April 15, 2016

April 16, 2012


Four years ago, on April 16, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concluded that the mass murders of Polish prisoners of war in the former Soviet Union in 1940 were a war crime. The ECHR’s ruling failed to find any new evidence that would require Russia to reopen the Katyn case.

Citing international law that Soviet authorities were bound to observe, the court said that the Soviets had violated the humane treatement of POWs and had violated the ban on murders.

The court ruled after 15 family members of the Polish citizens executed in the USSR in 1940 had filed a lawsuit. War crimes have no statute of limitations, and the court said that states are bound to investigate violent or suspicious deaths and that commitment exists irrespectively of whether the death occurred before or after the Human Rights Convention entered into force.

Russia ratified the convention on May 5, 1998, and most of the investigation was done before Russia’s ratification. It took Russia 58 years since the adoption of the convention in 1950 to ratify the convention.

The court stated that it was unable to establish a link between the death of the plaintiffs’ family members and the convention’s entry into force. A similar case of mass murder of more than 20,000 Polish citizens in 1940 was filed in 1990 and remained on the books until 2004 when the case was dropped.

Russia’s chief envoy to the ECHR, Andrei Fyodorov, said that Russia would not appeal the ruling for now. “Since violation of Article 2 of the European Convention [on the mandatory resumption of the Katyn case investigation], which is the key aspect of this lawsuit, has not been acknowledged by the court, this gives reasons to believe that the ruling is in Russia’s favor, and, accordingly, there is no need to appeal it.”

However, on October 21, 2013, the ECHR made its final ruling against Russia for violations of Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 38 (obligation to furnish necessary facilities for examination of the case), noting that Russia had withheld evidence requests and claimed those files were classified.

The Katyn massacre, which happened 76 years ago, is commemorated in April, as is the Smolensk airplane disaster of 2010 that killed 96 members of Poland’s government while en route to a 70th anniversary commemoration of the Katyn massacre.

The United States has two monuments to the Katyn massacre – one in Jersey City, N.J., and the other in Baltimore. A monument in Toronto also commemorates the Katyn massacre.

Source: “European Court: Katyn was war crime,” Interfax-Ukraine, The Ukrainian Weekly, April 29, 2012.