Information Note on the Court’s case-law No. 182
Karaahmed v. Bulgaria - 30587/13
Judgment 24.2.2015 [Section IV] See:  ECHR 217
Freedom of religion
Facts - On a Friday in May 2011 around noon the applicant went to a Sofia mosque for regular Friday prayers. On the same day around 150 leaders and supporters of a right-wing political party came to protest against the noise emanating from loudspeakers at the mosque during the calls to prayer. The party had informed the authorities the day before of its intended rally and a certain number of specialist police officers were dispatched to the scene. The event was video recorded and broadcast on Bulgarian television. The recordings showed the demonstrators, mainly dressed in black, shouting insults at the gathered worshippers and throwing eggs and stones. A scuffle ensued between several demonstrators and worshippers when the former installed their own loudspeakers on the roof of the mosque to cover the sound of the prayers and the latter attempted to remove them. Several police officers attempted to separate the fighting parties and made three arrests. Other officers attempted to cordon off the remaining demonstrators from the area where the worshippers were praying. The incident ended at around 2 p.m. when the demonstrators left the scene. Two separate investigations ensued. The first, led by the police, did not appear to have resulted in a conviction. The second, initiated by the prosecutor’s office, was still ongoing at the time of the adoption of the European Court’s judgment. No charges had been brought.
Law - Article 9: The case raised an issue concerning two competing sets of rights: the right of the political party members to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the right of the Muslim worshippers to freedom of religion. Those rights in principle deserved equal respect and had to be balanced against each other recognising their importance in a society based on pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness. States had to ensure that both sets of rights were protected by setting up an adequate legal framework and taking effective measures to ensure their respect in practice. Once the authorities had been notified of the planned demonstration, they could have taken a number of steps to ensure that tensions between the demonstrators and the worshippers did not turn into violence, while at the same time allowing for the free exercise of both groups’ fundamental rights. However, it was clear from the available video recordings that the police had failed to ensure due respect for those rights or even to give any serious consideration as to how such respect could be achieved. Several hundred demonstrators and worshippers had been separated by no more than a dozen police officers forming an improvised and visibly insufficient cordon. The situation was defused only by the demonstrators leaving the mosque area of their own accord after having set fire to some of the worshippers’ prayer mats. The outcome of the police response that day was that a large number of demonstrators were able to stand in front of the mosque, shout insults and throw objects at praying worshippers and ultimately gain access to the mosque and disrupt the prayers. They enjoyed a virtually unfettered right to protest whereas the applicant and other worshippers had their prayers entirely disrupted The police actions were confined to simply limiting the violence and no proper consideration was given as to how to balance respect for the effective exercise of both the demonstrators’ and the worshippers’ rights. Even though the President and Parliament subsequently publicly condemned the demonstrators’ actions and sought adequate action by the competent State authorities, there was no proper response to the impugned events. The police investigation led to charges of hooliganism against seven individuals, but it was limited to acts of physical violence which occurred on the roof of the mosque. The public prosecutor’s investigation into the interference with religious freedoms led to no tangible result. No progress had been made in identifying or charging those responsible for the most provocative gestures and almost none of the leading figures had been interviewed. In view of the foregoing, the State had failed to fulfil its positive obligations under Article 9.
Conclusion: violation (unanimously).
Article 41: EUR 3,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage.
© Council of Europe/European Court of Human Rights
This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.
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