European Court of Human Rights ruling on detained Bulgarian national in mental institution

January 20, 2012


On 17 January 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Bulgarian national suffering from mental health problems had been unlawfully detained in a mental health institution. 

This is the first case in which the Court has found a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights in a social care setting.


In 2000 and 2001 the Bulgarian courts found Mr Rusi Kosev Stanev (1956) to be partially incapacitated, on the ground that he had been suffering from schizophrenia since 1975 and was unable to manage his own affairs adequately. In 2002 he was placed under the partial guardianship of a council officer who, without consulting or informing Mr Stanev, had him placed in the Pastra social care home for men with psychiatric disorders. He has lived there ever since. The director of the home subsequently became his guardian. Mr Stanev was only allowed to leave the institution with the director’s permission. 

Unsuccessful attempts

Since 2004, Mr Stanev had unsuccessfully tried to have his partial guardianship over-turned by asking the Mayor of his village (Rila) to bring a court case. In August 2006 a private psychiatric report found that Mr Stanev had been incorrectly diagnosed as schizophrenic but that he was prone to alcohol abuse, the symptoms of which could be confused with schizophrenia. It was also found that his mental health had improved and was not at risk of deteriorating and that the home’s director thought he was capable of being reintegrated into society. On the other hand, his health was being damaged by his stay in the home, where he risked becoming institutionalised.

Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment 

Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits the inhuman and degrading treatment of anyone in the care of the authorities, whether detention or admission to an institution with the aim of protecting the life or health of the person concerned. Conditions in the institution, built in the 1920s, were considered to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on its official visits in 2003 and 2004.

The CPT noted that the buildings were in ruins, there was no running water in the buildings and the toilets were worn out and in an abominable state in the yard. The available heating was inadequate, as was the residents’ diet, which contained no milk or eggs and rarely fruit and vegetables. No therapeutic activities were provided and residents led passive, monotonous lives. In addition, the home did not return clothes to the same people after they were washed. Improvements to the home were not carried out until 2009.

The European Court of Human Rights judgment

The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 8 September 2006. Now, after more than five years, the Court gave judgment on this case. It ruled that Mr Stanev’s placement in the institution was unlawful and that his legal right to ask a court to review a declaration of incapacity had been violated. The Court also noted that Mr Stanev had been subjected to degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 of the ECHR by being forced to live for more than seven years (from 2002 to 2009, when the building was renovated) in unsanitary and unlivable conditions. 

Landmark victory

Mr Stanev was assisted by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC). MDAC calls the ruling a “landmark victory for the rights of persons with psycho-social disabilities and intellectual disabilities”. MDAC’s Executive Director Oliver Lewis said: “Bulgaria must revise its laws restricting legal capacity to bring them into line with international law and the Court’s judgment, so that people can be supported to make their own decisions, rather than having their right to make decisions stripped from them.”

Source: European Court of Human Rights press release, 17 January 2012