Many believe that life imprisonment should last until a person’s biological death. However, international standards have long since changed this approach and require a realistic chance of release from such punishment to be provided. These standards are reflected in the legal systems of EU countries that have already introduced various methods of such release.
This chance is required by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights tasked with interpreting the Convention considers a mechanism for such release necessary (Vinter and others v. The United Kingdom).
According to the Court’s interpretation, persons sentenced to life imprisonment have the right to know when and under what circumstances the possibility of parole can be considered. However, this right does not guarantee that the convicted person will be released. Release is only possible if continued imprisonment can no longer be justified on any legitimate “penological grounds”.
Ukraine has no such mechanism. While the Criminal Code allows the President to pardon persons sentenced to life imprisonment and change the term of their imprisonment, this mechanism is of an exceptional nature and cannot be considered a realistic chance. This was confirmed by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture in its report regarding the visit to Ukraine in 2016.
Article 28 of the Ukrainian Constitution has a provision similar to Article 3 of the European Convention: “No one shall be subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In light of the friendly attitude toward international law, the Constitutional Court, when interpreting this provision, may take into account the interpretation of Article 3 of the Convention by the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, Article 28 of the Ukrainian Constitution can be interpreted in the same way as Article 3 of the European Convention. This means that the absence of a realistic chance of release from life imprisonment in Ukraine potentially violates the Constitution of Ukraine.
The advent of the constitutional complaints mechanism in Ukraine provided a tool that allows citizens to raise the issue of the constitutionality of laws. Among such complaints submitted to the Constitutional Court, there are complaints from persons serving a life sentence. So far they are few, but we can expect dozens or even hundreds in the future.
For instance, the Constitutional Court’s website, among other complaints on unconstitutionality, has a complaint from one V. Panasenko, who is serving a life sentence. We know that the issue of the lack of a realistic chance of release has been brought before the Constitutional Court.
We can safely say that this is not an isolated issue, for there are over 1,500 people sentenced to life imprisonment in Ukraine. The convicts have contacted UHHRU and Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group many times, protesting against the lack of a realistic chance of release. It emphasizes the particular social significance of the issue of release from life imprisonment for the protection of human rights.
Incidentally, UHHRU is working on a strategic case on this issue in the European Court of Human Rights. However, even if the Court reaches a positive decision, the problem will probably remain unresolved until the Criminal Code is amended appropriately. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court can directly encourage the Parliament to adopt appropriate legislative norms. This makes the Constitutional Court’s position regarding the lack of a realistic chance of release from life imprisonment in Ukraine especially important.
In light of the above, UHHRU and KHRPG express the hope that the issue of possible parole for persons serving a life sentence will be considered by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine in the near future, and will be addressed in accordance with international human rights standards.
Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group