WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 /Christian Newswire/ — The European Court of Human Rights yesterday issued its Chamber judgment in the case of Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia (application no. 184/02). The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 9 (freedom of religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights and a violation of Article 6 (right to a fair hearing) of the Convention.
“This is a particularly important decision as it demonstrates the limits of a government’s right to interfere with religious freedom on purported public order grounds; recognizes the bad faith of government actions to repress religion; and chastises the Russian Courts for not addressing the religious freedom issues/defenses raised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in response to the government repression,” argues William C. Walsh, Vice Chairman for Policy of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy’s Board of Directors.
On 6 February 1999 a lease was signed which allowed the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses to rent the auditorium of a vocational training college in Chelyabinsk, in order to hold religious meetings. On Sunday, 16 April 2000, in accordance with the lease agreement, Jehovah’s Witnesses were using the college facilities to hold a meeting for predominantly hearing-impaired Jehovah’s Witnesses to study the Bible and join in public worship. Many of the participants were elderly and also had impaired vision. The meeting was open to the public.
The applicants claimed that their meeting was disrupted by the chairwoman of the Regional Human Rights Commission, accompanied by two senior police officers, who called for the meeting to be stopped. Mr Kuznetsov submitted that, given the intimidating behavior of the Commissioner and the police, he thought it best to comply. The following day the Jehovah’s Witnesses group was given notice of the termination of its lease agreement with the college “because of certain irregularities committed by the college administration at the time of its signing”.
The applicants unsuccessfully requested a criminal investigation into the actions of the Commissioner and the police officers. They also filed a civil complaint with Sovietskiy District Court of Chelyabinsk, which was dismissed on the ground that the applicants had failed to show a causal link between the Commissioner’s arrival and the premature termination of their meeting.
The Court rejected the Government’s claim that the applicants lacked the appropriate documents for the religious meeting because the domestic law did not require any such documents. It likewise did not accept the Government’s claim that the Commissioner had come to the meeting to investigate a complaint about the unauthorized presence of children at a religious event, as that claim was not supported by any evidence.
The crux of the applicants’ grievances — a violation of their right to freedom of religion — was thus left outside the scope of review by the domestic courts which declined to undertake an examination of the merits of their complaint. The Court found that the domestic courts failed in their duty to state the reasons on which their decisions were based and to demonstrate that the parties had been heard in a fair and equitable manner. It therefore found that there had been a violation of Article 6.
The Court also found that the government’s action violated the applicants’ right to religious freedom under Article 9. It noted that, “as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention”. The Court found that it was undeniable that the collective study and discussion of religious texts by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a recognized form of manifestation of their religion in worship and teaching, thus meriting the protection of Article 9 of the Convention.
“This is yet another significantly important decision affecting freedom of religion across Europe, as the decision will impact religious rights in all states subject to the European Court of Human Rights,” commented Institute on Religion and Public Policy President Joseph K. Grieboski.
The full decision of the court in the case can be found on the Institute’s website at www.religionandpolicy.org.