Case of European Court of Human Rights, December 20, 2016 (case USPASKICH v. LITHUANIA)

DefenseLITHUANIA
Resolution DateDecember 20, 2016

FOURTH SECTION

CASE OF USPASKICH v. LITHUANIA

(Application no. 14737/08)

JUDGMENT

STRASBOURG

20 December 2016

This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Uspaskich v. Lithuania,

The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

Vincent A. De Gaetano, President,

Angelika Nußberger,

Nona Tsotsoria,Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque,Iulia Motoc,Gabriele Kucsko-Stadlmayer,Marko Bošnjak, judges,

and Marialena Tsirli, Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 6 December 2016,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

PROCEDURE

  1. The case originated in an application (no. 14737/08) against the Republic of Lithuania lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Lithuanian national, Mr Viktor Uspaskich (“the applicant”), on 14 March 2008.

  2. The applicant was represented by Mr A. Miškinis, a lawyer practising in Vilnius. The Lithuanian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Ms K. Bubnytė.

  3. The applicant alleged, in particular, that his house arrest had interfered with the free expression of the opinion of the people on the choice of legislature. He relied on Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

  4. On 2 February 2015 the complaint concerning the applicant’s right to participate in elections to the Lithuanian Parliament (the Seimas) was communicated to the Government and the remainder of the application was declared inadmissible pursuant to Rule 54 § 3 of the Rules of Court.

  5. Mr Egidijus Kūris, the judge elected in respect of Lithuania, withdrew from sitting in the case (Rule 28 § 3 of the Rules of Court). Accordingly, on 13 October 2016 the President of the Section selected Ms Angelika Nußberger as an ad hoc judge from the list of three persons designated by the Republic of Lithuania as eligible to serve as such a judge (Article 26 § 4 of the Convention and Rule 29 § 1 (a) of the Rules of Court).

    THE FACTS

    1. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

  6. The applicant was born in 1959 in Urdoma, the Russian Federation. He lives in Kėdainiai, a town in Lithuania.

  7. The applicant is a businessman. He used to be a politician. In 2003 he established and was chairman of the Labour Party (Darbo partija) in Lithuania. In the parliamentary elections of 2004, the Labour Party obtained more votes than any other political party. Between December 2004 and June 2005 the applicant was Minister of the Economy, but resigned from that post after the Chief Official Ethics Commission (Vyriausioji tarnybinės etikos komisija) found that he had breached the principle of not mixing private and public interests.

  8. Pre-trial investigation in respect of the applicant, three other persons and the Labour Party

  9. In May 2006 a criminal investigation was opened on suspicion of fraudulent accounting by the Labour Party. The authorities suspected that the applicant, acting in complicity with three other members of that party ‑ the party treasurer and two high-level administrators – as well as one other person, had doctored the Labour Party’s accounts. The Labour Party, as a legal entity, was also a suspect in the case.

    Later that month the authorities searched the applicant’s home in Kėdainiai town, as well as the Labour Party’s headquarters.

  10. In June 2006 the prosecutor attempted to call the applicant for questioning. However, the applicant could not be reached on his telephone, nor summoned. The applicant’s wife explained to the prosecutor that the last time she had seen her husband was in May 2006, when he had left for the Russian Federation. The applicant’s wife refused to give any other testimony related to her husband.

  11. On 23 June 2006 the applicant sent the Lithuanian Attorney General a letter to the effect that he was aware of the ongoing pre-trial investigation regarding him and the Labour Party, and that some of his party colleagues had already been questioned. He claimed that he was staying in the Russian Federation, without disclosing his exact address. He asserted that the criminal case was “a dirty political game” (teisinės institucijos dalyvauja nešvariame politiniame žaidime) and had no basis, and expressed his intention to involve international organisations in his case. He also stated that he would return to Lithuania when his family circumstances permitted. In particular, his brother had recently died in Russia and his mother needed support.

  12. On 28 June 2006 the applicant resigned from the post of Labour Party chairman.

  13. On 17 July 2006 the Labour Party website made public the applicant’s “Letter to the People of Lithuania” (Laiškas Lietuvos žmonėms), in which he stated that he would not hurry to return to Lithuania because he was expecting the [Lithuanian] authorities to start a search for him. He did not wish to be questioned in the Republic of Lithuania, and wanted international organisations to be involved in his proceedings.

