I/A Court H.R., Case of Zegarra Marín v. Peru. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of February 15, 2017. Series C No. 331.

Non official brief

 

[This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.]

 

Facts - The applicant, Mr Agustin Bladimiro Zegarra Marín, served as Deputy Director of Passports in the Peruvian Office of Migration and Naturalization from March to September 1994. Between August and October 1994, the press revealed that certain passports had been issued improperly, including one with the applicant's signature. On 8 November 1996 he was convicted of the crimes of "personal concealment", "general falsification of documents", and "corruption of officials" by the Fifth Criminal Chamber. The plausibility assigned to the facts indicated in the co-defendants' statements played a decisive role in the outcome of the judgment, which expressly stated that the defendant had not rebutted in his entirety the charges against him, "because, the defense did not raise conclusive evidence that would render him totally innocent ". He was sentenced to four years in prison, suspended conditionally, and ordered to pay civil reparation. The applicant filed with a motion to annul the judgment. However, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice confirmed the court to quo's ruling and imposed additional penalties. The applicant filed an appeal for review with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, but it was declared inadmissible. 

 

Law

 

(a) Articles 8 (1) and 8 (2) (right to a fair trial), in conjunction with Article 1 (1) (obligation to respect and ensure rights without discrimination) of the American Convention on Human Rights - The Inter- American Court stressed that the presumption of innocence is a guiding principle in criminal trials and a foundational standard for the assessment of the evidence. Such assessment must be rational, objective, and impartial in order to disprove the presumption of innocence and generate certainty about criminal responsibility. The Court said that statements made by co-defendants are circumstantial evidence and, as such, their content should be corroborated by other means of proof. The Court established that, to reach a conviction, there must be sufficient evidence, which in turn must be substantial, precise and consistent. Co-defendants are not under any obligation to testify, given that their deposition is an act of defence.

 

The Court reiterated that, in criminal proceedings, the State bears the burden of proof. The accused is not obligated to affirmatively prove his innocence or to provide exculpatory evidence. However, to provide counterevidence or exculpatory evidence is a right that the defence may exercise in order to rebut the charges, which in turn the accusing party bears the burden of disproving.

 

The Court highlighted that to guarantee the presumption of innocence, especially as regards criminal conviction by trial, to reasoned judgment is imperative. It must state the sufficiency of the prosecution's evidence, observe the rules of sound judicial discretion in evaluating the evidence, including that which could generate doubt as to criminal responsibility, and lay out the final findings of the assessment of evidence. Only then can a trial court disprove the presumption of innocence and sustain a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. Where there is any doubt, the presumption of innocence and the principle of in dubio pro reo should play a decisive role in the judgment.

 

In the present case, the Court found that the presumption of innocence had not been respected, as the judgment had reversed the burden of proof, placing it on the accused rather than on the State. The Court also determined that the Fifth Criminal Chamber had not complied with its obligation to objectively and rationally evaluate the evidence before it or to assess the alternative hypothesis.

 

Moreover, despite the fact that the statements made by the co-defendants had played a decisive role in the conviction, they were not corroborated by any other means of proof.

 

Additionally, the Fifth Criminal Chamber had failed to adequately reason its decision, given that the evidence, both for the prosecution and exculpatory, was simply assessed in order to spell out which evidence formed the basis for establishing the commission of the crime and the finding of guilt. In this regard, the Court noted that the circumstances of time, manner and place in which each of the alleged crimes were alleged to have taken place were not set out in the judgment. Finally, the Court found that the lack of reasoning had a direct impact on the ability to exercise the right of defense and to appeal the judgment.

 

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(b) Articles 8 (2) (h) (right to appeal to the higher court), and 25 (right to judicial protection) of the ACHR, in conjunction with Article 1 (1) thereof - The Inter-American Court recalled that the right to appeal in criminal matters involves a comprehensive review of the contested judgment. In addition, the competent authority must carry out an analysis of the issues raised by the defendant and rule on them. The Court found that the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice had only upheld the lower court's findings, without addressing the applicant's main arguments in the motion to annul. Therefore, the appellate court had not had a full review of the court's judgment and the appeal was not effective.

 

As for the appeal for review, the Inter-American Court found that, at the relevant time, it was not the appropriate remedy under Peruvian law to challenge a conviction.

 

Conclusion: violation of Articles 8 (2) (h) and 25 (1) concerning the motion to annul (unanimously), and no violation of Article 25 (1) concerning the appeal for review (unanimously).

 

(c) Reparations - The Inter-American Court ordered the State to: (i) ensure that the conviction issued against the applicant had no legal effect and, therefore, adopted all necessary measures to expunge the judicial, administrative, criminal or police records existing against him in regard to such proceedings; (ii) publish the judgment and its official summary; and (iii) pay compensation in respect of non-pecuniary damages, as well as costs and expenses.