Anti-Muslim demonstration breach of Article 9 ECHR: Karaahmed v Bulgaria

The Banya Bashi Mosque, built in 1576, is currently the only active mosque in Sofia. Loudspeakers were installed soon after the fall of the communist regime in 1989 and used for the call for prayer, which lasts about five minutes five times a day, and for the whole of the Friday prayers, but turned off between 10 pm and 6 am to comply with the urban noise regulations.

The facts

Ataka, a Bulgarian political party, began a campaign against the noise from the mosque’s loudspeakers and on the evening of 18 July 2006 organised a rally against the “howling” emanating from the loudspeakers during the call to prayer. There were various incidents culminating in a major demonstration on Friday 20 May 2011 which ended in violence. A few police officers attempted to keep the demonstrators back; but the demonstrators pelted the worshippers with eggs and stones. Five police officers, five worshippers and a woman bystander were injured in the course of the incident, one of the Muslim worshippers had to be hospitalised for concussion and two demonstrators were arrested.

The police opened three investigations into the incident: the first two were suspended without anyone being charged, while seven were charged as a result of the third investigation, though no information was provided to the Court about subsequent prosecutions. A separate investigation by the Sofia City Prosecutor is still in progress but, to date, no charges have been bought.

Both the President and the Parliament subsequently condemned the actions of the demonstrators [26 & 27]. Even so, in Karaahmed v Bulgaria [2015] ECHR 217 one of the worshippers took the matter to Strasbourg, complaining that the events of 20 May 2011 and the domestic authorities’ response (or lack of it) had violated Article 3 (inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 9 (thought, conscience and religion) ECHR, in each case either alone or in conjunction with Article 14 (discrimination). He further complained of a violation of Article 8 (private and family life) either alone or taken in conjunction with Article 14.

Mr Karaahmed argued that the demonstration had to be seen in context. In short:

“… Ataka was well-known for its stance against both Islam and Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. Regardless of how many police officers attended the mosque, or how well-equipped they were alleged to have been, the fact was that more than one hundred activists of such a party, led by prominent members of it, effectively mobbed the worshippers during a highly sensitive moment of prayer [81].

Whatever the efforts of the police, these fell short of the standard required by the Convention as they had not prevented the demonstrators from verbally abusing and threatening the worshippers, burning their prayer rugs, destroying a fez, mounting loudspeakers inside the mosque grounds and then attacking certain of the worshippers. The police were present but acted as impassive bystanders and intervened only after violence broke out” [82].

Moreover, the investigation had been defective: the prosecutors interviewed him over a year after the incident; and instead of asking him about the actions of the demonstrators they asked about the legality of praying outside the mosque and the noise level of the call to prayer, as if that justified the demonstrators’ actions [84].

The judgment

The Fourth Section ECtHR was unimpressed by the Government’s response. Despite numerous witnesses having been interviewed, the investigation had not been completed nearly four years on: no action had been taken in respect of the most provocative gestures made by the demonstrators, only one person had been interviewed and no charges preferred [110]. The domestic authorities had failed to strike a proper balance between ensuring the effective and peaceful exercise of the rights of the demonstrators and the rights of the applicant and the other worshippers to pray together. That, together with the subsequent failure properly to respond to those events, had breached Article 9 [111]. It was not necessary to examine the merits or admissibility of the other complaints.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Anti-Muslim demonstration breach of Article 9 ECHR: Karaahmed v Bulgaria" in Law & Religion UK, 25 February 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/02/25/anti-muslim-demonstration-breach-of-article-9-echr-karaahmed-v-bulgaria/

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