Lithuania found in violation of life prisoners’ rights

June 2, 2017

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the existing ban on the commutation of life sentences in Lithuania violates the rights of the convicted.

In the case Matiošaitis and others v. Lithuania, eight life prisoners sought a ruling that Lithuania violated Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment).

Parole not allowed

The applicants, who were serving prison sentences for a variety of serious crimes, wanted to prove that the state does not really offer them a chance to be released early, even when their behavior improves and no longer poses a threat to the public.

The Code of the Enforcement of Punishments of the Republic of Lithuania does not allow life prisoners to be released on parole. The only way that these inmates can hope to have their sentence commuted under the current law is by receiving a presidential pardon.

Having assessed the application of the presidential pardon, the European Court of Human Rights found that, even though the procedure is clear and unambiguous, there is no need to give specific reasons when denying any inmate’s request.

Prisoners remain unclear as to how they should change to be pardoned. Furthermore, decisions on the presidential pardon cannot be challenged in court.

Pardon the exception, not the rule

The ECtHR also considered the fact that a presidential pardon is practically never granted to life prisoners.

Looking at statistics, out of 35 convicts that had applied for pardon, only one was pardoned in the end. As such, the court acknowledged that the applicants’ claim (namely, that this case was merely an exception) had merit.

According to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the right of convicts to have their sentence reviewed translates to a real review of all relevant information in order to assess whether their continued imprisonment is justified on penological grounds. Furthermore, convicts must know what they must do and how they must change in order to be considered for early release.

Right to hope

According to the court, prisoners should not be deprived entirely of hope that, some day, they will be able to prove through their actions that they have changed for the better. Condemning them to spend the rest of their life in isolation, without any hope of proving that they’ve changed, results in conditions that are degrading to human dignity.

The ECtHR further noted that the state is not currently planning to reform this area of the law. In view of these circumstances, the court unanimously held that Lithuania violated Article 3 of the Convention.

The Human Rights Monitoring Institute had joined the proceedings as a third party in support of the applicants.

According to Karolis Liutkevičius, the lawyer representing the Institute in this case, the easiest way to implement the ECtHR’s ruling would be to simply lift the ban on parole for life prisoners.