However, the case studies show that the right to privacy of an accused person is not respected at all times. The case of Katerina, one of the cases of HIV positive women serves as an apt example. It highlights that soon after the accused was taken into custody, all her personal information, including the HIV-positive results, were made public by order of the prosecutor. The public authorities went further by issuing a statement with all the details about the suspect and the other ten detained women. Their pictures were uploaded on the police website and were not anonymised or protected in any way. As noted above, disclosure of personal information about an alleged perpetrator is allowed in a limited range of circumstances, provided that it is proportionate and all interests, including those of suspects and accused, are respected. According to the EU Directive (18), disclosure would be reasonable and justified if the revealed information would prevent possible harm to the public interest or disturbance of the public order, or would ensure the safety of citizens. It is also allowed to reveal details about a suspect or accused if the public is asked to help for their identification. The prosecutor’s order for disclosure of Katerina and other women’s personal details and photos (incl. name and surname, charges against the accused, age, ethnicity, parent’s names, place of residence, place of origin and the sensitive medical information of being HIV positive), was based on similar grounds, as it states that “[it] aims at the protection of the public and the easier investigation and punishment of the above crimes. […] call for persons who had intercourse with them to proceed with medical examinations and the prevention of panic to those who had intercourse with a sex worker with similar characteristics”. However, it is certain that dissemination of information about one’s medical records, especially coupled with personal details and photos of the individual, should be considered as a last resort measure, even if it is based on serious concerns as the protection of public health. In this particular case, nine civil society organisations raised the alarm against the prosecutor’s order. They claimed that disclosure of sensitive medical data about the accused women was disproportionate as the same aims of the investigation could have been achieved by other means that better protect and respect the dignity and private life of the accused women. Moreover, the police and prosecution did not have the required permission by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority. Eventually, the police withdrew the announcement with the accused women’s personal information and photos from the Internet, but at that time the information had been already reproduced on multiple online platforms and it had become impossible to track and completely diminish the published data which continued circulating for years.
In certain cases, the authorities publicly reveal the identity of the person suspected or accused of committing the crime at a very early stage of the investigation, even before the person is arrested or formally charged. In the Sotirya murder case, for example, personal identifiable information about the suspect (name and age) was disclosed immediately after the crime was reported and was later confirmed after the person was arrested. As illustrated by the same case, the disclosure of suspect’s identity at such an early stage practically prevented any subsequent efforts to respect their privacy. Even though later in the investigation the Prosecutor’s Office issued several official press releases that were duly anonymised (the accused person was referred to only by his initials), the information already revealed at the initial phase allowed his identification. Another illustrative example is that only a day after the car accident in which the journalist Milen Tsvetkov died, the police disclosed footage from the crime scene, and although the identity of the suspect was not completely revealed, details such as his age, city of residence, the drug test results, and previous registered violations of traffic rules were disclosed which enabled the media to promptly uncover and publish information about the suspect, including pictures from his social media profile.
Disclosing personal and sensitive information related to the accused or suspected person usually leads to forming an extremely negative image of the person among the general public. This may result in public boycott, social exclusion, mental health issues, and immense stress on the accused and their family. For reasons like this, the law provides that the disclosure of personal information regarding a suspect and an accused person is allowed in strictly listed situations when it is absolutely necessary in order to protect the public interest, safety and order.
The Council of Europe Recommendation calls Member States to respect the right to protection of privacy of suspects and accused persons, noting in particular the harmful effect on them caused by unnecessary disclosure of identifiable information in cases where it does not facilitate the investigation. The EU Directive 2016/343 on the presumption of innocence allows Member States to publicly disseminate information on criminal proceedings only when it is needed for reasons related to the criminal investigation (e.g. video material is released and the public is asked to help in identifying the alleged perpetrator of the criminal offence) or to the public interest (e.g. for safety reasons, when information is provided to the inhabitants of an area affected by an alleged environmental crime or when the prosecution or another competent authority provides information in order to prevent a public order disturbance). The Directive also notes that the use of such reasons should be confined to situations in which this would be reasonable and proportionate, taking all interests into account.
Disclosure of sensitive information potentially leading to strong social reactions and public humiliation should be avoided, given the possible devastating effect on the lives of suspects, accused persons and their families. This claim is tragically illustrated by the series of events that occurred in the lives of the arrested women. Under the public pressure, Katerina relapsed to drug use and committed suicide, her father and siblings lost their jobs, relatives were expelled from school, the family was subject to disrespectful treatment by the local community and their neighbors. Moreover, in the following years three of the other accused women suffered the implications of scandals and public humiliation. It is noteworthy that the Greek court eventually found the women innocent for the crimes pressed against them. Their acquittal, however, was issued after Katerina’s death and could not take back the years of mortification, immense stress and social exclusion experienced by the accused women and their relatives.
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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