Failure to protect LGBT demonstrators from mob violence: Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group

In Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group and Others v Georgia [2021] ECHR 1097, the European Court of Human Rights held that Georgia’s failure to protect LGBT demonstrators from mob violence violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Demonstrators who were marking International Day Against Homophobia were met with a violent counter-demonstration from a Prayer Rally led in part by a prominent cleric of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Counterdemonstrators included priests and parishioners from various churches in Tbilisi.

The background

In 2013 the two applicant NGOs, Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group and Identoba, told the Ministry of the Interior of their intention to hold a peaceful public rally – a silent twenty‑minute flashmob – on 17 May 2013 in the centre of Tbilisi to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) and in view of the violence committed by radical groups during a similar event held the previous year they asked the Ministry to devise an efficient plan to protect the public rally from possible violence [8]. They also told the Ministry about serious threats posted on the Internet by various identifiable individuals [9]. On 13 May 2013 reports were published in the media sources that several ultra-conservative NGOs and clergy were planning to hold a counterdemonstration on 17 May 2013 in order to demand a ban on the “popularisation and promotion of sexual minorities”. The counter‑demonstration was mainly being organised by three identifiable individuals – GG, a member of the NGO Former Prisoners for Human Rights, EM, the President of the Georgian National Front, and Father J, a prominent priest of the Georgian Orthodox Church [10]. GG gave official notice to Tbilisi City Hall that there would be a “prayer rally” at the same location as the IDAHO event. The notice stated that priests and parishes from various churches in Tbilisi would be participating in the prayer rally [11]. Ministry officials gave formal assurances that no efforts would be spared to guarantee the safety of all the participants in the IDAHO event [13]. On the day itself, there were clashes between the two groups of demonstrators.

The complaints

Before the ECtHR, twenty-seven of the individual applicants complained under Article 3 of the Convention, taken separately and in conjunction with Article 14, that Georgia had violated their rights under those because the police had failed to protect them from the mob, there had been clear indications of the authorities’ connivance in the counterdemonstrators’ hostility towards the IDAHO event, and there had been no effective investigation into the incident. The State had failed to give due regard to the extreme homophobia prevalent in Georgia, it had not conducted sufficient preparatory work beforehand and it had not used adequate means on the day of the event to prevent the mob from breaking the law [50]. They also pointed out that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity had never been treated by the investigative authorities as a bias motivation and an aggravating circumstance, contrary to the relevant requirement of Georgia’s Criminal Code [52].

Both applicant associations and all the individual applicants also complained of a violation of their rights of freedom of expression and of association under Articles 10 and 11, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14.

The Government claimed that the police had used their best endeavours to protect the participants in the IDAHO event. The turnout of counterdemonstrators had not initially been expected to be so high, and the police had chosen to remain relatively passive and not to use any special anti-riot measures for fear of causing even more violence, which could have led to more casualties. In the circumstances, the police had decided that the best course of action would be to disperse the participants in the IDAHO event. The Government claimed that the dispersal plan had been discussed with some of the organisers prior to 17 May 2013 and that the buses that had carried the escaping participants had been accompanied at all times by the police. They also submitted that it was owing to the effective measures taken by the police that none of the relevant individual applicants had received any physical injuries during the clashes [53]. Further, the applicants had not shown any proof of connivance by the police in the hate‑motivated violence or homophobic/transphobic discrimination [54] and the investigation into the violence committed during the IDAHO event by the counterdemonstrators had been effective because it had resulted in the identification of four accused [55].

The judgment

The Court concluded that the situation in which the relevant twenty-seven individual applicants found themselves during the clashes with the counterdemonstrators were incompatible with respect for their human dignity and reached the threshold of severity within the meaning of Article 3 taken in conjunction with Article 14 [61]. As to the thoroughness of the subsequent investigation, it had been conducted by the same unit of the Ministry of the Interior that had been responsible, with other units of the Ministry, for ensuring safety at the protest rally. There were therefore sufficient grounds for calling its independence and impartiality into question [64] – and even if the relevant domestic authorities had opened two separate and detached sets of criminal proceedings concerning the violence committed in the immediate aftermath of the incident of 17 May 2013, there had been no tangible results from either case [65].

In short, the domestic authorities had failed to conduct a proper investigation into the hate-motivated ill-treatment against the relevant twenty-seven individual applicants and there has accordingly been a violation of Article 3, read together with Article 14 [66&78].

The Court also upheld the complaint of both applicant associations and all the individual applicants under Articles 10 and 11, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14, that they had been unable to proceed with their plans to hold a peaceful public rally owing to the hate-motivated assaults on them and the inaction of the police [79&84].

Comment

Another example of the mills of Strasbourg grinding very slowly. The application was lodged in 2013 and the judgment was handed down on 16 December 2021.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Failure to protect LGBT demonstrators from mob violence: Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group" in Law & Religion UK, 17 January 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/01/17/failure-to-protect-lgbt-demonstrators-from-mob-violence-womens-initiatives-supporting-group/

 

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