Presumption of Innocence Not Violated in Media Case, Rules ECtHR

Employees of a Turkish TV channel broadcasting in Germany, of which Mr. Z. Karaman is a director, started two charity organizations and solicited donations on-air. In 2006 German prosecutors began an investigation for fraudulent use of said donations.

After the on-air solicitation took place, German prosecutors charged Mr. Karaman and several employees with fraud and the regional court in Frankfurt found two defendants guilty of aggravated fraud. Mr Karaman had been separated from these defendants and was not convicted in this ruling, though his name was referenced several times in the decision.

Because of this, Mr. Karaman turned to the Federal Constitutional Court, pointing to a violation of his right to the presumption of innocence. His claim was turned down. Mr. Karaman then turned to the European Court of Human Right, claiming the violation of Article 6 §2 of the Convention (presumption of innocence) for his name being published in the judgment from 2008 (claim 17103/10).

In its judgment from February 27, 2014, the Court ruled that a violation of the presumption of innocence could occur when third-person data is found in the grounds for a judgment against others. That said, the Strasbourg judges agreed with the argument from the German court, stating that in complicated proceedings against a number of people in parallel (but not being tried together), it is necessary for the judge to analyze third-party involvement to be able to correctly determine guilt. However, with regard to the facts of those people directly, the judge should point only to the facts that are strictly necessary.

The Court noted that there is a principle of presumption of innocence in German law. Following it, a court should not judge on the guilt of people who are not being tried in the case before it. The court judging this case of fraud must have made assessments on the location of people running the criminal group, pointing out that the leaders were located in Turkey. The criminal organization must have had some leadership and people coming up with ideas on how the money can be embezzled. To provide a complex analysis of the facts, the Frankfurt am Mein court could not avoid referencing Mr. Karaman, the Turkish director of the broadcasting enterprise where the fraud took place.

Judging on the language used by the German court, the ECtHR noted that Mr. Karaman was mentioned as the "accused in a separate case." The court did not make any judgment on his guilt by that reference, as the proceedings against him were still in motion. By mentioning "people acting behind the stage," the German court also did not make any judgment on Mr. Karaman's guilt. Moreover, it was mentioned by the German court in its judgment (published on the court's website), as well as by the German Constitutional Court, that seeing him as guilty would pose a violation of the basic principle of the penal code, namely the presumption of innocence. The ECtHR came to the conclusion that with such a sophisticated case, with so many people accused, the German courts took relevant care to assure the preservation of the principle of presumption of innocence. Therefore, the Frankfurt court did not violate the presumption principle, and the Convention was not breached. Two of the judges filed a dissenting opinion, claiming that placing the name of the defendant near to the description of the criminal group's leadership was an unequivocal reference to his guilt.

The case shows how difficult it can be for judges hearing multi-thread cases. On the one hand, just like the German court, they must avoid making prejudgments; on the other, they are required to reconstruct the facts as precisely as possible, to make sure that they fairly deliberate the current case while at the same time not prejudicing the judgments of other, albeit related, cases.