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Committee against Torture examines report of Estonia

May 2013

The Committee against Torture today concluded its consideration of the fifth periodic report of Estonia on how it implements the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Introducing the report, Margus Sarapuu, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Justice of Estonia, said that the 2011 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code expedited judicial proceedings, while the Guidelines for the Development of Criminal Policy until 2018 adopted by Parliament provided for expedited pre-trial procedures in criminal matters regarding minors. Further amendments of the Code of Misdemeanour Procedure would be implemented in order to increase its expedition and efficiency, lessen bureaucracy and enhance the fundamental rights of persons. The revision of the Penal Code was currently being undertaken and a section on domestic violence was added in the draft. Trafficking in human beings had been criminalized in April 2012 and its definition was fully aligned to the United Nations Palermo Protocol.

Committee Experts commended Estonia for the measures it had taken to reduce the length of criminal proceedings and address prison overcrowding, domestic violence and trafficking in persons. They inquired about the amendment of the Penal Code and the progress in aligning the definition of torture with the Convention against Torture, the ratification of the Optional Protocol and establishment of the national preventive mechanism, and about the investigation of past crimes of torture and ill treatment and holding perpetrators accountable. Other issues included detainee complaints received by the Chancellor of Justice and how those and complaints about poor conditions in punishment cells in prisons and in the immigrants expulsion centres were addressed, treatment of asylum seekers, penalties meted out to those convicted of human trafficking and help provided to their victims.

Responding to the questions and comments raised by the Committee members yesterday, 22 May and today, the delegation said that the ongoing revision of the Penal Code would bring the definition of torture in line with article 1 of the Convention against Torture; this draft law, together with the revised Code of Misdemeanour Procedures, aimed at making the procedure more clear, and the new Child Protection Act criminalizing all forms of corporal punishment against children would be presented to Parliament by the end of the year. Screening procedures for asylum applicants were conducted under the international protection procedure regulated by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens; the requirements for the determination of refugee status set in the legislation met those of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the Dublin regulations. Estonia still did not have an accredited national human rights institution, but those functions were performed by the Chancellor of Justice.

The delegation of Estonia consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Friday, 31 May, when it will adopt its concluding observations and recommendations on the country reports considered during the session, and then conclude the session.

Report of Estonia

The fifth periodic report of Estonia can be read via the following link (CAT/C/EST/5).

Presentation of the Report of Estonia


MARGUS SARAPUU, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Justice of Estonia, introducing the report of Estonia, said that the 2011 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code had expedited judicial proceedings and enhanced the protection of minors, and had established the authority of courts to terminate criminal proceedings in cases where a criminal matter could not be adjudicated within a reasonable time and the rights of the accused to a hearing within a reasonable period of time could not be respected. The Guidelines for the Development of the Criminal Policy until 2018, adopted by Parliament in 2010, obliged the Prosecutor’s Office and the police to ensure that pre-trial procedures in criminal matters regarding minors were expedited. Further amendments of the Code of Misdemeanour Procedure would be implemented in order to increase its expedition and efficiency, lessen bureaucracy and enhance the fundamental rights of persons. Measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons had resulted in a decrease in the prison population by 26 per cent from 4,600 in 2003 to 3,400 in 2013 and the Ministry of Justice was moving steadily to its target of 2,700 prisoners by 2020. Steps were being taken to improve conditions in prisons and detention centres, including the opening of new facilities and the renovation of existing ones.

Concerning the prevention of domestic violence, Mr. Sarapuu noted the ongoing revision of the Penal Code and said that a preliminary section on domestic violence was added in the draft. Under the umbrella of the Development Plan for Reducing Violence 2010-2014, training seminars on domestic, family and sexual violence were provided to police officers, judges and prosecutors specialized in domestic violence, and prison guards. Victims of violence against women received various forms of support from women’s shelters, while the nation-wide free helpline was continuously operating. Trafficking in human beings had been criminalized in April 2012 and its definition fully corresponded to the United Nations Palermo Protocol. Additional elements of human trafficking offences had been regulated with the amendments and this had improved and extended the fight against trafficking in human beings, including for example in regard to forced labour and begging. At the moment, new procedural guidelines on cooperation between different stakeholders were being developed, while the National Development Plan for Reducing Violence 2010-2014 included several activities to prevent trafficking in human beings. A national helpline for the prevention of human trafficking run by a non-governmental organization had been established in 2008, and had provided assistance to 671 persons in 2012. In 2013-2015 Estonia would implement a programme to tackle gender-based violence and provide support to victims of trafficking, which, in addition to improving the quality of services provided to the victims, would also include studies to map the trafficking phenomenon and provide analysis for future actions.

