EHRM over Schikken

EHRM 29 april 2014, Natsvlishvili en Togonidze t. Georgië

In deze zaak heeft het Europese Hof voor het eerst in detail de verenigbaarheid van plea-bargaining met het recht op een eerlijk proces onderzocht. In casu ging het om een door de rechter bekrachtigde schikking die klager (Natsvlishvili) met Justitie had getroffen in verband met beschuldigingen van corruptie.

Feiten

Natsvlishvili was van 1993-1995 de burgemeester van Kutaisi (Georgië) alsook directeur van de autofabriek in Kutaisi (een van de grootste public companies van Georgië) van 1995-2000. Natsvlishvili en zijn vrouw hadden gezamenlijk 15.55% van de aandelen van de fabriek in handen en waren na de Staat de hoofdaandeelhouders.

In maart 2004 werd Natsvlishvili aangehouden wegens verdenking van het verminderen van het maatschappelijk kapitaal van de fabriek. Ook zou hij met de boeken hebben geknoeid: fictieve omzet, over- en afschrijvingen hebben opgenomen en de opbrengsten daarvan zelf hebben uitgegeven.

Na onderhandelingen met justitie is in september 2004 tot een schikking gekomen. Deze schikking hield in dat Natsvlishvili werd veroordeeld voor bovengenoemde feiten, zonder dat verder onderzoek naar de merites van de zaak werd gedaan. Natsvlishvili betaalde een bedrag dat gelijk staat aan  EUR 14.700, in ruil voor een gereduceerde straf.

Het gerecht, dat opmerkte dat Natsvlishvili geen schuld had bekend maar wel actief had meegewerkt met het onderzoek door aandelen in de fabriek aan de Staat af te geven, bekrachtigde de schikkingsovereenkomst. Natsvlishvili werd onmiddellijk vrijgelaten. Tegen de beslissing tot bekrachtiging van de schikking stond geen hoger beroep open.

Klacht

Natsvlishvili klaagt – op basis van artikel 6 § 1 EVRM en artikel 2 van Protocol 7 (recht op hoger beroep in strafzaken) – over het ontbreken van een appelmogelijkheid tegen de beslissing tot bekrachtiging van de schikking.

Daarnaast wordt geklaagd dat de omstandigheden van zijn aanhouding schending opleveren van artikel 6 § 2 (onschuldpresumptie). Natsvlishvili en zijn vrouw menen dat zij zijn gedwongen “coerced” tot het (zonder vergoeding) overdragen van de aandelen in de fabriek. Ook zouden zij bijkomende betalingen hebben verricht voor het stopzetten van de strafzaak.

Tot slot wordt op basis van artikel 34 geklaagd dat de Georgische autoriteiten hen onder druk zouden hebben gezet om hun klacht voor het Hof in te trekken. Er zou gedreigd zijn de schikking te vernietigen en de strafzaak tegen Natsvlishvili te heropenen.

Oordeel EHRM

The Court noted that plea bargaining between the prosecution and the defence was a common feature of European criminal justice systems and not in itself open to criticism. In Mr Natsvlishvili’s case, the plea bargain – a procedure introduced into the Georgian judicial system in 2004 – had been accompanied by sufficient safeguards against abuse. Mr Natsvlishvili had entered into the plea bargain voluntarily, having understood its contents and consequences.

Het hof neemt geen schending aan en wijst op de met procedurele waarborgen omgeven rechterlijke toetsing en – niet onbelangrijk – het gegeven dat klager, bijgestaan door twee raadslieden, de schikking heeft geaccepteerd en aldus afstand heeft gedaan van normale procedurele rechten.

Het Hof merkt allereerst op dat schikken als een gemeenschappelijk kenmerk van de Europese strafrechtelijke systemen kan worden beschouwd.

The Court further notes that it may be considered as a common feature of European criminal justice systems for an accused to obtain the lessening of charges or receive a reduction of his or her sentence in exchange for a guilty or nolo contendere plea in advance of trial or for providing substantial cooperation with the investigative authority. There cannot be anything improper in the process of charge or sentence bargaining in itself.

Volgens Hof betekent een plea bargain dat een verdachte afstand doet van bepaalde procedurele rechten. Dit is an sich geen probleem, aangezien artikel 6 EVRM er niet aan in de weg staat dat iemand vrijwillig afstand doet van zijn rechten mits dit op ondubbelzinnige wijze wijze geschiedt en hierbij bepaalde waarborgen in acht worden genomen.

The Court considers that where the effect of plea bargaining is that a criminal charge against the accused is determined through an abridged form of judicial examination, this amounts, in substance, to the waiver of a number of procedural rights. This cannot be a problem in itself, since neither the letter nor the spirit of Article 6 prevents a person from waiving these safeguards of his or her own free will (Scoppola v. Italy). 

However, it is also a cornerstone principle that any waiver of procedural rights must always, if it is to be effective for Convention purposes, be established in an unequivocal manner and be attended by minimum safeguards commensurate with its importance. In addition, it must not run counter to any important public interest.

