European Court Criticizes Russia’s Handling of Katyn Massacre Case

April 16, 2012 Updated: November 30, 2015

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued an incomplete ruling on Monday in an emotional case of unfinished business from World War II between Poland and Russia.

The plaintiffs in the case are 15 relatives of Polish victims of the Katyn Forest massacre that took place in 1940. The Strasbourg-based court ruled in their favor, deeming Russia guilty of failing to cooperate with the court and of mistreating the Polish applicants by denying them access to documents and refusing to rehabilitate their relatives. However, since Russia also denied the court access to those same documents, it could not make any ruling about Russia’s investigation itself.

The Katyn massacre has been a festering wound between the two countries for seven decades. That wound was irritated further two years ago when the Polish president’s plane crashed while on the way to the forest for the 70th anniversary of the killings. The president, and dozens of top military, political, and religious leaders died in what many Poles believe was a Russian assassination plot.

The atrocities happened as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the early years of World War II. The two superpowers divided up Poland between them, and following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, tens of thousands of both military and civilian prisoners of the Red Army were sent to Soviet prison camps. In 1940, the Soviet Politburo decided to summarily execute over 20,000 of these prisoners.

The secret shootings were done in different locations, but the one in Katyn Forest near Smolensk in western Russia has become the best known. A mass grave with over 4,000 Polish officers, and other Polish elite, was excavated in 1942, and 2,730 victims were identified.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that the 1940 killings were the work of Stalin’s secret police, and not of the Nazis (as claimed by Soviet propaganda). Nonetheless, much to the consternation of Poland, post-Soviet Russia has never used the word “massacre,” only talking about the “Katyn tragedy.” Moreover, no perpetrators have ever been named or brought to justice.

The Kremlin began investigating the killings in 1990, and ended it in 2004. During the process, Russia had turned over a substantial number of documents to the Polish government, but the exact fates of many of the victims remained unclear.

Some relatives wanted to take the issue further and brought the issue to the ECHR.

During the process, Russia denied them access to the actual decision text of 2004, citing reasons of national security, and also refused to rehabilitate their relatives, arguing that the circumstances around their deaths, or even if they died in Katyn at all, had not been proven.

Aside from deeming Russia non-cooperative, there is little else the ECHR can do.

The court is an institution of the Council of Europe (no relation to the European Union). Because the Kremlin’s investigation began in 1990, eight years before Russia joined the Council of Europe, and because Russia also denied the ECHR access to the 2004 decision to discontinue investigations, the court could not rule on Russia’s investigation.

“The Court concluded that there had been no elements capable of providing a bridge between the distant past and the recent post-ratification period,” the court wrote in a press release about the judgment.

The court was further “struck by the apparent reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognize the reality of the Katyn massacre.” It also stated that the Russian courts’ actions in this case demonstrated “an attitude lacking in humanity.”

The court also pointed out that Russia has an obligation to provide the court with the material needed for its investigations, and that it could find no reason why the past actions of a different regime would be considered sensitive with regards to national security. Russia was ordered to pay the applicants $8,528 in costs and expenses.

The head of the office of the Russian plenipotentiary with the ECHR, Andrey Fyodorov, defended Russia’s classification of the decision text. In a post-judgment statement to the Interfax news agency, Fyodorov said that the classification was based on Russian national law. He also said that Russia would most likely not appeal the ruling, Russia Today reported.