Case Shabanov and Palfreeman v. Bulgaria

Importance Nature Application Number Case language State Date (dd/mm/yyyy)
3 Judgement 35365/12 and 69125/12 English Bulgaria 21/07/2016

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Shabanov and Palfreeman v. Bulgaria - nos. 35365/12 and 69125/12

Article 10

Disciplinary punishment in response to complaints made by detainees against prison officers: violation

The applicants alleged, in particular, that disciplinary punishments imposed on them by the prison authorities in response to complaints that they had made in relation to prison officers had unjustifiably interfered with the exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

M. Shahanov, detained in Plovdiv prison, had made complaints to the Ministry of Justice where he stated that another inmate in his ward was bragging that two prison officers were relatives of his. M. Palfreeman, after he learnt that journalists who visited him had been treated rudely and had had personal items stolen from visitors lockers – which are only accessible to the guards – complained to the governor of Sofia prison to take measures « to ensure that the guards work in a disciplined way and with respect towards inmates and others ». Both of them were sentenced to disciplinary punishment after an inquiry found their requests were unfounded (10 days in solitary confinement for M. Shahanov, three months' deprivation of the right to receive food parcels from outside prison for M. Palfreeman).

The Court first noted that the interferences with the applicants' right to freedom of expression had a legal basis, and that the interferences « were intended to protect the reputation and rights of the prison officers who were the subject of the applicant's allegation, and hence pursued a legitimate aim » (§56).

As to the proportionality of the interferences, the Court recalled it must examine it looking at (a) the nature and exact manner of communication of the statements; (b) the contexts in which they were made; (c) the extent to which they affected the officials concerned; and (d) the severity of the sanctions imposed on the applicants. The Court noted that « the langage used was not strong, vexatious or immoderate » (§61) and that « the statements were not made publicly » (§62). The Court further noted that whereas « it is true that the applicants’ allegations were capable of having an effect on the professional standing of the prison officers concerned », these allegations « were made by the applicants in the exercise of the possibility in a democratic society governed by the rule of law for a private person to report an alleged irregularity in the conduct of a public official to an authority competent to deal with such an issue » (§63). The Court then added that prisoners, given the mere fact that they are under the control of the authorities, should be able to avail themselves of the opportunity to report alleged irregularities and make complaints against public officials  « without having to fear that they will suffer negative consequences for doing so » (§64, see Yankov v. Bulgaria, §134). In view of the foregoing, the Court declared that the punishments imposed on the applicants were disproportionate, in breach of Article 10 of the Convention.