Court said it has no jurisdiction in the case, but that Russia should have investigated.
LONDON – In the long-simmering and emotional debate over a notorious mass killing during World War II, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Monday that Russia “had failed to comply with its obligation” to adequately investigate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police in 1940.
But the court said it had no jurisdiction over the massacre itself or on the subsequent treatment of the relatives of the dead, prompting an outcry in Poland and expressions of satisfaction among officials in Moscow, underscoring the deep and lingering divisions inspired by the mass killing in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
“We are rather disappointed by this verdict,” said Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Artur Nowak-Far, according to Agence France-Presse. “The ruling does not take into account all the arguments of the Polish side that have here a great moral and historic right.”
Andrzej Melak, president of the Association of the Families of Katyn Victims, called the judgment “scandalous,” adding that it was “inadmissible and incomprehensible.”
“The failure to condemn this genocide and the impunity of its perpetrators led to it being repeated in Rwanda, the Balkans and it will be repeated again,” he said. “Poles will not accept a ruling like this.”
In Moscow, Georgy Matyushkin, the deputy minister of justice and its envoy to the European Court on Human Rights, told the Interfax news agency that the ruling showed that “the court does not have the conventional duty to investigate the events at Katyn” and that it would thus be “illogical” for it to address allegations of improper treatment of the victims’ relatives.
“The Russian authorities from the very beginning said that these events are located outside of the frame of the jurisdiction of the European court from the point of view of the time frame,” he said. “And this point of view was accepted by the European court.”
The Polish prisoners, including nearly 5,000 senior Polish army officers, disappeared in late 1939 and early 1940 during a period of German-Soviet cooperation, when Soviet forces occupied eastern Poland. In April and May 1940, they were taken to the Katyn woods, near Smolensk, west of Moscow, where they were executed and then buried in mass graves there and in two other villages.
After decades of denial, Russia admitted responsibility for the massacre in 1990 and opened a criminal investigation. The investigation was closed 14 years later, but much of its findings were classified and no one was publicly held responsible.
Relatives of the victims complained to the court in 2007 that the Russian inquiry had been ineffective and that Russian authorities had displayed a dismissive attitude to requests for information about the event.
The case was brought by 15 Polish citizens who are relatives of 12 victims of the massacre — police and army officers, an army doctor and a primary school headmaster — according to court filings.
The ruling said the court had no jurisdiction to examine complaints over the killings themselves because the massacre took place a decade before the rights convention became international law and 58 years before Russia acceded to it, in 1998.
And the court rejected an application for awarding damages.
The court also ruled that there had been no violation of the convention’s provision prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment as it relates to the suffering of families of “disappeared” people.
That part of the ruling overturned a lower court’s ruling in 2012, which found that that provision had been violated in the cases of 10 of the 15 Polish family members.