NGOs can secure justice for otherwise voiceless people who die at hands of the State, says Strasbourg Court in groundbreaking judgment

The European Court of Human Rights today found the Romanian government responsible for the death of 18-year old Valentin Câmpeanu in sub-zero temperatures in a psychiatric hospital in 2004. The ruling will have implications for legal systems across Europe as the Court clarified that NGOs could represent people with disabilities who died and where there was no one else to seek justice.

Valentin Câmpeanu was born in 1985 in Romania and was abandoned at birth. He was of Roma origin and grew up in orphanages and like so many other children, was infected with HIV through blood transfusion. He developed learning disabilities at a young age. On reaching the age of 18 he was transferred to an adult institution which denied him antiretroviral medication. When his physical health deteriorated, he was – bizarrely – transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

On 20 November 2004, staff of the NGO Centre for Legal Resources (CLR) visited the hospital and met Mr Câmpeanu, half-clothed, kept in a side room in sub-zero temperatures and severely malnourished. They saw how nurses refused to touch him for fear of contracting HIV. A few hours later, he died.

Following his death there was no investigation and no-one was held to account. As Valentin had no relatives, the Centre for Legal Resources applied to the European Court of Human Rights on his behalf. They were represented by lawyer Constantin Cojocariu. In its ruling today, the Strasbourg Court found that the Romanian government breached Mr Câmpeanu’s right to life, and criticised the authorities for not conducting any investigation.

International human rights organisations intervened in the case: the Mental Disability Advocacy Center, Human Rights Watch, sexual and reproductive rights organisation the Euroregional Center for Public Initiatives, and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

Georgiana Pascu, Program Manager for CLR said: "This decision is extremely important in Romania and also across Europe. The death of Valentin Câmpeanu occurred after several authorities failed. Our view is that the whole system dealing with people with mental disabilities is responsible. The ECHR decision sets a precedent that will help tens of thousands of people in similar situations to Valentin Câmpeanu across Europe. "

Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also intervened in the case. He tweeted today: “Câmpeanu judgment, milestone for access to justice for persons with disabilities - glad 2 have contributed to it.”

Highlighting the denial of justice to people with mental disabilities, Oliver Lewis, MDAC Executive Director, said: “Valentin Câmpeanu is one of millions of people with mental disabilities who, for centuries, have been abandoned by their families and their communities. They have been segregated from society, abandoned in institutions where they have died through abuse and neglect. The difference for Mr Câmpeanu is that NGOs were there to fight for him after he died. Today's judgment changes the legal landscape across Europe: NGOs can now demand justice for people who otherwise would have none.”

The case highlights the serious consequences of multiple forms of discrimination. Iustina Ionescu, Director of Programs ECPI, said: "In the light of this groundbreaking case, the Euroregional Center for Public Initiatives underlines the pressing need for Romanian authorities to assume responsibility for combating stigma and discrimination related to HIV status. The last National Strategy regarding HIV expired in 2007 and we believe action must be taken to prevent further human rights violations against persons living with HIV, as this case has demonstrated."

Legal Director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Margarita Ilieva, commented: “After the breakthrough with the Câmpeanu judgment, the freedom of the state to kill with impunity in institutions will be substantially restricted. The cases brought against Bulgaria involve even more serious human rights violations of which the state will be condemned”.

  • The Centre for Legal Resources (CLR) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization which actively advocates for the establishment and operation of a legal and institutional framework that safeguards the observance of human rights and equal opportunities, free access to fair justice and which contributes to the capitalization of its legal expertise for the general public interest. www.crj.ro. Contact: Georgiana Pascu, Program Manager ‘Advocate for Dignity’, georgianap@crj.ro, +40-7-2988-1159.
  • The Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) is an international human rights organisation which works to secure equality, inclusion and justice for people with mental disabilities worldwide. In its third party intervention, MDAC pointed out that there must not be impunity for deaths of people with mental disabilities who die at the hands of the authorities. www.mdac.org. Twitter: @MDACintl. Contact: Steven Allen, Advocacy and Communications Director: steven@mdac.org, +36-30-252-8444.
  • The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) is an independent non-governmental organisation for the protection of human rights. In its third party intervention, BHC pointed out that unless the Court grants NGOs standing to pursue in their own right applications before it for the sake of dead victims or of living victims lacking formal capacity to authorize representation, institutionalized persons with disabilities will continue to encounter denial of justice. www.bghelsinki.org. Contact: Krassimir Kanev, Chair, krassimir@bghelsinki.org, +3592 944 0670.
  • The Euroregional Center for Public Initiatives (ECPI) is a human rights organization promoting non-discrimination and sexual and reproductive rights. In its third party intervention, ECPI explained the stigma and discrimination persons living with HIV face in accessing health care services in Romania. www.ecpi.ro. Contact: Iustina Ionescu, Director of Programs: iionescu@ecpi.ro, +40-7-2225-3789.
  • The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found the Romanian government in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, both in failing to prevent Mr Câmpeanu’s death, and further in failing to investigate after he had died. The Court’s press release can be found here: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-4822317-5881639?TID=nfurtkwdgx. The full judgment can be found here: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng-press/pages/search.aspx?i=001-145577