The Katyn Memorial in the Smolensk Region. (RIA Novosti/Iliya Pitalev)
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled Russia did not violate the rights of the relatives of the 1940 Katyn massacre victims. The court, however, criticized the country for refusing to hand over copies of classified documents for the proceedings.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced on Monday its final judgment in the case initiated by 15 relatives of the Katyn massacre victims, who accused Russia of conducting an inadequate investigation into the tragedy, dating back to WWII. In 1940, Soviet security services (NKVD) killed, without trial, about 22,000 Polish prisoners of war and buried them in mass graves. Most executions took place in the Katyn forest near the city of Smolensk.
The ECHR ruled it has no competence in verifying the adequacy of the Russian investigation into events which had taken place ten years before the European Convention on human rights was adopted.
Relatives of the Katyn victims accused Russia of “inhuman or degrading treatment” towards them, citing Article 3 of the Convention. For several decades Moscow refused to reveal the truth about the mass executions. The ECHR cleared Russia in this respect, saying that by the time Russia joined the Convention in 1998 it had already publicly acknowledged that the Soviet authorities were responsible for the massacre.
What the Court found Russia guilty of is a breach of Article 38 of the Convention (obligation to furnish necessary facilities for examination of the case). Moscow refused to submit a copy of the 2004 decision to stop the Katyn investigation to the ECHR, explaining that it was a classified document and national legislation prohibited such papers to be shown to foreign individuals and organizations.
Poland was disappointed by the Court decision.
"The ruling does not take into account all the arguments of the Polish side that have here a great moral and historic right," the Polish Undersecretary of State, Artur Nowak-Far said in a statement.
It was not until 1990, 50 years after the Katyn massacre, that the Soviet Union recognized it was responsible for the deaths of the Polish prisoners. Before that the tragedy had been blamed on the Nazis.
President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, apologized to the Polish people, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered some of the secret documents related to the Katyn case to be released to historians.
Nevertheless the tragedy has persisted in casting a shadow over the two countries’ relations.
Many in Poland were dissatisfied with the fact that Russia shelved the Katyn massacre investigation in 2004. Moscow explained the move by saying all of the Soviet officials allegedly responsible for the executions were already dead.
The decision to terminate the investigation was classified as “top secret”, together with 36 out of a total of 183 volumes of the Katyn case’s files.
In November 2010, Russia’s State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, adopted a statement admitting that the executions of Polish citizens near Katyn in 1940 took place on the direct orders of Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders. The statement titled “The Katyn Tragedy and its Victims” said that it was necessary to continue “verifying the lists of victims, restoring the good names of those who perished in Katyn and other places, and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy".