On 20 May 2010, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a judgment in the case of Mr. Zoltán Engel versus Hungary. Mr. Engel was sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing a police officer and wounding another during an exchange of shots with the police after they caught him committing an armed robbery in May 2003. Mr Engel became paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the injuries he sustained during the shooting. Ever since, he is 100% disabled, suffers from incontinence, and is only able to move around in a wheelchair. Between 25 February and 15 December 2006, Mr. Engel was detained in the Szeged Prison, where – due to the circumstances of his placement – he could only wash or relieve himself if his cell-mates helped him. Classified as a high security level prisoner, Mr. Engel was always transported with his hands handcuffed to his belt. While being transported in a van without a safety belt, he could only keep himself in his wheelchair by leaning his head against the door of the transporting vehicle which caused him swelling and pain. When entering or exiting the van, he was regularly dragged by his belt, sometimes on the ground, which caused him bruises. On one occasion, while transported in the van, he had fallen off his wheel-chair on a road curve and had travelled the rest of the journey on the van’s floor, hands handcuffed to his belt and under his body. He asked for a medical check-up on the next day but was told he could only see a doctor the following week. He complained to the prosecution about the incident, however the criminal investigation opened as a result was discontinued for want of evidence. Mr. Engel’s complaints had not been refuted by the Government as regards the time before August 2006.
For a long time the prison administration rejected his request for transfer in spite of the fact that this was recommended by the prison’s medical service as well. His transfer to a specialized penitentiary was taken up by the prison administration only on 15 December 2006 (after the ECHR application had been submitted), when he was transferred to a different prison and placed in a single cell specially designed for disabled prisoners.
In its decision, the Court noted that the applicant had been left to the mercy of his cell mates for matters such as using the toilet, bathing and getting dressed or undressed throughout the period he had spent in Szeged prison. The Court found particularly regretful the practice of dragging the applicant on the floor to and from the transport van and that of leaving his wheelchair unsecured in a moving vehicle. In addition, the classification of the applicant as a high level security prisoner and his handcuffing had added to the hardship he had endured while transported. The Court further found that the delayed access by Mr. Engel to medical help following his alleged fall during the transportation in the van was not compatible with the Hungarian authorities’ obligation to investigate effectively any complaints of ill-treatment. Consequently, the Court concluded that Mr. Engel had been subjected to degrading treatment during the entire time he had spent in Szeged prison. His transfer on15 December 2010 to an institution adequate for his needs as a disabled prisoner had come too late. As a sanction, the Court held that Hungary was to pay the applicant 12,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 3,800 for costs and expenses.
The full decision of the European Court of Human Rights is available here.