Questions from Committee Experts

FELICE GAER, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, commended Estonia for its timely reporting to the Committee and for the measures it had taken to reduce the length of criminal proceedings and address prison overcrowding, domestic violence and trafficking in persons. She asked the delegation about the planned amendment to address the issue of minor demeanours; the further changes in the definition of torture in the legislation naming it as a crime and bringing it in line with the definition as contained in article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the State action in cases of torture between citizens, which was criminalized in Estonia. The Chancellor of Justice carried out the functions of the Ombudsman in the country; were there further efforts to contact the National Coordination Committee of national human rights institutions in this regard? What terms governed the use of electronic guards and what were the results of their use?

Estonia did not have a list of countries to which it would not be possible to return an asylum seeker, but rather each would be considered on a case-by-case basis. There were no safeguards on border points and the concern was that border guards were not trained to conduct interviews and receive demands for international protection. The delegation was asked to comment on this and on the number of asylum seekers depositing their claims on border crossings and the number of demands refused. Ms. Gaer noted the lack of a law on domestic violence and asked about the ongoing debate on the issue and what was being done to promote legislation on domestic violence and violence against women and empower the police to undertake the investigation of the perpetrators of domestic violence. How was domestic violence investigated, prosecuted and punished; what measures were taken to sensitize law enforcement officers to the subject; and was the new regulation on registration of cases and treatment of victims already being implemented? The Country Rapporteur also asked the delegation to expand on the situation of stateless persons in Estonia the efforts to provide them with protection and to end statelessness; harassment and reprisals against legal information centres and non-governmental organizations; measures to investigate past crimes of torture and ill treatment and hold perpetrators accountable, and to provide redress to victims; and the data collection system in the country.

XUEXIAN WANG, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, said that the Committee had previously suggested the establishment of a mechanism to evaluate training activities and asked why it had not yet been established.
Why did some complainants need to go to the European Court of Human Rights to obtain justice and could the delegation comment on the judgements of this court? In 2010, 266 victims of crimes had received compensation from the State; how many of those included redress to victims of torture and ill-treatment? Other issues raised by the Country Co-Rapporteur included measures to address detainee complaints received by the Chancellor of Justice and how those complaints were investigated, establishment of an independent torture monitoring mechanism, complaints about poor conditions in punishment cells in prisons and in the immigrants expulsion centres, treatment of asylum seekers, penalties meted out to those convicted of human trafficking and the help provided to their victims. Mr. Wang further noted that most of those requesting citizenship were children and, while commending Estonia for granting the majority of those demands, inquired about the citizenship status of their parents. Did Estonia have a Paris Principles-based national human rights institution?

A Committee Expert took up the issue of the amendment of the Penal Code and the bringing of the definition of torture in line with the Convention against Torture and asked about progress made on this issue. How were training programmes evaluated? What were the measures that Estonia had undertaken which made it one of the few countries which had succeeded in reducing its prison population and improving prison conditions?

An Expert raised a number of issues including the intended use of tasors in the police, the regulation of the language proficiency tests among prison guards, and the possibility of post-sentence detention. An Expert inquired about progress made to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establish a national preventive mechanism, how Estonia implemented the European regulations concerning asylum seekers, and about the setting up and functions of the Office for Gender Equality.

Other Experts asked the delegation about the situation concerning corporal punishment; training on the Istanbul Protocol as a manual to detect and document torture for medical personnel, lawyers, judges and persons working with asylum seekers, and the provisions regulating access to a lawyer for detainees. Experts requested an explanation of the regulations concerning administrative detention and administrative arrests, how the guarantees of non-torture and ill-treatment were put in place and how causes of death in custody had been established and whether a judicial review had been used.

FELICE GAER, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, asked the delegation to comment on the excessive use of force by its law enforcement officers and inform the Committee about steps taken to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. One of the most common complaints concerned documentation in places of detention and the Rapporteur asked for more information about the detainee registration system in place and whether anyone failing to use them correctly had been punished.

XUEXIAN WANG, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, asked about the situation of stateless children and whether Estonia intended to ratify the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Responses by the Delegation

In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation of Estonia said the Ministry of Justice was currently reviewing the Penal Code and would address the definition of torture to bring it in line with article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The draft law should be submitted to Parliament by the end of this year. Estonia had reformed its penal law in 2002 and the previous system which divided punishable offences into administrative offences and crimes had been replaced with a new and modern system, under which offences included criminal offences and misdemeanours. A misdemeanour was an offence for which the prescribed punishment was a fine or detention up to 30 days. Misdemeanours were regulated by the Code of Misdemeanour Procedures and not the Penal Code, which was applied by competent administrative authorities but with appeal available to the court; detention was not possible longer than 48 hours. The rights of the suspect were equal to the rights of a suspect in criminal proceedings. The Code was being revised to make the procedure more clear and the draft law would be submitted to Parliament by the end of the year.

