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You're reading: European Court classifies Katyn tragedy as war crime

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concluded that the mass murders of Polish prisoners of war in the former Soviet Union in 1940 were a war crime, but found no new evidence requiring the Russian authorities to reopen the Katyn case.

The court said on Monday, Apr. 16, it had concluded that the executions of Polish prisoners of war were a war crime, as the humane treatment of POWs and the ban on murders were a part of the conventional international law the Soviet authorities were compelled to observe. The judgment was made on the lawsuit of 15 family members of the Polish citizens executed in the USSR in 1940.

Although war crimes have no statute of limitations, no new evidence was found in the period since the ratification of the Human Rights Convention to compel the Russian authorities to reopen the case, the court said.

The court said that the hearing of a complaint of the breach of Article 2 of the Convention (murder investigations) would go beyond its area of activity.
The responsibility for murders of Polish prisoners of war in 1942 exceeds the case limits, it said.

However, due to the Convention and the Court’s opinion, states are bound to investigate violent or suspicious deaths, it said. It also noted that the commitment existed irrespectively of whether the death occurred before or after the Convention entered into force.

In this case, the Russian authorities did much of the investigation before Russia ratified the convention (on May 5, 1998), the court said. No significant investigative procedures were held after the ratification. What is more, Russia ratified the convention 58 years after the family members of the plaintiffs were killed. That is an extremely long period, which, above all, exceeds the periods of similar cases. Hence the court is unable to establish a link between the death of the plaintiff’s family members and the convention’s entry into force.

Fifteen citizens of Poland, family members of twelve Polish citizens – police and army officers, a military medic and a primary school principal who had fallen victim to the Katyn executions, lodged their claim with the ECHR.

The investigation of mass murders of more than 20,000 Polish citizens in 1940 started in 1990 and lasted until 2004 when the case was dropped.
The related resolution of the Russian Main Military Prosecutor’s Office was classified.

The ECHR judgment is not final and either side may appeal for a hearing at the ECHR Grand Chamber within three months in exceptional cases.

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