Mikayil Mammadov v Azerbaijan


On 17 December 2009, the European Court of Human Rights found Azerbaijan responsible for violating the right to life of a woman who committed suicide, by failing to conduct an effective investigation in to state responsibility for her death. The woman, Mrs Chichek Mammadova, committed suicide as her family were being evicted from their home by agents of the State. The case, Mikayil Mammadov v Azerbaijan, was brought by her husband.

Background facts
Having been internally displaced for a decade, the Mammadova family had moved into and renovated three previously unused rooms belonging to the local army in Sumgayit, a city close to the Caspian Sea some 30 kilometres from the Azerbaijani capital Baku.  Some months later, in March 2004, police and local authority figures arrived at the Mammadov family home, without a Court order for eviction. Apparently distressed by the arrival of the authorities and by the thought that her family were about to be evicted, Mrs Mammadova poured kerosene over herself and threatened suicide before setting herself alight.  She died three days later from her injuries. 

Before the Court Mrs Mammadova’s husband alleged that not only did police officers not take his wife’s suicide threat seriously; they mockingly encouraged her to keep her word, offering her a box of matches. Mr Mammadov further alleged that the authorities failed to conduct a satisfactory enquiry into his wife’s death.  The investigator at an initial enquiry decided not to initiate criminal proceedings. Subsequent prosecutors confirmed this decision, until 2005 when criminal proceedings were eventually brought and an investigation into Mrs Mammadova’s death was ordered. The investigation was suspended several times, finally being terminated in 2008 due to a failure to identify the person responsible for inciting Mrs Mammadova to commit suicide. 

The Court’s Decision
Regarding State agent’s responsibility for the deaths
It is undisputed that Mrs Mammadova’s death was caused by suicide and not by any lethal force used by any other person. She committed suicide in direct response to the police operation in which at least five police officers and several other officials were involved. The Court found it was questionable whether this operation was conducted on a lawful basis. However, in the Court’s opinion, the authorities’ decision to evict the applicant’s family from their home (irrespective of whether or not it had a lawful basis) did not, in itself, engage the State’s responsibility under Article 2. The Court found insufficient evidence to establish, to the requisite standard of proof, that the State agents involved incited or otherwise encouraged Mrs Mammadova to set fire to herself.
The principal issue in the case was whether at some point during the course of the operation the State agents became aware, or ought to have become aware, that Mrs. Mammadova posed a real and immediate risk of suicide, and, if they ought to have realised the risk of suicide, whether they had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the death, for example attempting to calm the situation, preventing Mrs Mammadova from pouring or igniting the kerosene or providing first aid and assisting in hospitalising Mrs Mammadova.
The Court found that due to the heavily disputed facts surrounding the events, it was difficult to establish whether State agents should have known of the victim’s intention to commit suicide prior or what they might reasonably have done to prevent it. The Court noted that although there was a possibility that responsibility for Mrs Mammadova’s death might have lain at least in part with the authorities, this was insufficient to establish conclusively that the authorities acted in a manner incompatible with their obligations to guarantee the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights*. 

Regarding whether the investigation was effective and adequate
The Court considered that the investigation carried out into the death of the applicant’s wife had been inadequate as it has not covered all the relevant issues needed to assess State responsibility. The investigation had been limited to the question of whether the State agents incited Mrs Mammadova to commit suicide, whereas it should also have examined whether the authorities had done everything necessary to prevent her death. The investigation had been marked by a number of other shortcomings, including the failure to take immediate action, failure to reconstruct the sequence and duration of events on that day, failure to address discrepancies in witness statement and the four year duration of the investigation.  On this basis, the Court found a violation of Article 2 and awarded the applicant €20,000 in non pecuniary damages. 

The applicant was represented by an Azerbaijani lawyer Mr A.G. Mustafayev. The case was supported within the framework of an NGO project which aims to raise human rights protection in the South Caucasus by supporting domestic lawyers in arguing cases successfully before the European Court. The project is a partnership between Azerbaijani NGO the Legal Education Society, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and international human rights law NGO INTERIGHTS, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights.  INTERIGHTS provided off record advice in the case once it had been communicated. Dina Vedernikova, INTERIGHTS' lawyer and expert in human rights in the South Caucasus, says "it is disappointing that the Court focused on the investigation that followed Mrs Mammadova's death, rather than on the States' obligations at the time she was threatening to kill herself within the physical reach of police officers.  Arguably this death was preventable and the Azerbaijani authorities simply failed to prevent it".
* Two judges, Judge Spielmann and Judge Malinverni, issued a dissenting opinion holding that the Azerbaijani authorities were responsible for a violation of Article 2 on grounds of failure to comply with the positive obligation incumbent on them to protect Mrs. Mammadova’s right to life.  They noted that as soon as State agents became aware of the threat to Mrs. Mammadova’s life they could have tried to defuse the situation or intervened to prevent her from self immolation.  They noted that only one of the police officers took any steps to put out the fire and that none of the State agents attempted to call an ambulance or provide any assistance in transporting Mrs. Mammadova to hospital.