[TRANSLATION – EXTRACTS]

...

THE FACTS

The first applicant, Mr Alessandro Giusto, and the second applicant, Ms Maria Chiara Bornacin, are a married couple and are both Italian nationals. They were both born in 1974 and live in Cogoleto (Genoa). Before the Court they stated that they were also acting on behalf of V. (the third applicant), a Belarusian national who was born on 25 May 1996 and currently lives in Belarus. The first two applicants signed powers of attorney authorising Mr A. Lana and Mr A. Saccucci, lawyers practising in Rome, to represent them before the Court. No power of attorney was signed either by the third applicant or by her statutory guardian.

A.  The circumstances of the case

The facts of the case, as submitted by the applicants, may be summarised as follows.

1.  V.'s arrival in Italy and placement with the first two applicants

In 2003 the first two applicants submitted a request to the non-governmental association Onlus Liguria Mare to put up a child from the area affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On 28 June 2003 the couple took in the third applicant for the first time. V.'s father was unknown, while her mother, who had been deprived of parental responsibility, was dead. V., who had been declared eligible for adoption, was living in an orphanage (Internat) in Vileika (Belarus).

V. stayed with the first two applicants on a regular basis, for three months in summer and two months in winter. The first two applicants visited her in Belarus for periods of approximately two weeks in between her trips to Italy. The couple maintained that they had spent about eighteen months with V. during the past three years, developing a relationship similar to that between parents and their children.

On 17 August 2004 the Genoa Youth Court declared the first two applicants fit for international adoption. However, they were unable to adopt V. because in October 2004 Belarus decided to suspend all international adoption procedures.

On 12 December 2005 Italy and Belarus signed a bilateral protocol in which Belarus undertook to conclude, by 1 March 2006, some one hundred and fifty adoption procedures pending with the Minsk Adoption Centre. The first two applicants instructed the Onlus Liguria Mare association to take the relevant steps concerning their application for adoption, while continuing to look after V. for about five months a year. By September 2006 only forty adoption procedures had been dealt with by the Minsk Adoption Centre.

According to the first two applicants, whenever she arrived to stay with them, V. was bruised, had trouble sleeping and her behaviour was bordering on autistic. Those disorders would subside once the child had spent a certain amount of time in Italy, but would reappear as the date of her return to Belarus drew nearer. This was confirmed by a report issued on 30 January 2006 by a psychologist, Dr B., who found, among other things, that the symptoms in question appeared to “demonstrate the child's extreme suffering as a result of her precarious situation and highlight[ed] the urgent need to provide her with stable living conditions among the family who have de facto adopted her”.

Furthermore, in 2004 the first two applicants had noticed cigarette burns on V.'s abdomen. Having been advised not to report the matter to the Italian authorities, they simply informed the director of the Vileika orphanage. In 2005 V. told the second applicant that the oldest boy in the orphanage had forced her and other girls to join in a game in which the girls had been undressed, tied up, kissed and bitten. According to a report drawn up on 10 March 2005 by Dr B., although the acts of violence suffered by V. “were not explicitly connected by her to the sphere of sexuality, they at least caused a state of confusion regarding displays of affection”.

Before leaving for the 2006 summer holidays, V. allegedly told the second applicant on the telephone that she had found a way to remain in Italy: killing herself and becoming an angel. The personnel responsible for taking V. from the airport to the first two applicants' home confiscated razor blades in V.'s possession. According to the first two applicants, she was intending to use them to commit suicide. V. subsequently attempted to drown herself, but her plan was thwarted when other people intervened.

During the 2006 summer holidays, V. told the second applicant that on several occasions she had been undressed, tied to a chair or bed, burned with cigarettes or lighters and forced to have oral or anal intercourse. The first two applicants suggested that V. visit another Belarusian child named Jacob, who was born on 31 March 1995 and was staying with a family in the Piedmont region. V. reacted hysterically to that suggestion. She then explained that in the Vileika orphanage she had been sexually abused by several people, including Jacob. It appears that Jacob confirmed that fact. In a report drawn up on 13 July 2006 Dr B. found the two children's versions of events to be credible. He added that V.'s suicidal fantasies were not the result of depression but an expression of the child's “magical thought” in response to her feeling of helplessness.

