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Rights court upholds Estonia decision to block violent prisoner from voting

A man serving a life sentence for two murders and other crimes unsuccessfully argued Estonia violated his human rights by refusing to allow him to vote in elections for the European Parliament.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court on Tuesday upheld a decision by Estonia to bar an incarcerated convict from voting, citing the number and gravity of his crimes. 

The European Court of Human Rights found that given Romeo Kalda’s list of criminal convictions, including multiple murders, being barred from voting in the 2019 European Parliament elections did not violate his rights. 

The court, created in 1959 by the European Convention of Human Rights, noted in its decision that universal suffrage, while “crucial to establishing and maintaining the foundations of an effective and meaningful democracy,” is not absolute and countries can restrict voting access under some circumstances. 

Kalda argued that Estonian authorities were violating his right to participate in elections after his application to vote was denied by prison officials, a decision later affirmed by the country’s top court. Kalda, who is currently serving a life sentence in Estonia’s Viru Prison, is considered by authorities to be highly dangerous and has twice attempted to escape. 

The 48-year-old was sentenced to death in 1996 for killing a police officer during a robbery. Commissioner Mart Laan was investigating an apartment break-in in the country’s capital Tallinn when he spotted Kalda and another man. Laan cornered Kalda, who shot the officer six times. Laan later died in the hospital.

While in jail, Kalda was also convicted of the murder and torture of a fellow inmate. In 1997, following a change to Estonian law, Kalda’s sentence was reduced from the death penalty to life in prison. 

The Strasbourg-based court noted that it has previously ruled blanket bans on voting for inmates violate the human rights convention. However, if the authorities consider the specific circumstances of each potential voter, they can bar convicts from casting a ballot, according to the ruling.

“The voting ban had been proportionate in respect of the applicant, given the number, nature and gravity of the offenses he had committed,” the seven-judge panel wrote, concluding Estonian courts had not "exceeded the leeway given to them when assessing the voting ban in respect of the applicant."

The 705 members of the European Parliament are directly elected by European citizens, but the 1976 European Electoral Act allows national authorities to bar anyone convicted of a crime and currently serving their sentences from voting. 

This is the second time Kalda has pursued a case in Strasbourg. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Estonian authorities had violated his rights by refusing to allow him to access a number of websites, including Estonian newspapers, records from the Estonian parliament and the website of the European Court of Human Rights itself. Tallinn argued it was a security risk but the court found that, as prisoners already had some internet access, restricting access to the sites Kalda wanted to visit was a violation of his freedom of expression. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, International, Politics

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