Every suspect had a right to a lawyer who could be present during interrogations and could participate in criminal proceedings from the moment when a person acquired the status of a suspect in the proceedings. The participation of a lawyer was mandatory in a certain number of cases, including when the person was a minor at the time of the commission of the criminal offence; if the person was unable to defend him or herself due to mental or physical disability; and in cases of criminal offences for which life imprisonment might be imposed. Estonia was taking steps to shorten the pre-trial phase of the criminal proceedings in general and this would also affect the length of pre-trial detention. The police had a duty to ensure that the pre-trial procedure in criminal matters involving minors would not last for more than a month.

Regarding the referral to the provisions of the Convention against Torture, provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, it was important to say that judges in Estonia remained independent and referred to different instruments where relevant. The European Convention on Human Rights was directly applicable and the judgements delivered against Estonia were of a binding nature. With the application of the International Sanctions Act, Estonia ensured the national imposition of international sanctions and the correct implementation thereof without delay in order to perform the obligations arising from international law and the European Union.

Screening procedures for asylum applicants were conducted under the international protection procedure regulated by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. The Police and Border Guard Board had the obligation to determine whether the applicant met the requirements of the refugee status or the subsidiary protection. The requirements set in the legislation met those of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the Dublin regulations. A justified need for protection would not be rejected and an asylum seeker became a refugee in case of a positive decision; applications were examined and decisions taken individually, objectively and impartially. There was no automatically provided list of safe countries.

Pursuant to article 122 of the Estonian Criminal Act, a total of 70 crimes of torture and ill treatment had been registered in 2011 for which 42 persons had been convicted; in 2012, 105 such crimes had been registered and so far 24 persons had been convicted. The maximum punishment for acts of torture was up to five years imprisonment; public officials were convicted under articles of the Penal Code and in 2011, a total of 60 complaints for acts of torture committed by police and prison officials had been received and three persons had been convicted; in 2012, 77 such cases had been registered and so far there had been no convictions.

The Estonian Academy for Security Sciences was the main educational institution for law enforcement officials, including prison, police, tax and custom officials and officials from different law enforcement agencies. Their study programmes were evaluated by the Quality Assessment Council and had international accreditation for seven years; effectiveness and quality of the study programmes was also assessed internally through research, quality assessment of teachers, study results and other methods. Istanbul Protocol principles were incorporated into training programmes for health professionals in Tartu University and other medical colleges, as well as into training programmes for health care providers during professional courses on ethics.

Estonia still did not have an accredited national human rights institution and was analyzing the best possibilities for having such an institution. The work of the Chancellor of Justice corresponded to the Paris Principles and the performed functions of a national human rights institution. The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner was an impartial expert who acted independently and monitored compliance with the requirements of the Gender Equality Act and Equal Treatment Act. The Commissioner received applications from persons and provided opinions concerning possible cases of discrimination.

The Estonian Penal Code did not include domestic violence as a separate crime, but such a section was being added under the ongoing revision of the law. Women victims of violence received information on their rights and available remedies, as well as support services through several sources such as law enforcement officials, national victim support officials, social workers, women’s shelters and others. Activities related to reducing and preventing domestic violence were carried out under the umbrella of the Development Plan for Reducing Violence 2010-2014, while police activities in this regard were regulated by a 2012 decree. The issue of corporal punishment was continually debated in the society; as per the Penal Code, physical abuse of any person including children was unlawful. The Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs was currently preparing the new Child Protection Act which would formally prohibit all forms of corporal punishment of children. This law would be presented to Parliament at the end of the year.

Since April 2012, trafficking in human beings had been criminalized as a distinct provision in the Penal Code. In 2012, a total of 32 cases of trafficking had been registered and 31 persons had been convicted. The sanctions provided by the new law were up to 15 years of imprisonment. The helpline for the prevention of human trafficking and counselling was run by the non-governmental organization Living for Tomorrow and was financed by the Ministry of Social Welfare; the helpline provided support to 671 persons in 2012.

The Victim Support Act governed the State’s compensation to victims of crime, which was paid to victims or their dependants in case of crimes committed in the territory of Estonia. Any person victim of crime or violence had the right to receive compensation. Because of the system of data collection, there was no information on how many of the crime victims who had received compensation were victims of torture or mistreatment. In 2012, a total of 207 crime victims had received compensation from the State in the total sum of 227,614 Euros.