A file on the matter was opened by the Turin public prosecutor's office. A gynaecological examination performed on V. on 11 July 2006 revealed slight abnormalities and a doctor noted the presence of “multiple haematomas [resulting] from bruising” to the child's thorax and abdomen. It was suggested that V. undergo therapy.

2.  The first two applicants' application for adoption

On 28 June 2006 the first two applicants applied to the Genoa Youth Court to adopt V.

In an order of 22 August 2006, the text of which was deposited at the registry on 31 August 2006, the Youth Court refused the application. It observed that international adoption was subject to an adoption order by the Belarusian authorities. The court added that the information of which it had been made aware might have justified urgent measures under Articles 9 and 10 of the Hague Convention of 5 October 1961; however, such measures already formed the subject of separate proceedings. In any event, the Belarusian authorities had to be informed of the need to conclude adoption procedures as a matter of urgency where children had been materially and morally abandoned.

3.  The decisions of the Genoa Youth Court and V.'s repatriation

In the meantime, in a memorandum of 9 August 2006 the Belarusian Ministry of Education had expressed strong concern about the “improper conduct” of Italian families seeking to keep Belarusian children with them. It added that hearings held in the absence of official representatives of the children's interests (a State-appointed guardian and the Belarusian Consul) were unlawful, and demanded V.'s immediate repatriation. It also stated that the conduct referred to above was jeopardising the implementation of joint humanitarian projects.

On 11 August 2006 the Belarusian Embassy asked the Genoa Youth Court to order the immediate repatriation of V. In an appended note the Belarusian National Adoption Centre criticised the judicial decisions taken by the Italian authorities as being liable to undermine relations between the two States. It asserted that the children had been placed under psychological duress by the host families. If a decision to place V. in the care of an Italian family had been taken, the National Adoption Centre demanded that it be revoked.

On 16 August 2006 the Genoa Youth Court ordered that V. be entrusted to the care of Cogoleto District Council, which was to maintain her placement with the first two applicants. The court also instructed the Cogoleto social services and the mental-health and neuropsychiatry departments to “assume responsibility for the child's situation through assessment, diagnosis and treatment”. In addition, Cogoleto District Council was to submit a report by 30 October 2006.

The court observed in particular that there was strong evidence that V. had been subjected to “sexual and other forms of violence” at the Vileika orphanage. Furthermore, as indicated by reliable sources, the child's behaviour gave rise to fears of serious and irreversible consequences if she was not given “immediate therapy”. Accordingly, measures for her protection were required pursuant to Article 9 of the Hague Convention.

On 25 August 2006 V. met two Belarusian doctors at the Cogoleto District Council offices. According to a report by the District Council's head of social services, V. arrived at the meeting in the second applicant's arms and showed signs of stress as soon as the applicant had gone away. V. stayed close to the Italian staff, gave very brief replies to the questions and sometimes spoke in Italian. She firmly refused to take her clothes off.

In a memorandum dated 25 August 2006 the Belarusian Embassy provided the Genoa Youth Court with a “comprehensive psychological, educational and medical rehabilitation programme” for V. The programme, approved by the Belarusian Ministry of Education, was to be carried out at the State Social and Pedagogical Centre in Minsk. The Belarusian Embassy undertook to inform the Italian Government periodically of the progress of V.'s rehabilitation.

The programme in question contained a five-page description of the recreational and sports activities planned for V., her diet, the health checks and psychological counselling she would receive, and the persons responsible for each stage of her rehabilitation.

In a memorandum dated 31 August 2006 the Belarusian Embassy informed the Italian Government that the Belarusian authorities had taken urgent steps to clarify the situation in the Vileika orphanage. They undertook to keep the Italian Government informed of the outcome of their enquiries. V. would be placed in a specialist rehabilitation centre, thus avoiding a return to the orphanage in question. In addition, a medical and psychological rehabilitation programme had been devised and the Youth Court had been notified of its contents. Italy would be informed of any developments in the programme.

Moreover, Belarusian medical specialists had examined V. and had ruled out the possibility that her repatriation might affect her physical or mental health. She would be accompanied on the journey by specialist personnel.

In the light of the above factors, the Belarusian Embassy considered that there was no objective justification for V. to remain in Italy. It requested the Italian authorities to take action by 8 September 2006. Failing that, Belarus would be obliged to suspend international adoptions with Italy and programmes for visits there by Belarusian children.

