Human Rights Court Says Mandatory Religious Education in Greek Schools Violates the Convention

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ATHENS, Greece — On October 31, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that mandatory religious education in Greek schools was a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (Right to Education) of the Convention, interpreted in light of Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion).

The applicants in this case were two sets of parents and their daughters, who live on small Greek islands. Under the Greek Constitution, religious education is compulsory for all students at primary and secondary level.

In July 2017, the applicants had requested the Supreme Administrative Court to invalidate the religious education curriculum for the 2017-18 school year, when their daughters were entering the third and fourth grades respectively. With the new school year fast approaching, the two families requested to have their case considered urgently but the court dismissed their requests.

In January 2018, arguing that the procedure for exemption from religious classes conflicted with the European Convention, the applicants lodged a complaint with the ECHR. They claimed that if they were to have their daughters exempted from religious education, they would have to state that they were not Orthodox Christians. In filing their complaint, the applicants relied on Article 9 and Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the Convention.

The Court found that submitting a formal declaration saying that their children were not Orthodox Christians would place an undue burden on parents. The Court reasoned that the existing system in Greece for exempting children from religious education classes could potentially reveal sensitive aspects of an applicants’ private lives. In addition, the likelihood of conflict wound probably dissuade them from seeking exemption, particularly if they lived in a small and religiously condensed society, where the risk of stigmatization was much higher than in larger cities. Lastly, no other classes were offered to exempted students, which would lead to lost hours of schooling just for their professed beliefs.

Therefore, the Court held that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted alongside Article 9 of the Convention. The Court emphasized that the authorities did not have the right to interfere in the scope of individual conscience, to establish individuals’ religious belief or to compel them to divulge their beliefs.

Greece lags behind almost all of the member states, where such an exemption procedure, or the option of attending a class in an alternate subject are already offered. This decision by ECHR is a monumental victory for religious minorities in Greece as it acknowledges their religious beliefs, allows them to be heard and strengthens their ability to pursue a modified curriculum in schools.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Greek System for Exempting Schoolchildren from Religious Education Classes Breaches the European Convention – 31 Oct. 2019

Law & Religion UK – Mandatory Religious Instruction Again: Papageorgiou – 31 Oct. 2019

 

Citing Article 8, ECHR Grants Psychiatric Patient Right to Attend a Family Funeral

By: Michelle Leal

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor 

PĀDURENI-GRAJURI, Romania – On October 8, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that the Romanian Government unfairly restricted a citizen from attending her mother’s funeral, thus violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Luminiţa Zamfira Solcan is a Romanian national currently living in a psychiatric facility in Pădureni-Grajduri. In 2005, Solcan committed a murder in France.

During the criminal investigation, medical experts diagnosed Solcan with paranoid schizophrenia. Further, the experts opined that Solcan’s acts were due to her paranoid delusions. The Mâcon County Court discontinued the criminal investigation against Solcan, opining that she committed the offense in a state of diminished responsibility. The court ordered Solcan’s placement in a psychiatric facility in France for an unspecified time.

In 2011, Solcan requested to be transferred to a facility in Romania to be closer to her mother. In 2012, Solcan was transferred to a psychiatric facility in Pădureni-Grajduri. About a year later, Solcan’s mother died.

The day after her mother’s death, Solcan lodged a request with the Iaşi District Court for leave to attend her mother’s funeral. However, a month later, the court refused to grant Solcan’s leave. The court determined that under Article 39 of the Mental Health Act, the safety of others justified Solcan’s continuous detention.

Solcan filed an appeal, arguing that the laws allowing the temporary interruption of a custodial sentence for family reasons should also apply to detentions in psychiatric facilities. The court dismissed Solcan’s appeal, determining that the laws regarding the temporary interruption of imprisonment on family grounds did not apply to Solcan’s circumstances.

Before the ECHR, Solcan alleged that the authorities violated Article 8, the Right to Respect for Private and Family Life, by not allowing her leave of her involuntary psychiatric hospitalization to attend her mother’s funeral. The Court noted that any interference with an individual’s right to respect for her private and family life constituted an Article 8 breach unless the interference was necessary or in accordance with the law.

