In Korostelev v Russia 29290/10  ECHR 314, the applicant, a practising Muslim, complained that his rights under Article 9 ECHR had been violated in prison when he had been reprimanded for praying during the prison’s obligatory night-time sleeping period. (He also submitted that he had been reprimanded in March 2018 for an act of worship performed during the daytime.)
Mr Korostelev had been sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2009. In July 2012 and May 2013 prison guards observed him saying prayers in the early hours and ordered him to return to his sleeping place. When he refused, they reported him to the prison governor for failing to observe the prison’s daily schedule, which stated that prisoners had to sleep at night between 10 pm and 6 am. The governor formally reprimanded him for breaches of the Pre-trial Detention Act. His subsequent appeals against the reprimands were dismissed.
The applicant complained about the disciplinary proceedings under, in particular, Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion). Before the Third Section ECtHR, The Government claimed that that the prison schedule had been designed to guarantee prisoners’ rights and to protect their health. The rule prescribing night-time sleep was obligatory for each prisoner, including the applicant, who had an opportunity to pray at different times set aside for that purpose by the prison schedule. According to the Government, given the variety of religious beliefs among detainees, it would be highly impractical to draw up tailor‑made schedules for individuals or to make special exceptions to the general schedule for each group of believers. The Government also submitted that the prison authority could not tolerate the applicant’s conduct. A decision not to institute proceedings against a prisoner for a breach of discipline could result in disobedience among prisoners and lead to an increase in risks to the personal safety of the prisoners and prison staff .
The parties did not dispute that disciplining Mr Korostelev had been an interference with his right to freedom of religion . The Third Section agreed that the interference had been “in accordance with the law” . However, the only reason for disciplining the applicant was the formal incompatibility of his actions with the prison schedule and the authorities’ attempt to ensure full and unconditional compliance with that schedule by every prisoner ’ and though the Court recognised the importance of prison discipline, it could not accept an approach that disregarded the applicant’s individual situation and did not attempt to strike a fair balance between the competing private and public interests .
It was of particular importance for the applicant to comply with his duty to perform acts of worship at the time prescribed by his religious belief. That duty had to be complied with every day, not least during Ramadan , and there was nothing to suggest that Mr Korostelev’s night-time prayers posed any risks to prison order or safety . And his worship did not disturb the prison population or the prison guards because he was in solitary confinement . Lastly, being a form of disciplinary punishment, the reprimand not only decreased the Mr Korostelev’s chances of early release or mitigation of the prison regime but also had a chilling effect on other prisoners .
Therefore, the punishment had not struck a fair balance between the competing interests and had been disproportionate to the aims referred to by the Government, and there had been a breach of Article 9.