Before the Court, the applicants produced a document dated 1 September 2006 by which the Italian Ministry of Justice had forwarded to the Genoa Youth Court the memorandum of 31 August 2006 from the Belarusian Embassy. The document of 1 September read:

“Ministry of Justice 
The Minister's Office

N. 102/41 
Rome, 1 September 2006

To the Genoa Youth Court 
To the Turin Youth Court 
For information: to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
For information: to the Ministry of Social Solidarity 
For information: to the Ministry of Family Policies 
For information: to the Commission for Intercountry Adoption  
attached to the Prime Minister's Office

Re.: Transmission of memorandum no. 149/1 dated 31 August 2006 from the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus

For information, and fully respecting the powers of [your] judicial authority, we hereby forward you memorandum no. 149/1 sent today to [our] Ministry by the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus concerning the cases of the children ... and [V.], [who are the subject] of proceedings pending before the Genoa and Turin Youth Courts.

The memorandum, after recapitulating the requests made by the above judicial authorities, which have apparently been fully satisfied, mentions the possibility of suspending international adoptions with Italy and programmes for the rehabilitation (risanamento) of Belarusian children [in Belarus] if the two children are not returned to the Republic of Belarus by 8 September 2006.

In order to facilitate communication with the Belarusian Embassy in Italy and with the authorities to which this [memorandum] is being forwarded for information, notification of the decisions taken is expected forthwith.”

The President of the Genoa Youth Court replied to the above letter on 5 September 2006. He stated that the Belarusian Embassy and Consulate had on several occasions contacted the Youth Court, which had always informed them of any decisions. The court was aware of the sensitive nature of the matter. On account of V.'s state of health, the court had entrusted her to the case of Cogoleto District Council. That decision had not been taken in connection with an adoption procedure; on the contrary, an application for the child's adoption under section 44 of Law no. 184/1983 (adoption in special cases) had been rejected. The reply by the President of the Youth Court further stated:

“As soon as her health allows, in the opinion of the medical team looking after her, the child will return to Belarus, with due regard to the relevant provisions and the relations between the two States.

It should also be noted that the letters we have been sent by the Embassy sometimes employ surprisingly peremptory language and indicate some confusion between the issue of adoption and the urgent procedures followed in accordance with Articles 9 and 10 of the Hague Convention of 5 October 1961, cited above.

While it is aware of the serious implications referred to in the memorandums from the Belarusian Embassy, the court is clearly unable to order the transfer of a child against the appropriate medical advice.”

According to a report drawn up on 5 September 2006 by a child neuropsychiatrist, Dr S., V. was very tense and anxious about her possible repatriation, which she viewed in dramatic terms, mentioning suicidal intentions. She had said that she had been sexually abused in Belarus by boys aged eighteen or nineteen who had found their way into the orphanage. V. showed that she had a deep relationship of trust with the first two applicants, whom she regarded as her own parents. In her opinion, her family was in Italy. Dr S. considered it necessary to continue the sessions with the child. Although she was probably fit to be “transported” in physical terms, she was not psychologically fit, because the frustration of her expectations was likely to cause trauma that would be difficult to overcome, resulting in permanent damage to her psychological and emotional stability.

In a note of 5 September 2006 to the President of the Genoa Youth Court, the Commission for Intercountry Adoption attached to the Prime Minister's Office stated that, while it appreciated and accepted the court's decision and the initiatives taken by the Belarusian authorities to protect V., it wished to “offer the broadest, most practical means of cooperation to facilitate the repatriation” of V. After confirming the Belarusian authorities' consent to V.'s being accompanied by an Italian doctor, the commission said that it was awaiting “notification of the decisions taken by the court as regards the steps to be taken to ensure the child's repatriation on the scheduled date”.

In an order of 6 September 2006, the text of which was deposited at the registry on 7 September 2006, the Genoa Youth Court set aside its decision of 16 August. It stated that the first two applicants were authorised to accompany V. on her journey back to Belarus or, failing that, to join her there and remain, with the local authorities' consent, for “as long as was deemed appropriate”. Lastly, the court asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Family Policies and the Commission for Intercountry Adoption to inform it periodically of any developments concerning the child's treatment and compliance with the Hague Convention in her case.

