Russia, the Church of Scientology and the ECtHR – again

Background

In Church of Scientology Moscow and Others v Russia [2021] ECHR 1076, the Third Section ECHR considered complaints about the banning of Scientology literature, the authorities’ refusal to register the Church of Scientology Moscow as a religious organisation and about its forced dissolution [1], arguing violations of Articles 9, 10 and 11 ECHR.

The Government’s case

The Russian Government argued that statements directed against the Convention’s underlying values had been removed from the protection of Article 10 by Article 17 (prohibition of abuse of rights), which reads:

“Nothing in [the] Convention may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention” [34].

Further, it argued that that the Court did not have jurisdiction ratione loci to consider the complaints submitted by two of the applicants – New Era Publications International and  the International Church of Scientology – because they were registered and located in Denmark and the US [37].

The judgment

The Court joined the question of whether Article 17 was to be applied to the merits of the applicants’ complaint under Articles 9 and 10 [36] and dismissed the challenges to admissibility ratione loci and ratione personae [40]. It also dismissed the Russian Government’s submission that three of the applicants had not suffered any significant disadvantage because of the confiscation of Scientology books belonging to them, nor had they raised any complaint under Articles 9 and 10 before the domestic courts [41&47]. The complaint was complaint therefore declared admissible [48].

On the issue of suppressing Scientology literature, the Court was prepared to accept that the contested measure – the Suppression of Extremism Act – sought to pursue the legitimate aims of preventing disorder and protecting public safety and the rights of others [53] and that religious (and non-religious) groups could not reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism. The same principle applied to non-religious ideologies, including atheism and agnosticism – but there was no evidence that the impugned texts had insulted, held up to ridicule or slandered persons outside the Scientology community, nor that they been abusive of others or of matters regarded as sacred by them [59]. The Court was not persuaded that in their analysis of the Scientology literature the domestic courts had fully taken into account

“the social and political background against which the statements were made; whether the statements, fairly construed and seen in their immediate or wider context, could be seen as a direct or indirect call to violence or as a justification of violence, hatred or intolerance; the manner in which the statements were made, and their capacity – direct or indirect – to lead to harmful consequences” [60].

There had therefore been a violation of Article 10 read in the light of Article 9 and the Court rejected the Government’s preliminary objection under Article 17. It was not necessary separately to examine the complaint under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention in relation to the ban on Scientology literature [62].

As to the alleged violation of Articles 9 and 11 on account of the refusal to re‑register the applicant Church and its subsequent forced dissolution, the Church had submitted that the sole ground for the refusal to re‑register it was an expert opinion which had confirmed that it was not a religious organisation. That opinion could not be considered as valid evidence because it had not been adopted by a vote of a commission of experts as required by law, and the authorities’ reference to the Church’s commercial rather than religious nature was without substance [67].

As regards forced dissolution, the domestic courts had based their decisions on findings in previous judicial proceedings relating to the ban on Scientology literature and failure to comply with registration requirements and those grounds could not be regarded as serious violations warranting forced dissolution [67]. The Government submitted that the Church’s requests for re-registration had been dismissed for non-compliance with the law and that the court had ordered its dissolution because of serious legal violations. In some other States, Scientology organisations were considered as sects and were subject to restrictions. The Church had not engaged in religious activities and therefore could not function as a religious organisation [68].

The Court held that the refusal to re-register and the forced dissolution of the Church had violated its rights under Article 11, read in the light of Article 9 [69]. It was prepared to assume that the interference was based on the Religions Act and had the aim of “protecting the rights and freedoms of others” [70], but during the entire period of its lawful existence the Church and its individual members had never been found responsible for any criminal act or dangerous conduct and there was no evidence that the nature of the Church’s activities had changed [73].  To dissolve an association was an extremely severe measure entailing significant consequences which could only be tolerated in very serious circumstances, and the forced dissolution of the Church, absent any alternative sanctions, had been disproportionate to the legitimate aim pursued [76].

There had therefore been a violation of Article 11 of the Convention read in the light of Article 9 [78].

(Just another in the long list of Scientology cases that the Russian Government has lost before the ECtHR.)

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Russia, the Church of Scientology and the ECtHR – again" in Law & Religion UK, 21 December 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/12/21/russia-the-church-of-scientology-and-the-ecthr-again/

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.