The Court first determined that the refusal to grant Solcan leave to attend her mother’s funeral was an interference under Article 8. Secondly, the Court found that the interference was an Article 8 breach because it was not necessary. The Court referenced relevant case law, which concluded that the State can only refuse an individual the right to attend a parent’s funeral for compelling reasons and if there is no alternative. The Court stated that neither the first-instance court or the Iaşi County Court accurately assessed Solcan’s situation. Moreover, the Court noted that due to the seriousness of the situation, the domestic courts should have explored alternative ways for Solcan to attend the funeral. The Court stated that the domestic courts failed to consider alternatives like escorted or compassionate leave.  Considering the seriousness regarding Solcan’s request and the domestic courts’ failure to consider alternatives, the Court found that the denial of leave was not necessary.

Ultimately, the Court determined that there had been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention and awarded Solcan six thousand euros for non-pecuniary damages.

For further information, please see:

ECHR Case Law – Failure to Allow a Psychiatric Detainee to Attend her Mother’s Funeral Violates her Right to Family Life – 20 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Case of Solcan v. Romania – 8 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights- Guide on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – 31 Aug. 2019

 

High Court’s Decision in Northern Ireland Puts Pressure on the Legislature to Liberalize Abortion Laws

By: Madison Kenyon 

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

BELFAST, Ireland — On Thursday, October 3, the high court in Belfast, Ireland held that Northern Ireland’s abortion law violates human rights. Specifically, Justice Keegan, the presiding judge, found that the law is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments. Justice Keegan will hear more submissions before deciding what definitive action to take.

Sarah Ewart and her mother after the October ruling. Photo Courtesy of BBC.

The current abortion law in place in Northern Ireland only permits an abortion in cases where it is necessary to save the life of the mother or prevent permanent mental or physical damage of the mother. There is no exception for rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormalities. Further, abortion is a criminal offense under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Due to this law, women who seek an abortion must travel outside of Northern Ireland in order to get one. Although England, Scotland, and Wales all legalized abortions in 1967, Northern Ireland did not follow suit.

In June 2018, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought a case in the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court challenging Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The court dismissed the case though because it found that the Commission lacked standing and rather the case needed to be brought by a woman who had been denied an abortion. The court did state however, that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following this dismissal, in January 2019, Sarah Ewart brought the present case. Ms. Ewart had previously been denied an abortion in 2013 even though her doctor told her that the child would either die during birth or shortly after leaving the womb. Along with being denied an abortion, she did not receive any advice as to where she could get an abortion or what she should do. Thus, Ms. Ewart had to travel to London in order to obtain an abortion. Justice Keegan found Ms. Ewart’s testimony to be very persuasive and she held that she did not think another woman should have to go through the same trauma that Ms. Ewart went through.

Regarding Thursday’s decision, Ms. Ewart stated, “Today’s ruling is a turning point for women in their campaign against the outdated laws prohibiting against abortion in Northern Ireland.” As Ms. Ewart suggests, this is definitely a step towards liberalizing Northern Ireland’s abortion law however, it is still very dependent on how the legislature reacts to this decision. Yet, this is not the only pressure the legislature has received to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Rather, in July 2019, the British Parliament voted on a plan that would decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland if the local government, which stopped functioning in January 2017, did not re-establish itself by October 21. Thus, with an upcoming deadline, the legislature must act fast and in compliance with Thursday’s holding, or the court should expect a lot more cases like Ms. Ewart’s.

For further information, please see: 

The Hill – High Court Rules Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban Violates Human Rights – 3 Oct. 2019

AlJazeera – Northern Ireland Abortion Law Breaches Human Rights, Court Says – 3 Oct. 2019

CNN – Northern Ireland Abortion Law Breaches Human Rights, High Court Rules – 3 Oct. 2019

House of Commons: Women and Equalities Committee – Abortion Law in Northern Ireland – 3 Apr. 2019

 

African Commission Finds Cameroon Violated Rights of Broadcasting Company

By: Jordan Broadbent

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

YAOUNDE, Cameroon —  On September 18, 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights found that Cameroon violated the freedom of expression, freedom of non-discrimination, and property rights when it failed to create an independent licensing authority for a broadcasting company.

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Session. Photo Courtesy of International Justice Resource Center.

In 2002, Cameroon Radio Freedom FM, a current affairs radio station, applied for a broadcasting license and never received a conformation of this application, despite statutory deadlines. The station broadcasted anyway and was brought to court on charges of broadcasting without a license. In 2003, the Minister of Communication ordered the equipment of the station to be forcefully confiscated.

In 2004, the Open Society Justice Initiative took on the case on behalf of the radio station. After negotiations in 2005, the two parties reached an agreement where the government agreed to turn over the equipment and provide a license to the station. However, after a year the government reneged on the agreement by failing to grant a broadcasting license or a provisional authorization. In 2007, the Open Society Justice Initiative requested a reopening of communication procedure and a full review of the case by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It also asked the Commission to have Cameroon grant a provisional order allowing the station to broadcast while the complaint was pending.