The court observed firstly that the Belarusian authorities had devised a detailed programme of treatment for V., making it possible for her, at her request, to stay in contact with the first two applicants. In addition, Belarus had undertaken not to prevent the first two applicants and Italian doctors from entering and staying in its territory. Accordingly, the Italian authorities were under an obligation to cooperate with their Belarusian counterparts in the child's best interests as guaranteed by the Hague Convention, to which both States were parties. The court observed at the same time that V. was “physically fit” to travel to Belarus, but that her immediate separation from her host family and doctors might cause her psychological trauma.

On 8 September 2006 the first two applicants were contacted by the Cogoleto carabinieri, who reproached them for failing to attend an appointment scheduled for V.'s repatriation. According to the applicants, they had not been informed of the order of 6 September 2006, which was not served on their lawyer until 11 September. They also refused to disclose V.'s whereabouts, for her own protection. Proceedings were instituted against them for false imprisonment of a minor.

On 11 September 2006 the Genoa Youth Court directed that V. was to be found as soon as possible and placed in a care home for as long as was strictly necessary to arrange for her repatriation. In addition, it prohibited V. from being entrusted to the care of anyone other than the persons indicated by the Belarusian authorities, and confirmed that she should be accompanied to Belarus by Dr B. and Dr S.

On 22 September 2006 the first two applicants appealed against the order of 6 September 2006. They sought a stay of execution of the decision in issue, which was immediately enforceable.

On 26 September 2006 the carabinieri found V. in Valle d'Aosta, in the company of the first two applicants' mothers. She was transferred to an institution run by nuns in Genoa. The first two applicants were initially not told the name of the institution and were subsequently not allowed to contact V.

According to the first two applicants, pressure was put on them by the State Secretary for Justice and the Bishop of Savona (who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Minister of Justice) to withdraw their appeal.

The hearing in the Genoa Court of Appeal was held on 28 September 2006. The representative of Belarus asserted that it was no longer possible for V.'s repatriation to take place under the conditions initially set by the Youth Court; in particular, the first two applicants could not accompany V. or keep in contact with her.

According to the applicants, at the end of the hearing the Court of Appeal informed their lawyers that the decision would be delivered “in a few days”. It did not rule on the first two applicants' request for a stay of execution of the order appealed against.

On 29 September 2006 at about 5 p.m. V., accompanied by Dr B. and Dr S., was taken by taxi to Genoa Airport. She was escorted by a car with carabinieri inside. According to the first two applicants, the taxi driver said that V. had been screaming and crying throughout the journey.

On the same day at about 8.10 p.m. the first two applicants discovered on television that V. had been transferred to the airport. They went to the airport, together with their lawyers. They also contacted two other lawyers from Rome – their representatives before the Court – asking them to submit a request for interim measures under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. The request was duly submitted but it arrived at the Court at about 10 p.m., by which time V. was already on board the aircraft bound for Minsk. The applicants subsequently withdrew their request, which the Court was therefore not required to examine.

The first applicant was initially informed that a flight for Minsk had taken off at 8.40 p.m. In fact, the flight, with V. on board, did not leave Genoa until approximately 9.20 p.m. After a stop in Milan, it continued its onward journey to Minsk at about 11 p.m.

4.  Dismissal of the first two applicants' appeal by the Genoa Court of Appeal

On 30 September 2006 at about 12.55 p.m. the Genoa Court of Appeal deposited with the registry an order by which it dismissed the applicants' appeal. It appears from the case file that that decision had been adopted on 28 September 2006.

The Court of Appeal observed that the order appealed against had been made by the Genoa Youth Court in an unusual factual context. In particular, on 12 August 2006 the Belarusian Embassy had sought V.'s repatriation. When interviewed the following day by the Cogoleto carabinieri, she had stated that she had been subjected to violence in her own country and did not wish to return there. Furthermore, on 16 August 2006 the Youth Court had noted, among other things, that V. showed signs of “profound psychological suffering”. On 25 August 2006 V. had been examined by two Belarusian doctors, in the presence of Italian specialists including a psychologist. She had replied to the questions in Italian and had refused to take her clothes off; as a result, only a superficial and external examination had been possible.

