Employment, veils and civil servants’ wives: Sodan v Turkey

Background

In Sodan v Turkey [2016] ECHR 138 [in French] the applicant was assistant to the Prefect of Ankara. In 1998 he was investigated by an Inspector General of Prefects on allegations of separatism and fundamentalism [8]. According to the subsequent report, the Prefect of Ankara had essentially told the Inspector General that, though Mr Sodan’s religious beliefs were known to everyone, he himself had never witnessed any discriminatory behaviour by Mr Sodan in the exercise of his duties; however, his religious beliefs and the fact that his wife wore a veil negatively influenced his “social relations”, he was unenterprising, his lifestyle did not fit with “the modern, Atatürkist and enterprising personality expected of a member of the Prefecture” – and he should be transferred to another department [10]. In 1998 he was duly transferred to the southern province of Gaziantep as Deputy Prefect: his subsequent appeals against the transfer were dismissed [18-24].

The arguments

Before the Second Section Mr Sodan complained that the transfer had violated his rights under Article 6 (fair trial) because of the length of the proceedings, Article 8 (private and family life) and 9 (thought, conscience and religion) ECHR. He submitted that he was transferred because of his religious beliefs and the veiling of his wife and pointed out that there was no law or regulation prohibiting the wives of civil servants from wearing the veil [32].

The Government countered that the main reason for his transfer was that he had not been well-suited to the job he was doing in Ankara: he was too introverted and passive a character [33]. It also pointed out that he had subsequently been promoted [34] – to which Mr Sodan riposted that his promotion had come only after a change of Government, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power [35].

The judgment

The Court concluded that there was a causal connection between Mr Sodan’s private life and beliefs and his transfer: the transfer had operated as a kind of “disguised sanction” which, without engaging disciplinary action, indicated an intention to do some damage to his professional status on the basis of complaints against him and his lifestyle and beliefs – and the dress of his wife. There had therefore been a breach of Article 8 for which the Government was unable to cite either a legal basis, the legitimate aim pursued, or why its action could be regarded as necessary in a democratic society [50-51].

“Regarding veiling by the applicant’s wife, the Court has already accepted that the regulation of dress of officials, especially the ban on wearing religious symbols, could be justified by imperatives relating the principles of neutrality of the public service and secularism… [56]. In the eyes of the Court, however, the concern to preserve the neutrality of the public service could not justify taking into account in the decision to transfer the applicant the fact that his wife wore a veil – an element that related to the private lives of the couple and was not otherwise subject to any regulation” [57].

The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 6 §1 because of the length of the proceedings and of Article 8.

Comment

As one reads the judgment the Article 9 claim seems simply to peter out: presumably it was held to be inadmissible. Could this possibly have been because the Court took the view that any interference under Article 9 had been with Mrs Sodan’s right to manifest – and she was not a party to the proceedings? The judgment does not go so far as to explain the omission.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Employment, veils and civil servants’ wives: Sodan v Turkey" in Law & Religion UK, 4 February 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/02/04/employment-veils-and-civil-servants-wives-sodan-v-turkey/

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