The petitioners argued that there were three different violations of human rights. They first argued for freedom of expression. The initial claim states that Cameroon has a state-run monopoly over broadcasting in direct violation of Article 9 for the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights. Their second claim states that the state deprived the station of their right to property under Article 14 of the Charter by taking the equipment. Lastly, they argue that the state violated Article 2 of the Charter, which states one’s right of freedom of expression “without discrimination of political or other opinion,” by refusing to grant the license.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights declared that such an arbitrary denial lead to a restraint of legitimate communication, drawing on the Declaration of Principles on Freedom and Expression in Africa. Under the Human Rights Committee General Comment number 34 the Commission stated that an independent regulatory body must be in place and that Cameroon violated this by failing to have an independent organization that oversaw issues of freedom of expression.

The Commission found that the government violated the radio station’s right to property and ordered the government to pay for the property taken, the rent of the station, the cost of installing the equipment, legal fees, and loss of earnings since 2003. The state has also been ordered to pay for the moral damages against the former owner of the station.

Cameroon will have 180 days to comply with the Commission’s ruling.

For further information, please see:

International Justice Resource Center – Africa Commission Finds Violations in Cameroon’s Denial of Broadcasting License –  26 Sept. 2019

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Open Society Justice Initiative (on behalf of Pius Njawe Noumeni) v. the Republic of Cameroon – 18 Sept. 2019

Open Society Justice Initiative – Freedom FM v. Cameroon – Nov. 2016

ECHR Says UK Bedroom Tax Violates Occupancy Rights of Gender-Based Domestic Violence Victims

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

LONDON, England — On October 24, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”), in a highly significant decision, held that a reduction in housing benefits based on occupancy violated Article 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (Protection of Property) in relation to domestic violence victims.

The UK Government has been ordered to pay “A” 10,000 Euros. Photo Courtesy of Getty.

“A”, a British national, was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, and stalking at the hands of her ex-partner. She was living in a “Sanctuary Scheme” home – properties specifically designed to enable women and children in grave risk of domestic violence to live securely in their own homes – with her 11-year old son. The adaption to the three-bedroom house included the installation of a “panic room” in the attic for herself and her son.

In 2013, new rules on housing benefits in the social housing sector, more commonly known as the “Bedroom Tax,” reduced the benefit by 14% for people with a “spare” room in their home. Proponents of the new rules claimed that the Bedroom Tax was designed to free up much-needed bigger homes. Since “A” and her son were living in a three-bedroom house, their housing benefit decreased as a result. “A” challenged the Bedroom Tax, contending that the reduction in the benefit put them in unstable circumstances, which were not remedied by other payment schemes. The UK Supreme Court dismissed their claim and they appealed to ECHR in 2017 on the basis of gender discrimination as the victim of gender-based violence, relying on Article 14.

The Court noted that “A” and her son would face hardship and a risk to personal safety if they had to move. The Court then stated that the regulation’s aim to urge people to move was in conflict with the Sanctuary Scheme’s goal of allowing victims of gender-based violence to stay in their homes. The progress of gender equality is a major goal for the member States and “very weighty reasons” must be provided before gender discrimination could be considered lawful.

Here, the Court determined that treating all people in Sanctuary Schemes in the same manner was disproportionate as it did not relate to the legitimate aim of the measure. The Government failed to offer any weighty reasons to rationalize prioritizing the aim of the Scheme over that of enabling victims of domestic violence to stay in their homes. Therefore, the Court held that “A” had endured a violation of her rights under Article 14 in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

In the aftermath of this decision by ECHR, lawyers have demanded action on nearly 300 women estimated to be in similar situations. As the vast majority of those in the Sanctuary Scheme are women, this decision will help limit gender-based and domestic violence victim discrimination. This ruling is significant not only because it over-turned a troubling UK Supreme Court decision, but this ECHR ruling can potentially favorably impact other domestic violence victims in similar situations in other member states.

For further information, please see:

24housing – European Court Lands Blow on the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – 25 Oct. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – New UK Housing Benefit Regulation Discriminated Against a Woman Who Had Suffered Domestic Violence – 24 Oct. 2019

American Society of International Law – European Court of Human Rights Holds UK “Bedroom Tax” is Discriminatory – 24 Oct. 2019

Mirror – DWP Bedroom Tax Dealt Defeat in European Court of Human Rights – 24 Oct. 2019