In onderhavige zaak is hieraan voldaan:

The Court thus observes that by striking a bargain with the prosecution authority over the sentence and pleading no contest as regards the charges, the first applicant waived his right to have the criminal case against him examined on the merits. However, by analogy with the above‑mentioned principles concerning the validity of such waivers, the Court considers that the first applicant’s decision to accept the plea bargain should have been accompanied by the following conditions: (a) the bargain had to be accepted by the first applicant in full awareness of the facts of the case and the legal consequences and in a genuinely voluntary manner; and (b) the content of the bargain and the fairness of the manner in which it had been reached between the parties had to be subjected to sufficient judicial review.

In this connection, the Court first notes that it was the first applicant himself who asked the prosecution authority to arrange for a plea bargain. In other words, the initiative emanated from him personally and, as the case file discloses, could not be said to have been imposed by the prosecution; the first applicant unequivocally expressed his willingness to repair the damage caused to the State. He was granted access to the criminal case materials as early as 1 August 2004. The Court also observes that the first applicant was duly represented by two qualified lawyers of his choice. One of them started meeting with the first applicant at the very beginning of the criminal proceedings, representing him during the first investigative interview of 17 March 2004. The two lawyers ensured that the first applicant received advice throughout the plea-bargaining negotiations with the prosecution, and one of them also represented the first applicant during the judicial examination of the agreement. Of further importance is the fact that the judge of the Kutaisi City Court, who was called upon to examine the lawfulness of the plea bargain during the hearing of 10 September 2004, enquired with the first applicant and his lawyer as to whether he had been subjected to any kind of undue pressure during the negotiations with the prosecutor. The Court notes that the first applicant explicitly confirmed on several occasions, both before the prosecution authority and the judge, that he had fully understood the content of the agreement, had had his procedural rights and the legal consequences of the agreement explained to him, and that his decision to accept it was not the result of any duress or false promises.

The Court also notes that a written record of the agreement reached between the prosecutor and the first applicant was drawn up. The document was then signed by the prosecutor and by both the first applicant and his lawyer, and submitted to the Kutaisi City Court for consideration. The Court finds this factor to be important, as it made it possible to have the exact terms of the agreement, as well as of the preceding negotiations, set out for judicial review in a clear and incontrovertible manner.

As a further guarantee of the adequacy of the judicial review of the fairness of the plea bargain, the Court attaches significance to the fact that the Kutaisi City Court was not, according to applicable domestic law, bound by the agreement reached between the first applicant and the prosecutor. On the contrary, the City Court was entitled to reject that agreement depending upon its own assessment of the fairness of the terms contained in it and the process by which it had been entered into. Not only did the court have the right to assess the appropriateness of the sentence recommended by the prosecutor in relation to the offences charged, it had the power to lessen it (Article 679-4 §§ 1, 3, 4 and 6). The Court is further mindful of the fact that the Kutaisi City Court enquired, for the purposes of effective judicial review of the prosecution authority’s role in plea bargaining, whether the accusations against the first applicant were well-founded and supported by prima facie evidence (Article 679-4 § 5). The fact that City Court examined and approved the plea bargain during a public hearing, in compliance with the requirement contained in Article 679-3 § 1 of the CCP, additionally contributed, in the Court’s view, to the overall quality of the judicial review in question.

Lastly, as regards the first applicant’s complaint under Article 2 of Protocol No. 7, the Court considers that it is normal for the scope of the exercise of the right to appellate review to be more limited with respect to a conviction based on a plea bargain, which represents a waiver of the right to have the criminal case against the accused examined on the merits, than it is with respect to a conviction based on an ordinary criminal trial. It reiterates in this connection that the Contracting States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation under Article 2 of Protocol No. 7 (see, amongst others, Krombach v. France, no. 29731/96, § 96, ECHR 2001‑II). The Court is of the opinion that by accepting the plea bargain, the first applicant, as well as relinquishing his right to an ordinary trial, waived his right to ordinary appellate review. That particular legal consequence of the plea bargain, which followed from the clearly worded domestic legal provision (Article 679-7 § 2), was or should have been explained to him by his lawyers. By analogy with its earlier findings as to the compatibility of the first applicant’s plea bargain with the fairness principle enshrined in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the Court considers that the waiver of the right to ordinary appellate review did not represent an arbitrary restriction running afoul of the analogous requirement of reasonableness contained in Article 2 of Protocol No. 7 either.

In the light of the foregoing, the Court concludes that the first applicant’s acceptance of the plea bargain, which entailed the waiver of his rights to an ordinary examination of his case on the merits and to ordinary appellate review, was an undoubtedly conscious and voluntary decision. Judging by the circumstances of the case, that decision could not be said to have resulted from any duress or false promises made by the prosecution, but, on the contrary, was accompanied by sufficient safeguards against possible abuse of process. Nor can the Court establish from the available case materials that that waiver ran counter to any major public interest.

Lees hier de volledige uitspraak.

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