Actual life imprisonment violates Convention | Magyar Helsinki Bizottság
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20 May 2014

The European Court of Human Rights hold in its decision issued today that actual life-long imprisonment as existing in Hungary constitutes inhuman and degrading punishment, thus it violates the European Convention on Human Rights. The decision confirms the concerns of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee expressed earlier, and may result in a change in the law.

In its decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) did not say that Hungarian convict Mr László Magyar, who was sentenced to life-long imprisonment without the possibility of a parole (i.e. actual life-long imprisonment), shall be released. In fact, it did not even say that Mr Magyar shall be definitely released in the future. The merit of the decision is that Article 3 of the Convention „must be interpreted as requiring reducibility of the sentence, in the sense of a review” which allows the domestic authorities to consider in case of all convicts whether further detention is justified, and all detainees are entitled to know “what they must do to be considered for release and under what conditions, including when a review of his sentence will take place or may be sought”. The Hungarian rules on actual life-long imprisonment – an institution included also in the new constitution of Hungary – do not ensure the possibility of such a review and the possibility of a release. Therefore, by sentencing him to actual life imprisonment, Hungary violated the human rights of László Magyar.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) requested the Constitutional Court of Hungary already in 2009 to abolish the provisions allowing the imposition of actual life imprisonment, claiming that it violates the right to human dignity. In the submission the HHC emphasized that the protection of the society as a goal may also be achieved without the application of actual life imprisonment, since it is examined by the court every time someone is considered to be released on parole if he/she is still a danger to the society or not, and the judge may conclude also after 30 years of imprisonment that the convict shall remain detained. Furthermore, actual lifers mean a disproportionate burden for the prison system as well since they have nothing to lose, thus, their detention is a hard and costly task. However, the Constitutional Court failed to deliver a decision regarding the issue until 1 January 2012, when the procedure in question was terminated due to legislative changes.

Subsequently, the HHC asked the ECtHR to grant the organisation leave to submit a 3rd party intervention on behalf of László Magyar. In the procedure before the ECtHR the Hungarian Government claimed that the possibility of a pardon (clemency) by the President of the Republic means that the sentence of actual lifers is reducible. On the other hand, the HHC highlighted the discretional nature of the pardon decision, the lack of reasoning of negative decisions, the lack of guidelines as to the aspects to be taken into account by decision-makers, the lack of information on when it is “worth” to ask for pardon, and the lack of publicly available, detailed data on decisions granting pardon. Finally, the ECtHR accepted the argumentation of the applicant’s lawyer and the HHC when concluding that the institution of presidential clemency does not allow actual lifers “to know what he or she must do to be considered for release and under what conditions” and “does not guarantee a proper consideration of the changes and the progress towards rehabilitation made by the prisoner, however significant they might be”. Thus, the applicant’s life sentence could not be regarded as reducible for the purposes of Article 3 of the Convention.

The decision of the ECtHR may have a short-term affect in Hungary also beyond the case of László Magyar. At the beginning of April 2014, the Szeged Regional Appeal Court suspended a criminal procedure and requested the Constitutional Court of Hungary to establish that the institution of actual life-long imprisonment is contrary to the European Convention of the Human Rights – which is not a question any more after the decision of today. Thus, the decision of the ECtHR anticipates that it will be shortly established also by a national body, i.e. the Constitutional Court that actual life-long imprisonment does not comply with European human rights standards.

According to the data of the National Penitentiary Headquarters, at the end of last year altogether 46 actual lifers were detained in the Hungarian prison system, 29 of them serving a final sentence.

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