Lethal Use of Force Under Scrutiny in Lithuania

A car chase to catch cigarette smugglers ended when border guards shot dead an eighteen-year-old, provoking a storm of public debate regarding the use of force in Lithuania.

A cargo of cigarettes worth 42,000 euros. A car chase through the middle of the woods. The life of an eighteen-year-old cut short by an officer's bullet. The story of this lethal incident in the fight against contraband provoked a storm of public debate in Lithuania regarding the methods employed by the country's border guard and their disproportionate use of force.

The driver of the contraband-laden Peugeot 607 en route from Belarus to Lithuania ignored the border guards' calls to stop. After firing warning shots into the air, the guards tried pumping a couple of bullets into the car's tires. Unfortunately, they clipped the young driver, who died from his wounds.

Troubling pattern

This is not the first time that the disproportionate use of force by Lithuanian authorities has been called into question. Lithuania already lost a similar case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2008. The facts of that case, Juozaitienė and Bikulčius v. Lithuania, were close to the case at hand: two young passengers in a fleeing vehicle that nonetheless posed no direct threat were shot dead by officers. The state didn't bother to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths of the young men or to prosecute the officers involved.

"It is not justified even in circumstances where it would not be possible to detain the runner without using force," claimed a representative of the Lithuanian government to the ECtHR, commenting on the case. According to her, ECtHR case law does not establish necessity if it is known that the person being detained poses no risk to life or limb or if he or she is not suspected of a serious violent crime.

Public comments backfire

"The use of the weapon was excessive. I think a very serious investigation needs to be launched regarding liability and the failure to perform one's duties properly," said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who came under heavy criticism for coming to conclusions before the investigation was over.

Comments made by public officials violating the presumption of innocence resulted in Lithuania losing the 2002 Strasbourg case of Butkevičius v. Lithuania, where the proceedings regarding a former member of parliament convicted of corruption were held to violate the principles of a fair trial.

It looks like Lithuanian law enforcement is in for a hard pre-trial investigation, while the courts will have to deal with a difficult and far-reaching case that will no doubt raise many complicated issues - both with regard to the use deadly force and the possible violation of the presumption of innocence.