The Belarusian Embassy had then stated that the programme of treatment devised for V. was in her interests and that any refusal to repatriate her would have “serious repercussions” for relations between the two countries as regards visits by Belarusian children to stay with Italian families. At the same time, Cogoleto District Council had suggested extending V.'s stay in Italy, stating that it was willing to provide the necessary assistance to that end. The neuropsychiatrist who had treated V. had said that the sudden removal of the child from what she regarded as her own environment would entail serious risks.

The Court of Appeal explained that under the relevant provisions of Belarusian law, guardianship of V. was assumed by the director of the institution in which she had been placed.

The first two applicants had agreed, as part of a cooperation scheme between Italy and many other States, to take in a foreign child for several months a year, for humanitarian purposes. Contact with the foreign care homes had been arranged by non-governmental organisations. V. had stayed three times with the first two applicants, a couple who had been declared fit to adopt a foreign child. V. had developed excellent relations with the couple in question, to such an extent that she wished to remain in Italy with them and saw them as her “parents”. Indeed, such aspirations were fairly common, since it was natural for children who did not have a family and came from less wealthy countries than Italy to find that Italian couples gave them the comfort and affection they needed. Difficulties thus frequently arose when the time came for the children to return to their own country.

In the instant case, the ties between V. and the first two applicants were especially intense and this deep attachment, when set against her troubled experiences in the orphanage, had caused the child to attempt suicide in order to avoid being repatriated.

Those tribulations had aroused strong reactions among the public, but that did not mean that the legal context of the present case could be disregarded. V.'s trips to Italy had not been intended to provide her with a new family. If the first two applicants had wished to take steps to that end, they should have applied to adopt V. in accordance with the procedure set out in the protocol between Italy and Belarus. Failing that, their position was that of assistants to the institution in which V. had been placed. In such circumstances, they lacked the capacity to appeal against the Genoa Youth Court's decision, which could have been challenged only by the institution in question, V.'s guardian or State Counsel's office. The first two applicants did not have any parental responsibility over V. and were therefore not “parties” to the judicial proceedings concerning her.

That fact would have been sufficient to dismiss the appeal. However, in view of the media attention attracted by V.'s story, the Court of Appeal considered it necessary to point out that, even assuming that the first two applicants had had locus standi, their allegations could not in any event have been upheld.

The Court of Appeal was competent to order measures to protect V. under Article 9 of the Hague Convention, provided that the child was in Italian territory and in danger. The Italian judicial authorities ceased to have jurisdiction once Belarus had taken the “steps demanded by the situation”. This was borne out by case-law of the Court of Cassation (judgment no. 1 of 9 January 2001). The relevance and sufficiency of the measures taken by the Belarusian authorities could be assessed by the Italian courts from a formal standpoint only; moreover, the courts in question had rightly adjourned consideration of the situation until the experts responsible for examining V. had submitted their conclusions.

Nevertheless, under the New York Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children were entitled to receive such care as was necessary for their well-being and to live in conditions guaranteeing their balanced development. In order to observe those principles, the Court of Appeal had a duty to ensure that V.'s repatriation would not be traumatic and that the psychological aspect had been taken into account.

In the instant case the Genoa Youth Court had laid down appropriate arrangements for the child's repatriation and Italy and Belarus had concluded agreements on that basis. The Court of Appeal thus reaffirmed that two Italian specialists should have “planned” the repatriation in conjunction with their Belarusian counterparts. The first two applicants could have been involved in such cooperation in V.'s interests, in accordance with the procedure suggested by the Youth Court for further elaboration by the Italian and Belarusian central authorities.

It was true that Belarus had stated that it was “not very receptive” towards the first two applicants; that, however, was not a factor that could alter the Court of Appeal's conclusions. It had not proved necessary to interview V., seeing that she had already been interviewed and made her wishes clear. Summoning the child would have caused unnecessary trauma at a later stage.

The Court of Appeal stated, lastly, that during the drafting of the statement of reasons for its order, it had learned informally that V. had already been repatriated on the initiative of the Belarusian authorities, under different conditions from those set out by the Youth Court. The Youth Court's new order, adopted after the first two applicants had failed to hand over V., was said to have justified that act. The Court of Appeal, before which only an appeal against the order of 6 September 2006 had been brought, was unable to make an assessment in that regard.

