ECHR: Russia denial of access to archives on Soviet political repression violates freedom of expression News
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ECHR: Russia denial of access to archives on Soviet political repression violates freedom of expression

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Russia had violated the right to freedom of expression by refusing access to archival documents about the history of Soviet political repression.

Suprun and Others v. Russia is part of the ‘right to truth’ cases against Russia. The applicants—Russian researchers, the niece of a Swedish diplomat who disappeared in Soviet custody, and an NGO—filed their applications between August 2012 and April 2022. In seeking out information, including on ethnic deportations and executions in the 1930s and 40s and the fate of lost loved ones, the applicants had either been turned away by Russian authorities, provided with incomplete information, or prevented from making copies.

Relying on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of expression, the applicants claimed that the restrictions on access to the archival information breached their right to receive information and, in so doing, their freedom of expression.

The court confirmed the applicants’ argument that the refusal to allow the applicants access to archival information about Soviet repression or denying them the right to make copies or take photos of such archival information had amounted to an interference with their right to receive information. Furthermore, the court found in its decision that “seeking historical truth is an integral part of freedom of expression.”

In this case, regarding the disclosure of private information, the passage of time since the activities in question—namely the 1930s and 40s—made the infringement of those persons’ right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the convention minimal as the concerned individuals had already passed away when the applications were submitted. Article 8 stipulates that “rights under Article 8 are eminently personal and non-transferrable.”

The court also dismissed the alternative argument that the right to privacy can be relied on to protect the feelings of descendants. It was material that the applicants did not intend to reveal intimate aspects of the private lives of the perpetrators or victims. Moreover, it could not be proven that denying the applicants the right to make copies of the archival material was “necessary in a democratic society.”

Article 19, a human rights organization that was given leave to apply as a third party, has been firm that Article 10 of the convention protects victims of human rights breaches and their relatives as well as researchers to have access to historical archives. Specifically, the NGO asserted that “General access to archives is a means of justice and accountability and creates collective memory around atrocities, hopefully preventing the future repetition of grave rights abuses.” Article 19 has since described the court’s decision as an important step forward “in further clarifying the scope of the right to information in the context of historical memory and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities.”