From Justice Delayed to Justice Denied: Katyń in Strasbourg

This is cross-posted from Justice in Conflict, where it was first published on 31 October 2013.

The Katyń massacre took place between April and May 1940 when 20,000 thousand  Polish officers and officials were executed by NKVD, the Soviet special police. After decades of denial, Russia publicly acknowledged Soviet responsibility for the massacre in 1990. But the  entire truth about what happened in the forests of Katyń has remained out of reach. Many believe Russia has not done enough in coming clean about the massacre.

Katyń massacre monument in Kharkiv, photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

Last week, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR delivered its final decision in Janowiec et al. v. Russia (other comment here). The case before the ECHR concerned the quality of investigations conducted by Russian authorities into the Katyń massacre. These started in 1990 and ceased in 2004, following the decision of the Russian authorities to re-classify as “top-secret” 36 volumes of files and  to discontinue the investigation. The applicants before the Court argued that Russian authorities breached their rights by failing to carry out an effective investigation into the death of their relatives and displayed a dismissive attitude towards the applicants’ requests for information about their relatives’ fate.

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Forthcoming final judgement of the ECHR in the Katyn case

Today, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is expected to announce its final judgement in the case of Janowiec and others v. Russia (applications no. 55508/07, 9520/09 ). The case originated from the events of April and May 1940 when an estimated 21,000 Polish officers and officials were detained in the Kozielsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov camps before being executed by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in Katyń forest and the Kharkov and Tver NKVD prisons. The bodies were buried in mass graves.

When the graves were first discovered in 1943, Soviet authorities put the blame on the Nazis (see Burdenko Commission). The crime was ignored at the Nuremberg trials (see the commentary of Prof. Schabas here and here) and the “official” version of the events was imposed for the next 50 years. Continue reading