On 12 October 2006 the doctors who had accompanied V. to Belarus returned to Italy. They submitted a report to the Genoa Youth Court stating that the child was in good psychological and physical health. The report was not sent to the first two applicants, who learned of its contents through the media. On 18 October 2006 they asked to be given access to it and to make copies, but their request was refused by the Genoa Youth Court on the ground that the Court of Appeal's decision indicated that the first two applicants did not have locus standi in the proceedings concerning V.'s repatriation.

According to information supplied by the first two applicants on 18 October 2006, they had not received any news from the Italian authorities by that date as to V.'s state of health and had been unable to contact her, even by telephone. “Indirect” information had reached them through the Belarusian authorities. In addition, the director of the orphanage in Vileika had stated that V.'s allegations of being ill-treated in his institution were false. Accordingly, V. would be able to return to the orphanage in question after completing her psychological and educational rehabilitation programme.

Following a request by the Registry, the first two applicants submitted fresh information on 18 December 2006 as to V.'s circumstances. They stated that, since lodging their application, they had had no contact with the child and had not received any news of her health. However, they had learned through the media that V. was living with Mr and Mrs Z., forty kilometres from Minsk. The Z. family were also looking after V.'s thirteen-year-old brother, S. The Belarusian authorities had apparently given the first two applicants cause to hope that they might be able to adopt V. The newspapers had also reported that V. had been given assurances about her return to Italy, which was said to be imminent. However, the first two applicants were not in possession of any evidence that steps to that end had been taken by Belarus. In addition, on several occasions V. had apparently reiterated her desire to live in Italy with the first two applicants.

COMPLAINTS

1.  Relying on Article 3 of the Convention, the applicants alleged that V.'s repatriation had amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.

2.  Relying on Article 8 of the Convention, the applicants complained of an infringement of their right to respect for their family life.

3.  Relying on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the applicants complained of an infringement of their right of access to a court.

4.  The applicant alleged that the Genoa Youth Court was not an “independent and impartial tribunal” within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

5.  Relying on Article 13 of the Convention, the applicants complained that there was no domestic remedy in respect of the decisions of the Genoa Youth Court and Court of Appeal.

6.  The applicants contended that there had been a hindrance of their right of individual application to the Court under Article 34 of the Convention.

THE LAW

A.  Whether the first two applicants may act on behalf of V. before the Court

1.  The first two applicants' submissions

...

The first two applicants relied on Recommendation (87) 6 of 20 March 1987, in which the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe had expressed the following principles, inter alia:

–  foster parents should be presumed to have the power to exercise, on behalf of the legal representatives of the child, those parental responsibilities which were necessary to care for the child in day-to-day or urgent matters;

–  after a foster child had become integrated into the foster family, in particular after a substantial period of fostering, the foster parents should be able to apply, subject to any conditions specified by national legislation, to a judicial or other competent authority, for power to exercise certain parental responsibilities including, where appropriate, legal custody;

–  where the child had been integrated into the foster family, in particular after a substantial period of fostering, then, if the person or the authority which arranged the fostering wished to terminate it and the foster parents opposed the termination, it was for the judicial or other competent authority to take a decision.

In any event, the first two applicants argued that they could be regarded as “indirect victims” of the violations suffered by V. They had close ties with the child, had suffered adverse consequences on account of the violations and had a personal interest in putting an end to them.

2.  The Court's assessment

The Court reiterates that a restrictive or purely technical approach in this area is to be avoided where representation of children before the Convention institutions is concerned; in particular, regard must be had to the links between the children and their “representatives”, the object and scope of the application and whether there are any conflicts of interest (see S.D., D.P. and A.T. v. the United Kingdom [no. 23715/94, Commission decision of 20 May 1996]).

In the present case, the Court observes at the outset that the first two applicants do not exercise any parental responsibility over V., are not her guardians and are not biologically related to her. The procedure for V.'s adoption was unsuccessful. No power of attorney was signed in favour of the first two applicants authorising them to represent V.'s interests before the Court. It follows that the first two applicants do not appear, from a legal standpoint, to possess the necessary qualifications to act on the child's behalf in judicial proceedings. Furthermore, they have never applied to the Italian authorities to be appointed as V.'s guardians on the basis of the emergency resulting, in their opinion, from the child's allegations of ill-treatment.

