Russia: stop abuse of children with disabilities in criminal justice system

Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of Blokhin v. Russia, a judgment that found that a child with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and neurogenic bladder causing enuresis (a disorder involving urinary incontinence) was unlawfully detained and abused in Russia’s criminal justice system. 

Front entrance of Novosibirsk juvenile centre, where Ivan Blokhin was detained. Source:

 In 2005 police arrested 12-year-old Ivan for extortion. Without trusted adults or any lawyers present, officers pressured Ivan to sign a confession after saying he would be released if he did so. Although he was too young to be criminally tried, Ivan was sent for thirty days to a juvenile detention centre. The judge said he had “not learnt his lesson”.

The Strasbourg Court found that Ivan “had to spend the whole day in a large empty room which had no furniture or sports equipment”, and that he shared a bedroom with seven other boys. The educational programme did not meet national curriculum standards. There was inadequate medical care. Ivan’s disability required him to use the toilet frequently. In detention, when he asked to use the toilet the guards punished him by making him to do cleaning work. He was made to wait until other detainees needed the toilet. On being released from detention, he was hospitalised for three weeks because of a deterioration of his disabilities. The Court held that the lack of adequate medical care amounted to ill-treatment of the child during his detention.

The Court also found that Ivan was prevented in practice from attending and participating effectively in hearings in his own case. Neither was his guardian present and he was not provided the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. This is a commonplace practice in Russian justice systems in such hearings. The Russian Government should immediately put an end to the systemic practice of excluding people from court processes that affect their rights and to legislate to ensure that children with mental disabilities can participate effectively with necessary supports.

The Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC) is an international human rights organisation that submitted a “third party intervention” to help the Strasbourg court in its administration of justice. MDAC’s Executive Director, Dr Oliver Lewis said:

“Treating any child - especially a child with disabilities – in such an appalling way highlights the perils of detaining children. Governments must radically reduce locking up children, and until this happens MDAC calls on the Russian government to ensure that children are provided with lawyers who represent their interests and ensure their effective participation at all stages of criminal processes. The government should take immediate steps to ensure that children in detention are provided with healthcare that safeguards their wellbeing in accordance with international human rights law.”

MDAC’s Litigation Director, Ann Campbell, welcomed the judgment, noting:

“One million children worldwide are deprived of their liberty as a result of coming into conflict with the law. Research shows that children with mental disabilities are often unaware of their rights. Justice systems must ensure that adequate safeguards are in place at all points of the justice system – preliminary processes, investigation, trial and sentencing – to protect their human rights.”    

As third party intervener, MDAC was represented by barristers Paul Bowen QC (Brick Court Chambers), Caoilfhann Gallagher and Louise Price (Doughty Street Chambers) who said:

“This is a landmark judgment from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, finding that Russia flagrantly breached its obligations to a vulnerable 12-year-old child. It has rightly found that his rights under Articles 3, 5 and 6 were breached by his unjustified detention, treatment and the denial of access to justice. We are delighted that the Grand Chamber has recognised that children with disabilities face a double disadvantage in criminal justice systems, because of both their age and their disabilities. Importantly, the Grand Chamber has highlighted the relevance of specialist international instruments in human rights cases such as these, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This not only sends a message to Russia about its treatment of children with disabilities, but also to all other Council of Europe member states.”





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