Tue, Jul. 08, 2008

Confession Under Torture

MJW - Washington.   On June 30, 2008, a decision in one of the most controversial cases in recent German criminal history was delivered. The judgment came from the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, in Strasbourg in the case of Gäfgen v. Germany, application no. 22978/05.

In late 2002, Gäfgen kidnapped and suffocated a boy. Upon the defendant's arrest, the police believed the boy still to be alive. When he first would not disclose the boy's whereabouts, the local deputy chief of police instructed the interrogating officer to tell Gäfgen he would suffer considerable pain unless he disclosed the boy's location. Gäfgen then confessed killing the boy and hiding the corpse.

The Frankfurt Regional Court, Landgericht, convicted him of murder and other felonies and sentenced him to life. After failed appeals to German courts contesting the use of evidence obtained through torture, Gäfgen took the case to the ECHR.

The decision emphasizes the importance of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Art. 3 prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The EHCR holds that even in the event of a public emergency threatening the life of a nation, no exceptions or derogations are permissible. In light of the threat that caused Gäfgen considerable mental suffering, the EHCR finds the police treatment inhuman under Article 3. However, the criminal court had not violated Gäfgen's right to a fair trial protected in Article 6 para. 1 of the Convention. The use of evidence directly or indirectly obtained through Gäfgen's confession which in turn was extracted by means contrary to Article 3 would have most likely rendered the trial unfair. As it happened, the conviction relied on the confession Gäfgen made in court.


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