  14. On 23 August 2006 the prosecutor decided to declare the applicant a suspect in the criminal case. The prosecutor found that, as chairman of the Labour Party and also acting in an organised group with other members of that party, the applicant had sought to finance the party unlawfully and to avoid the financial supervision of the party and its political campaigns, by organising the party’s fraudulent accounting from 2004 to 2006. As a result, it had been impossible to establish the structure of the party’s assets and expenditure for those years. In particular, the Labour Party had omitted from its accounts some 8,000,000 Lithuanian litai (LTL – approximately 2,300,000 euros (EUR)) worth of income, and some LTL 7,300,000 (approximately EUR 2,100,000) worth of expenditure. The applicant had also provided inaccurate data to the Central Electoral Commission and the tax authorities. This was in breach of a number of Criminal Code provisions (see paragraph 71 below), as well as the Law on the Funding of Political Parties and Political Campaigns (see paragraph 70 below).

  15. On 25 August 2006 the Vilnius City Second District Court sanctioned, in absentia, the applicant’s arrest and remand in custody on the grounds that he had known about the criminal proceedings but was hiding in the Russian Federation and had failed to present himself to the prosecutors to take part in the criminal proceedings. It was reasonable to assume that the applicant would continue to hide from the Lithuanian authorities, thus obstructing the investigation. On the same day the prosecutor ordered a search for the applicant.

    In September 2006 both decisions were made available to the applicant’s lawyer.

  16. On 26 August 2006 at the Labour Party congress, another person was elected as chairman of the Labour Party in the applicant’s place.

  17. On 15 September 2006 the authorities of the Russian Federation arrested the applicant in Moscow. On the same day he asked for political asylum in Russia and was immediately released. On the basis of information that reached them by Interpol, the Lithuanian prosecutors then asked their colleagues in the Russian Federation to arrest the applicant and to extradite him to Lithuania.

    By a letter of 22 January 2007, the Deputy Attorney General of the Russian Federation refused the request, relying on Article 3 of the European Convention on Extradition, which states that extradition will not be granted if the offence in respect of which it is requested is regarded by the requested State as a political offence or as an offence connected with a political offence.

  18. Having taken into account the criminal charges in respect of the Labour Party, including evidence by independent auditors, on 14 November 2006 the Central Electoral Commission decided not to allocate it appropriations from the State budget.

  19. The applicant’s election to the Kėdainiai municipal council in 2007

  20. In January 2007 the Central Electoral Commission confirmed the applicant as a Labour Party candidate in elections to the municipal council of the Kėdainiai district. Given that electoral candidates in municipal elections had immunity from prosecution, the prosecutor asked the Central Electoral Commission to permit the restriction of the applicant’s freedom and his prosecution (see Article 49 § 1 of the Law on the Elections to the Seimas, cited in paragraph 67 below). At a hearing attended by the applicant’s lawyer, the prosecutor and representatives of the media and the Labour Party, the Central Electoral Commission granted that request.

  21. On 12 February 2007 the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal lodged by the applicant’s lawyer, who asserted that the restriction of his client’s liberty was in breach of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention because he would then be unable to meet potential voters and proclaim his electoral programme. The Lithuanian court had regard to the Court’s case-law on the subject and emphasised that the right to stand for elections was not absolute (the Supreme Administrative Court referred to Sukhovetskyy v. Ukraine, no. 13716/02, §§ 50 and 51, ECHR 2006‑VI). Moreover, according to the Venice Commission guidelines, fundamental rights and freedoms, including the freedom to move within a State, could be limited in order to protect the public interest (see paragraph 74 below). In the applicant’s case, he had not been denied the very essence of his right to be elected. The State, for its part, had an obligation to prosecute criminal acts and to take measures to ensure that criminal proceedings were not unduly protracted. The applicant had been hiding from prosecution in Russia, which showed that he had deliberately breached Lithuanian law by avoiding arrest which had earlier been sanctioned by a court (see paragraph 14 above). The Supreme Administrative Court did not find erroneous the argument put...

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