The ECHR Ruling of March 30, 2021 in the case of Ribcheva and Others v. Bulgaria (aplication No. 37801/16 and other aplications).
In 2016, the applicants were assisted in the preparation of aplications. Subsequently, the aplications were combined and communicated to Bulgaria.
Aplications about reasonable precautions taken by the authorities were successfully considered in the case, despite some mistakes in planning and conducting an operation against a dangerous person who killed a police officer during his arrest. The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 2 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. There were no violations of article 2 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in its substantive aspect.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The applicants are the mother, widow and daughter of an employee of the anti-terrorist unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Bulgaria, who was killed during the operation by a man whom the unit tried to detain. As a result of the criminal proceedings, the shooting man was found guilty, inter alia, of murder with aggravating circumstances and sentenced to life imprisonment. In addition, he was obliged to compensate the applicants for damages. Despite this, the applicants also called on the authorities to investigate whether the conduct of officials contributed to the death of their relative as a result of giving erroneous orders and improper planning of the operation, but the authorities refused to initiate a separate criminal case. Although, in the end, the case was considered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs during two internal investigations, the applicants raised the question of their effectiveness.
Regarding compliance with article 2 of the Convention.
(a) The procedural and legal aspect. The European Court ruled that the Bulgarian authorities were obliged, in addition to establishing the direct responsibility of the person who committed the murder, to investigate whether the conduct of any officials contributed to the death of a police officer as a result of their negligent actions or inaction in planning and conducting the operation. Indeed, there was no reason to believe that the duty to investigate, which arises in cases of deprivation of life under circumstances implying the responsibility of the State due to the alleged negligence of its representatives, was not applied to police officers killed by private individuals in the performance of their duties by these officers. However, in the present case, the authorities have not fulfilled this obligation properly, thereby failing to fulfill their procedural obligations under article 2 of the Convention. In particular, the two internal investigations conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, although effective in many respects, had two serious drawbacks, which prevented the full implementation of the requirements of article 2 of the Convention: the second investigation was initiated not on the initiative of the authorities, as required by the provision of the Convention in question, but on the complaint of the mother of the deceased person, and, most importantly, during both investigations, publicity was completely excluded and the applicants were not supposed to participate in them.
The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 2 of the Convention (adopted unanimously).
(b) The substantive aspect. The European Court reaffirmed that the obligations under Article 2 of the Convention to take preventive operational measures to protect a person's life from deadly threats from other persons apply equally to any type of activity that poses a threat to life. It was this obligation that was considered in the present case. The Bulgarian authorities were aware that the person to be detained could put the applicants' relative at risk if the latter took part in an operation to detain him, which could also be characterized as a dangerous activity organized by the authorities. Consequently, the Bulgarian authorities had a positive obligation to take actions reasonably expected of them to protect the applicants' relative from risks in the context of the police operation in question in the present case. The Court further stressed that the standard of reasonableness with respect to this positive obligation (Article 2, paragraph 1, of the Convention) was not as strict as with respect to the negative obligation to refrain from the use of force, which was "more than absolutely necessary" (Article 2, paragraph 2, of the Convention). The Bulgarian authorities had the necessary margin of discretion and should not have borne an excessive or disproportionate burden, taking into account the need to make an urgent choice regarding priorities and resources, as well as the unpredictability of human behavior, especially during active law enforcement operations against armed and dangerous persons. In addition, the scope and content of the State's positive obligation to protect law enforcement officers from risks to their lives should not make it impossible to require them to participate in such operations or be excessively burdensome for the authorities in terms of their organization. In this regard, it should be borne in mind that law enforcement officers who voluntarily undertook to perform the relevant service, especially in specialized units whose task is to fight terrorists and other dangerous criminals, undoubtedly should have understood that sometimes this can lead to a collision with deadly threats that are difficult to repel. At the same time, the authorities had to ensure proper training and education of these employees. The European Court did not discuss the issues concerning the equipment and firearms provided to the anti-terrorist unit officers, since it was the State authorities that had more opportunities to assess the relevant needs and were responsible for the choice that had to be made between the needs to be met, had to decide exactly how their limited resources should be allocated. In addition, it could not be considered that the employees of the anti-terrorist unit were clearly poorly trained to perform their tasks. In view of the above, the European Court concluded that, although the authorities made mistakes in planning and conducting the operation, the actions taken by them to minimize the risk to the life of a police officer can be considered reasonable and, therefore, it cannot be considered that they did not fulfill their duty and did not take reasonable measures to protect him. In particular, although the operation was prepared very hastily and the probable degree of resistance of the person to be detained was underestimated, the authorities took reasonable precautions: they received operational information about the person concerned and made a plan to detain him and seize firearms from him; sent a number of specially trained officers and acted in concert, never breaking the chain of command. The European Court has previously had to exercise extreme caution in assessing any choice made by the authorities in this regard. Such an assessment should be refrained from even when checking whether the authorities used force that was "more than absolutely necessary" if, as noted above, a stricter standard was applied.
There was no violation of article 2 of the Convention in the case (adopted unanimously).
The European Court also unanimously ruled that there was no need to consider the complaint under article 13 of the Convention in conjunction with article 2 of the Convention.
In the application of article 41 of the Convention. The European Court awarded each of the applicants 8,000 euros in compensation for moral damage.