Natasha Simonsen is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. Previously, she worked as a consultant for UNICEF and has interned with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan.
Earlier this month, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights handed down its decision in Gäfgen v Germany. The case raised the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario that features in moral philosophy seminars the world over, forcing the Court to confront the question: is torture is ever justified? Although the Court’s rhetoric emphasised the absolute nature of the prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, that was not borne out in the result, with the majority finding that the admission of evidence obtained as a direct result of inhuman and degrading treatment did not compromise the fairness of the applicant’s trial.
The tragic facts of the case are as follows. The applicant lured a 12 year old boy to his Frankfurt apartment and suffocated him, disposing of the body beside a lake and issuing a ransom demand to the boy’s parents. Gäfgen collected the ransom, and was arrested attempting to flee from Frankfurt airport later that afternoon. He told police that the boy was alive and being held by two other (fictional) kidnappers in a hut by a lake, but repeatedly refused to disclose the location.
Believing the boy’s life to be in grave danger, and in the face of the applicant’s continued resistance to police questioning, the next morning the Deputy Chief of the Frankfurt police authorised Officer E to threaten Gäfgen with considerable pain, and to inflict that pain if necessary. The infliction of pain on the applicant was to occur under medical supervision by a specially trained police officer who was en route to Frankfurt in a helicopter at the time. The authorisation was fully documented in the police file, and was taken in defiance of explicit orders to the contrary by superiors. Gäfgen also alleged that he was pushed in the chest several times, shaken so that his head hit the wall, and that he was threatened with sexual abuse. The Grand Chamber did not find these additional facts to be established beyond a reasonable doubt, although they did accept that threats to inflict considerable pain on the applicant had been made and that officer E had the intention to carry them out. A mere ten minutes after the threat, Gäfgen made a full confession and admitted the boy was dead. He agreed to take police to the lake where he had hidden the body (on the condition that officer E was not present). He reiterated his confession on several subsequent occasions. Read the rest of this entry…