Be that as it may, the Court considers that, in the particular circumstances of the present case, it is not necessary to examine whether the first two applicants have the necessary capacity to lodge an application with it on V.'s behalf. Even assuming that they do have locus standi, their complaints are in any event inadmissible for the following reasons.

B.  Complaint under Article 3

The applicants submitted that V.'s repatriation had infringed Article 3 of the Convention, which provides:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

1.  The applicants' submissions

In the applicants' submission, there had been a breach of Article 3 firstly in respect of V., on account of the risk that while in Belarus – which was not a State Party to the Convention – she would return to the Vileika orphanage and be subjected to similar acts of violence to those of which she had complained, and/or that no effective measures for her protection (including an investigation aimed at identifying the perpetrators of the violence) would be taken by that country's authorities. Furthermore, the conditions in which the repatriation had taken place and the child's removal from the first two applicants had caused her irreparable psychological and emotional trauma. Referring to the reports drawn up by the doctors who had treated V., the applicants submitted that the Italian authorities had not reviewed the effectiveness and relevance of the measures which the Belarusian authorities had undertaken to carry out for V.'s protection. The “rehabilitation plan” resembled the programme for a holiday camp and was not an appropriate means of resolving the child's serious psychological problems. In addition, the Belarusian authorities had already breached their undertaking to allow contact between V. and the first two applicants.

Article 3 had also been infringed in respect of the first two applicants, on account of the “extreme psychological suffering” they had endured before and after V.'s repatriation, exacerbated by the fact that they had been unable to contact her and to receive precise information about her health.

2.  The Court's assessment

(a)  General principles

As the Court has consistently held, ill-treatment must attain a minimum level of severity if it is to fall within the scope of Article 3. The assessment of that minimum level is, in the nature of things, relative; it depends on all the circumstances of the case, such as the nature and context of the treatment, the manner and method of its execution, its duration, its physical or mental effects and, in some instances, the sex, age and state of health of the victim (see, among other authorities, Price v. the United Kingdom, no. 33394/96, § 24, ECHR 2001-VII; Mouisel v. France, no. 67263/01, § 37, ECHR 2002-IX; and Naumenko v. Ukraine, no. 42023/98, § 108, 10 February 2004).

Allegations of ill-treatment must be supported by appropriate evidence (see Jalloh v. Germany [GC], no. 54810/00, § 67, ECHR 2006-IX). To assess this evidence, the Court adopts the standard of proof “beyond reasonable doubt” but adds that such proof may follow from the coexistence of sufficiently strong, clear and concordant inferences or of similar unrebutted presumptions of fact (see Ireland v. the United Kingdom, 18 January 1978, § 161 in fine, Series A no. 25, and Labita v. Italy [GC], no. 26772/95, § 121, ECHR 2000-IV).

Furthermore, regard must be had to “the fact that the Convention is a 'living instrument which must be interpreted in the light of present-day conditions' [and] that the increasingly high standard being required in the area of the protection of human rights and fundamental liberties correspondingly and inevitably requires greater firmness in assessing breaches of the fundamental values of democratic societies” (see Mubilanzila Mayeka and Kaniki Mitunga v. Belgium, no. 13178/03, § 48, ECHR 2006-XI).

The Convention institutions have considered treatment to be “inhuman” because, inter alia, it was premeditated, was applied for hours at a stretch and caused either actual bodily injury or intense physical and mental suffering (see Labita, cited above, § 120). They have also deemed treatment to be “degrading” because it was such as to arouse in the victims feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing them and possibly breaking their physical or moral resistance (see Hurtado v. Switzerland, Commission's report of 8 July 1993, § 67, Series A no. 280), or of driving them to act against their will or conscience (see Keenan v. the United Kingdom, no. 27229/95, § 110, ECHR 2001-III). Furthermore, in considering whether treatment is “degrading” within the meaning of Article 3, the Court will have regard, inter alia, to whether its object was to humiliate and debase the person concerned. However, the absence of any such purpose cannot conclusively rule out a finding of a violation of Article 3 (see Raninen v. Finland, 16 December 1997, § 55, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1997-VIII, and Peers v. Greece, no. 28524/95, §§ 68 and 74, ECHR 2001-III).

