Azerbaijan, Jehovah’s Witnesses and “unapproved” religious literature

In two linked cases heard by the same panel of the Fifth Section ECtHR, the Court has held that the treatment by the domestic authorities in Azerbaijan of the Jehovah’s Witness community had violated their right to manifest their religion and their freedom of expression.

In Nasirov and Others v Azerbaijan [2020] ECHR 161, in March 2010 the first and second applicants were preaching door to door in an apartment block in Baku when they were arrested. They were charged and found guilty under Article 300.0.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences of distributing literature that had not been approved for import [7&8]. Their subsequent appeals were dismissed. The same happened to the other applicants in similar incidents in Aghstafa and Sumgayit [15-23].

The applicants submitted that they were unlawfully arrested, detained, prosecuted and convicted because they had been manifesting their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses by bearing witness publicly [55] and that the domestic authorities’ interference with their right to freedom of religion violated the national legislation and the ECHR. Of all the books seized by the police, only one title had been found by the domestic courts during the subsequent proceedings to be banned for import – and the import of that book had been allowed previously. The measures taken had not pursued a legitimate aim because the books in question referred only to sincerely-held religious beliefs, albeit critical of other religious groups [55-57]. The Government admitted that there had been an interference, but argued that it had been prescribed by law, had pursued the legitimate aim of the protection of the rights and freedoms of others – because, in particular, the book entitled “What does the Holy Book really teach?”, contained disparaging expressions directed against Christian and Jewish communities – and was therefore “necessary in a democratic society” [58].

The Court reiterated that freedom of thought, conscience and religion was one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention and

“in its religious dimension [is] one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it” [59].

The Court found a violation of Article 5§1 (right to liberty and security) in respect of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh applicants and a violation of Article 9 in respect of all of them. There was no need to examine the complaints separately under Article 10 or under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9.

More generally, in the linked case of Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses v Azerbaijan [2020] ECHR 160, the applicant community complained that in spite of having being registered by the Ministry of Justice on 22 December 1999, responses to their requests to the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations for permissions to import religious literature had been inconsistent: the same title had been allowed for import on one occasion but denied on another [7]. An appeal to the domestic courts failed on the grounds, inter alia, that

“the content of these books referred to detrimental ideas and other negative influence[s] which can adversely affect common understanding, mutual tolerance and reciprocal respect between religious communities of various faiths” [10].

The Witnesses appealed to Strasbourg, arguing contravention of Articles 9 and 10 ECHR, alone and in conjunction with Article 14 (discrimination).

The Court found that the judgment of the domestic court at first instance had been flawed and insufficient to justify its decision. The judgment had been based on an expert report, and the court had limited its analysis to summarising the parties’ submissions, the conclusion of the expert report and the applicable legal provisions. It had failed to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the impugned remarks by examining them within the general context of the books in question: it had taken passages out of context and had failed to take into account the fact that they were part of a religious text [37].

The Court held that there had been a violation of Article 10; it was not necessary separately to examine the complaint under Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Articles 9 and 10.

[See also Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hansen v Azerbaijan (Judgment: Right to a fair trial: Fifth Section Committee) [2020] ECHR 101, on “equality of arms” in criminal proceedings.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Azerbaijan, Jehovah’s Witnesses and “unapproved” religious literature" in Law & Religion UK, 22 February 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/02/22/azerbaijan-jehovahs-witnesses-and-unapproved-religious-literature/

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