Concerning the 2007 riot events in Tallinn and the subsequent complaints submitted to the European Court of Human Rights, namely case Korobov and others v. Estonia, the delegation stressed that the application had been declared partly inadmissible and the Court had also declared that the complaints of three of the applicants based on article 3 on prohibition of torture had been clearly unsubstantiated both procedurally and substantively. The Court had concluded that there had been an excessive use of force concerning one applicant and a procedural deficiency had been established in four cases.

It was important to the Estonian State that the foreign nationals living in the country would want to link their future to Estonia and to obtain citizenship. The provision of the Citizenship Act provided for a simplified procedure for applying for Estonian citizenship for minors (aged under 15), but not all parents were aware of their rights and opportunities. The first Integration Programme was in force until the end of this year and the second programme would cover the period 2014-2020; the central vector of this programme was language proficiency to allow for a full participation in the social and political life of the country. In 20 years, the proportion of those with undetermined citizenship had fallen from 32 per cent to 6.9 per cent and it continued to decline.

Estonia was not aware of a single war criminal living in Estonia who would have been subjected to prosecution if available evidence was sufficient. The responsible authorities had looked into those matters regardless of the perpetrator being Nazi or communist and in that context numerous criminals had been brought to court during the last decade. Estonia had made and would make every effort to prosecute crimes against humanity and had proved this with results and convictions by courts.

In terms of conditions in detention facilities and prisons, the recommendations and problems pointed out by the Chancellor of Justice were used as a basis for development and investment plans. A number of changes had been made in police detention facilities, including closing of old and opening of new cells, renovation of buildings to improve ventilation, lightning and heating systems, and changes in the documentation. The Expulsion Centre had 80 places, 40 for women and families and 40 for men; men and women stayed separately. Handcuffs were used for the prevention of escape of a person to be expelled and as a means of restraint to prevent a possible attack.

There was no solitary confinement in prisons in Estonia.

Follow up Questions and Comments by the Committee Experts

FELICE GAER, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, asked for additional clarification on the right to access to a lawyer and the right to notify family and the next of kin. There was a lot of attention in the media in Estonia last year concerning a case on human trafficking and the Rapporteur asked for additional information on the matter. Concerning the judgements of the European Court for Human Rights, Ms. Gaer asked the delegation what violations they addressed and how they were dealt with by Estonia.

XUEXIAN WANG, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Estonia, said concerning compensation for victims of torture that Estonia needed to make a distinction between victims of torture and victims of other crimes in its statistics, and also to consider that victim support was not only about compensation, but about rehabilitation and redress as well.

Other Experts asked about methodology used to deal with unaccompanied minors and how the age of such asylum seekers was established; the status of undetermined citizens and whether there was an agreement in place with Russia for the treatment of such persons who saw themselves as Russians; trends in use of restraints and forced medication; and whether Roma children were indeed sent to psychiatric hospitals and if this was true, what was being done to correct this situation. The Committee also wished to hear more about the timeframe for the ongoing amendment of the Penal Code and the alignment of the definition of torture, as well as penalties and sanctions prescribed for this crime.

Responses by the Delegation

The use of handcuffs in expulsion centres was sometimes necessary and was only used to stop a person acting aggressively. Access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings was mandatory in some cases and always guaranteed by the State. The Government spent about four million Euros a year on legal aid; of this about 88 per cent was spent on legal aid in criminal proceedings and the rest on legal aid in civil and administrative cases. The profound revision of the Penal Code which was currently going on slowed the process but would provide for the removal of inconsistencies and illogical connections from the law; the draft law was scheduled for official public consultation in June 2013 and would be submitted to Parliament at the latest by December this year. Rape was illegal in Estonia, also if conducted by a husband against his wife.

Many complaints made to the European Court of Human Rights had been found inadmissible; nevertheless, following the judgment concerning the 2007 events, Estonia had undertaken a change in police procedure and had increased the training of police officers. Medical examination and age determination of asylum seekers was not an easy task. Concerning the establishment of a national human rights institution, the delegation stressed that in a small country it always made more sense to strengthen an existing well established institution rather than set up a new one; coordination between various institutions was a challenge as well.

Closing Remarks

MARGUS SARAPUU, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Justice of Estonia, thanked the Committee Experts and said that Estonia eagerly waited for their recommendations which would be carefully read and hopefully, during the next examination of Estonia, many of the issues raised would have become history.

ESSADIA BELMIR, Committee Vice-Chairperson, said that there was a good exchange of ideas during this dialogue and Estonia had done a lot to improve on the situation in the country. The human rights area was the key area where progress should be made and all aspired to achieve more.

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For use of the information media; not an official record