Victory at the European Court of Human Rights

ON JANUARY 11, 2007, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, handed down a unanimous decision in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia in their case against the Russian Federation. The decision upheld freedom of religion for Jehovah’s Witnesses and their right to a fair hearing. Let us consider what led up to the case.

A congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, consists mostly of deaf individuals. Their meeting place was a facility that they rented from a vocational training college. On Sunday, April 16, 2000, their meeting was interrupted by the chairwoman, or Commissioner, of the regional Human Rights Commission as well as two senior police officers and a plainclothesman. Because of bias, particularly on the part of the Commissioner, the assembly was halted on the trumped-up charges of conducting meetings without a lawful basis. As of May 1, 2000, the lease for the auditorium was terminated.

Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the Chelyabinsk prosecutor, but it brought no results. The Russian Constitution and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guarantee freedom of religion and freedom of association. So a civil complaint was filed with a district court followed by an appeal to a regional court. Earlier, on July 30, 1999, the supreme court ruled in another case that “according to the Russian Law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, the phrase ‘without obstruction’ means that no permission from, or clearing of the matter with, the secular authorities is required for performing religious ceremonies on premises provided [for that purpose].” (Brackets theirs.) Despite this precedent, the complaints to district and regional courts were dismissed.

On December 17, 2001, the case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights. A hearing took place on September 9, 2004. The following are excerpts from the final judgment rendered by the Court:

“The Court finds that there has been interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion in that, on 16 April 2000, the State officials caused their religious assembly to be terminated ahead of time.”

“The legal basis for breaking up a religious event conducted on the premises lawfully rented for that purpose was conspicuously lacking.”

“[The Court] notes the consistent case-law of the Russian Supreme Court to the effect that religious assemblies do not require any prior authorisation from, or notification to, the authorities.”

“There has therefore been a violation of Article 9 [freedom of religion] of the Convention on account of the disruption of the applicants’ religious meeting on 16 April 2000 by the Commissioner and her aides.”

“The Court finds that the domestic courts failed in their duty . . . to demonstrate that the parties had been heard in a fair and equitable manner. There has . . . been a violation of Article 6 [right to a fair hearing] of the Convention.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful to God for granting them a victory at the European Court of Human Rights. (Psalm 98:1) How widespread an effect will the decision of the Court have? Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, states: “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.”