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Russia’s Constitutional Court has, for the first time, ruled that a binding decision of an international human rights body was “non-executable” and cannot be carried out, Human Rights Watch said today. The court said that a July 4, 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights requiring reform of an absolute ban on voting rights for prisoners violates Russia’s constitution.

Judges of the European Court of Human Rights arrive in the courtroom at the start of a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. © Reuters

“It’s very simple – Russia is violating its legal obligation to enforce rulings of the European Court of Human Rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The constitutional court’s decision, while predictable, deals a devastating blow for people in Russia who turn to the European Court because they can’t find justice in the Russian courts.”

When Russia became a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and to the European Court, it accepted the legal obligation to enforce its rulings, without exception.

In finding in favor of the victims in the case of Anchugov and Gladkov v. Russia, the European Court said that Russia’s blanket ban on convicted prisoners’ voting rights was “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights. The applicants brought the case before the European Court in 2004 because they were imprisoned and therefore ineligible to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Article 32 § 3 of the Russian constitution bars convicted prisoners from voting in all elections.

In 2015 Russia passed a new law empowering the Constitutional Court to review rulings of international human rights bodies and to declare them “non-executable” if the Russian court deems that a ruling contradicts the Russian constitution. The law was adopted a year after the European Court ordered Russia to pay 1.87 billion euro in compensation to shareholders of the oil company Yukos for violation of their property rights when the company went bankrupt.

Under the 2015 law, if the Constitutional Court declares a ruling “non-executable,” no steps to implement the ruling can be taken unless the constitution is amended. Moreover, victims of human rights violations who won the case will not receive any monetary compensation the ruling requires the government to pay. No other Council of Europe member state has conferred such powers on a national court.

In March 2016, the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), an expert advisory body of the Council of Europe, published an interim opinion stating that it is “unacceptable” for the Russian Constitutional Court to challenge final and mandatory findings issued by the European Court. The opinion affirmed that the European Convention on Human Rights “does not exclude any part of a member State’s jurisdiction, including the Constitution, from scrutiny,” so the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling must be executed even if it is at odds with the constitution.

This is in keeping with the general principles of international law, as articulated in the Vienna Convention on the Law on Treaties, which provide that a state cannot invoke domestic law as a defense for failing to implement an international obligation.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which oversees the implementation of European Court rulings, is supervising the enforcement of 1,590 rulings against Russia that the authorities have not yet fully carried out. Some of these cases concerned torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions.

Ensuring implementation of the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments across the Council of Europe is challenging, and many states are delinquent in complying, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russia is going beyond making an unimpressive record on carrying out European Court ruling worse,” Williamson said.  “The Constitutional Court’s new powers risks gutting the European system of human rights protection in Russia closing of a final help avenue for victims of abuses.”

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