Several of the case studies demonstrate that judicial and law enforcement authorities disclose sensitive personal details and do not bear in mind the possible consequences on the suspects and accused. Moreover, in many cases such information provided no added value and its disclosure was neither required, nor did it facilitate the investigation and the resolution of the case. For instance, in the Sortiya murder case before the suspect was officially charged with the murder of the 6-year-old child, the district prosecutor disclosed the following data about the suspect:
“The suspect is 21-year-old Martin Trifonov. He is unemployed, antisocial, has no friends, his family is in a very difficult financial situation, he has no education“.
Further, the village mayor said:
“He was strange and did not communicate with people. A man who has been neglected and sloppy has no one to be his friend and to communicate with him. He loses the socium and maybe that has made him so distanced from his fellow men.”
Such assumptions are subjective by default. Pointing out negative personality traits or disadvantages only accelerates the conjecture that the suspect has the profile of a “criminal”. It can only turn the public against that person and lead to marginalisation and bias in favor of their guilt.
The presumption of innocence and fair trial principles are also breached by law enforcement authorities and the media for various reasons when the investigation is carried out with a negatively prejudiced outlook. People belonging to a specific group, community or ethnicity (migrants, refugees, colored people, etc.) are usually the most affected. Although this varies from country to country depending on the specific national context, there is no doubt that such a problem exists. It was observed in the case of the murder of Manolis Kantaris at Athens city center where the three accused were foreign nationals from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Soon after they were taken into custody, the media published articles calling the suspects “the Afghans” and “the murderers” from the onset. This reinforced stereotypes about ethnicity and crime and formed a negative image and perceptions about foreign nationals travelling to Greece. It culminated in the organisation of multiple protests mainly by the extreme right political organisation Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi) which accelerated the aggressive rhetoric against immigrants.
A similar pattern of disclosing personal information about the accused can be spotted in the case of Katerina, one of the cases of HIV positive women in Greece. Soon after Katerina was arrested, the public prosecutor issued an order for publishing her pictures along with her personal information. A number of NGOs and human rights organisations raised their voice against the disclosure of private data regarding all the suspects. The civil society organisations argued that sensitive medical data processing, such as data on HIV positivity, can only be lawful if permission is granted by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority. The prosecution attempted to justify the disclosure of medical results with the argument that it was ordered due to public health concerns and for the purpose of preventing the spread of the virus. National NGOs responded that it was a disproportionate measure given the devastating intrusion into the privacy of the accused women. It is particularly concerning that one’s medical condition could become a ground for discrimination reinforced by public authority actions. The fatal ending of Katerina’s life forcefully demonstrates the psycho-social effect of such discriminatory actions on one’s mental health. Similarly, in the Gabriel Cruz case from the very beginning of the trial a number of personal details were disclosed about the accused woman of Dominican origin. The subsequent petitions requesting her extradition to the Dominical Republic and pronouncing her a persona non grata are illustrative of the ways in which the unnecessary disclosure of personal details about a suspect or accused may accelerate xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes in society.
From the case studies described above it can be concluded that it is a matter of utmost importance to avoid publicising sensitive personal details about a defendant that may foment discriminatory attitudes in society. It should be considered on a case-by-case basis whether the disclosure of specific information might lead to discrimination against the defendant and/or the social group they represent. Above all, the main consideration should be whether disclosure is absolutely necessary for the effective execution of the criminal proceedings. If this is not the case, public authorities should keep such information to prevent discriminatory attitudes towards the individual defendant and the minority or vulnerable groups they represent.
The Recommendation of the Council of Europe (Principle 5) suggests that judicial authorities and police services should provide information to the media in the context of ongoing criminal proceedings on a non-discriminatory basis. In line with the European Convention on Human Rights, when disclosing information or making public announcements about a pending criminal case, the national authorities should refrain from referring to the suspect’s and accused persons’ individual characteristics such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other affiliation, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status (Art. 1 and Art. 14). This recommendation is directly related to the presumption of innocence of the defendants, as it aims to prevent any pre-judgements based on social stereotypes and prejudices associated with a certain group of society.
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a project to investigate the consequences to people’s personal lives when accused in committing a crime.
This website was funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014-2020).
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