last one of them, Andrášik, being released from prison in 2009.

ECHR ruling

Six of the seven men who were tried in the case filed their applications with the ECHR in the spring of 2011, in the cases ‘Milan Andrášik vs. Slovakia’ and ‘František Čerman and others vs. Slovakia’.

One of the seven opted not to take part in the appeals process at all. The court issued a joint ruling on the two cases, given their common factual and legal background.

Since Czechoslovakia only joined the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in March 1992, the ECHR noted it is not entitled to examine the part of the criminal proceedings prior to that date, but it still may take into account the facts prior to the fate “in as much as they can be considered to have created a situation extending beyond that date or may be relevant for the understanding of facts occurring after that date”.

While in the new trial of the applicants the Slovak courts were to remedy a number of shortcomings which the Federal Supreme Court had pointed out in 1990, they failed to comply with all the instruction ordered by the Federal Supreme Court, ECHR noted in the ruling.

“This was due, in part, to the fact that some of the evidence at issue could no longer be taken for objective reasons, such as the time elapsed or the death of the persons concerned,” ECHR judges wrote in the ruling.

Since the Slovak courts carried out the trial anew, however, the ECHR found “no breach of the applicants’ right to a fair hearing, the satisfactory delivery of which must be determined by having regard to the proceedings as a whole”.

The ECHR also dismissed the complaint that the Slovak courts have failed to include in the renewed proceeding documentary evidence from the archives of the Interior Ministry concerning the investigation that took place after the disappearance of Cervanová, in 1976 and 1977, more than four years before the seven men were accused of murdering her in early 1980s, and which cast doubts on the verdict of the communist courts. The applicants also complained that the 2004 forensic medical expert was not included.

Since the Slovak courts indicated the reasons why they considered that evidence superfluous, the ECHR refused the argument that the applicants’ rights to fair trial were breached. The ECHR argues that the Slovak courts relied mainly on the fact that several of the accused had admitted committing the offence, while their confessions contained facts that were unknown to the investigators previously.

The applicants claim that their confessions were made under pressure and are invalid. They maintain they are innocent.

Allan Böhm, the attorney for five of the applicants in the Čermák vs. Slovakia case, told the Sme daily that he has not yet studied the ruling of the ECHR.

“I can only state that some judges in Strasbourg have probably joined the many political or judiciary representatives in Slovakia who have been trying to draw the so-called thick line after the totalitarian era,” Böhm said.

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