On 7 September 2023, six European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) Justices concluded that public statements made by the Justice Minister of Slovenia in connection with the money laundering case of a former Government Minister contravened the presumption of innocence provisions of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the ‘Convention’).
The ECtHR, led by President Alena Poláčková, found that the Justice Minister’s televised comments that “if this case becomes time-barred ... I will do everything possible to make heads roll” and “a lot of people will have to answer [for that]” amounted to a breach of Article 6.2 of the Convention, given that such “blunt and imprudent language used by a high-ranking State official was likely to influence public opinion as regards the applicant’s guilt” and was “capable of prejudicing the decision-making of [the judiciary]”. Ad Hoc Judge Vasilka Sancin dissented on this issue, finding that the comments were not capable of prejudicing the Slovenian judiciary owing to its judicial independence, and that there was accordingly no violation of the presumption of innocence.
The application lodged with the ECtHR was submitted by a former Slovenian Interior and Europe Minister who was convicted of money laundering in a highly publicised domestic trial in 2016, during which the Justice Minister made the above televised comments. Several appeals against the conviction were dismissed by the domestic courts, and the applicant brought his case to the ECtHR in April 2020 – alleging breaches of Article 6.1 (relating to the right to an independent and impartial tribunal), Article 6.2, and Article 7 (relating to the right to no punishment without law).
The ECtHR found that Article 6 was admissible in the circumstances, and that the bulk of the applicant’s submissions concerned Article 6.2. In this regard, the ECtHR found that Slovenia had violated the applicant’s presumption of innocence, given that the comments were likely to “give the impression that it was high time for the domestic courts in question to convict the applicant, with final effect” – particularly as the comments were made by a person, the Justice Minister, who “embodied par excellence the political authority responsible for the organisation and proper functioning of the courts”. The ECtHR held that the comments were perceived by the Slovenian judiciary “as an announcement of sanctions and a determination of the judges’ responsibility” and were therefore “capable of prejudging the decision-making” of the domestic courts. Having determined that there had been a violation of the presumption of innocence under Article 6.2, the ECtHR found that it was not required to examine separately the applicant’s arguments in respect of Article 6.1.
Ad Hoc Judge Vasilka Sancin came to a different conclusion on the matter of Article 6.2, noting in her dissent that the “independent work of judges is guaranteed in Slovenia” and that the finding of the majority that the comments were capable of prejudicing the domestic judiciary was therefore “exaggerated and not sufficiently justified”.
The ECtHR also found that Article 7 was admissible, but on the facts unanimously held that the domestic courts had given due consideration to all relevant sources of law in convicting the applicant of money-laundering, and had “replied to the applicant’s arguments in full”. The ECtHR therefore found that there had been no violation of the applicant’s Article 7 right to no punishment without law.
The ECtHR, exercising its power under Article 41 of the Convention to award just satisfaction to a party injured by a violation of the Convention, awarded the applicant €10,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damages – and further awarded the applicant costs in the amount of €6,000.
Click here for the judgment in Case of Bavčar v. Slovenia App No 17053/20 (ECHR, 7 September 2023).