The court in January has delivered two landmark rulings against the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In October 2003, masked police officers in the Azerbaijani capital Baku burst into the home of Sardar Calaloglu (aka Jalaloglu), a leading opposition figure.
Calaloglu was arrested in connection with a street rally held two days earlier to protest presidential election results handing Ilham Aliyev -- the son of the outgoing president, Heydar Aliyev -- an easy win. The protest had turned violent and left one dead.
While in police custody, Calaloglu says he was beaten with truncheons, tortured, and threatened with rape. A medical report confirmed he had been repeatedly hit with a hard, blunt object. He was left temporarily disabled.
Although Calaloglu was not present at the protest rally, an Azerbaijani court sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of "organizing public disorder."
He was released early by presidential pardon. But Calaloglu was determined to seek redress.
On January 11, more than three years after his ordeal, the European Court of Human Rights found Azerbaijani authorities guilty of mistreating Jalaloglu and failing to adequately investigate his complaints of ill-treatment. The court awarded Calaloglu 11,817 euros ($15,275) in damages and expenses.
It was only the second time the Strasbourg court had handed down a decision against Azerbaijan. But Calaloglu said he hopes the cases will jump-start the fight against officially sanctioned torture in his country.
"This is actually the first case proving that torture takes place in Azerbaijani detention centers," Calaloglu told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "This creates a precedent. Now all complaints about torture in Azerbaijan will be considered more quickly and more seriously. This proves that torture is a method commonly used by Azerbaijani law-enforcement organs."
Calaloglu is not the only Azerbaijani to turn to the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, more than 600 applications for potential cases against Azerbaijan are currently pending in Strasbourg.
The court, which has been functioning in its current form for nearly a decade, was created to systematize the way human rights complaints are brought against states parties to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950.
The court has 46 judges, each representing -- although not necessarily from -- an individual member-state of the Council of Europe. It's a modest number, considering that each year the court can face as many as 50,000 applications for potential cases ranging from libel and antiterrorism issues to police abuse and illegal detention. Only a fraction of those applications will end in hearings, but the process of elimination is so time-consuming that it can be many years before some cases are finally heard.
Wealth Of Cases
Many of those applications are coming from countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States that are now members of the Council of Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia).
Olga Vishnyovskaya, a Russian lawyer at the court, says this is largely the result of failed judicial systems in former Soviet states.
"Nearly all applicants who turn to the court say there is no efficient means to defend their rights within the country," Vishnyovskaya said. "Many of the applicants feel so much distrust toward Russian authorities that they don't even file a case with them before filing it with us."
Russia files the most complaints with the human rights court, but the others have substantially boosted the number of applications to the court. In 2006, Georgia had 112, Moldova 641, and Ukraine 4,146.
Strasbourg is also receiving a steady stream of complaints from Armenia, with 250 applications lodged last year. That number is expected to swell even further following the court's first-ever judgment, handed down January 11, against the Armenian authorities.
The court ruled that Armenian authorities violated the principle of freedom of assembly by arresting Armen Mkrtchyan, a former member of the country's opposition Republic Party.
Mkrtchyan was detained in May 2002 during a street rally organized by his party. A Yerevan court later sentenced him to a small fine.
Mkrtchyan says his legal victory sets an important precedent for Armenia.
"The main purpose of my application was to show our judges and leaders that they must honor their obligations to the Council of Europe," Mkrtchyan told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. "They will now be more cautious. One could say that I've paved the way for similar legal challenges against violations committed in our country."