Furthermore, where a particular case raises, among other issues, the question whether substantial grounds have been shown for believing that a real risk of treatment contrary to Article 3 exists in the country to which the victim is to be expelled, the Court will assess the issue in the light of all the material placed before it or, if necessary, material obtained proprio motu. Since the nature of the Contracting States' responsibility under Article 3 in cases of this kind lies in the act of exposing an individual to the risk of ill-treatment, the existence of the risk must be assessed primarily with reference to those facts which were known or ought to have been known to the State in question at the time of the expulsion or repatriation; the Court is not precluded, however, from having regard to information which comes to light at a subsequent point. This may be of value in confirming or refuting the assessment that has been made by the Contracting Party of the well-foundedness or otherwise of an applicant's fears (see mutatis mutandis, Mamatkulov and Askarov v. Turkey [GC], nos. 46827/99 and 46951/99, § 69, ECHR 2005-I, and Cruz Varas and Others v. Sweden, 20 March 1991, §§ 75-76, Series A no. 201).

The Court considers that it should first examine the complaint in respect of V. – since the measure complained of was imposed on her personally – before considering the complaint in respect of the first two applicants, who argued that they too were victims of the measure (see, mutatis mutandis, Mubilanzila Mayeka and Kaniki Mitunga, cited above, § 49).

(b)  Application of the above principles in respect of V.

The Court has studied the reports by Dr B. referring to V.'s “extreme suffering” as a result of her precarious situation, to her attachment to the first two applicants and to the trauma she had suffered in the Vileika orphanage. It has also taken note of the fact that in its order of 16 August 2006 the Genoa Youth Court found that there was strong evidence that V. had been subjected to “sexual and other forms of violence” at the orphanage. Those factors prompt the conclusion that it was not desirable for the child to be returned immediately to the institution in Vileika.

The Court notes that the Italian authorities did not take such action. In fact, V. did not leave Italy until 29 September 2006, forty-four days after the above-mentioned order had been made. During that period, meetings took place between V. and Belarusian and Italian doctors, who conducted a thorough examination of her physical health and her psychological and emotional stability. Furthermore, a programme for her “psychological, educational and medical” rehabilitation was drawn up by the Belarusian Ministry of Education. The Court considers that the programme's adoption demonstrates the care taken by the appropriate authorities to eradicate any trauma suffered by the child. The Belarusian authorities had also undertaken to clarify the situation at the Vileika orphanage and to avoid returning V. to that institution. It appears that the latter undertaking was honoured, since the information supplied on 18 December 2006 by the first two applicants themselves indicates that V. had not returned to the Vileika orphanage but had been placed with a Belarusian foster family, who were also looking after her brother.

Moreover, Dr B. and Dr S., who had treated the child in Italy, were instructed by the judicial authority to accompany her to Belarus and, on their return, drew up a report certifying that she was in good physical and psychological health. It is true that, contrary to what was considered desirable by the Youth Court in its order of 6 September 2006, the first two applicants were not present on the journey. In the Court's view, however, they were kept away because of their refusal to disclose V.'s whereabouts and because proceedings had been instituted against them for false imprisonment of a minor.

In the light of the foregoing, the Court considers that, having regard to all the precautions taken by the authorities, although V.'s repatriation inevitably caused a certain degree of suffering, in the particular circumstances of the case it did not amount to treatment in breach of Article 3 of the Convention.

(c)  Application of the above principles in respect of the first two applicants

The Court observes, as the national courts did, that the facts of the case indicate that an intense emotional bond had developed between the first two applicants and V. Accordingly, it cannot underestimate the suffering and the feelings of helplessness that the child's removal must have caused them.

However, it observes that the measures referred to above, which were taken by the Italian and Belarusian authorities for the child's protection, could have reassured the first two applicants as to V.'s well-being. Furthermore, although it was necessary for their contact with the child to be temporarily cut off, there is no evidence to suggest that in the future they will not have the possibility of visiting V. or keeping in touch with her by telephone or in writing.

In those circumstances, the Court considers that the first two applicants' possible feelings of frustration or anguish did not attain the minimum level of severity to fall within the scope of Article 3 of the Convention.

It follows that this complaint is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

...

For these reasons, the Court unanimously

Declares the application inadmissible.

GIUSTO AND OTHERS v. ITALY DECISION


GIUSTO AND OTHERS v. ITALY DECISION