European Court of Human Rights: Criticism of religion is not ‘extremism’

European Court of Human Rights: Criticism of religion is not ‘extremism’ - Civic Space

Church in Yekaterinburg where the applicant filmed himself playing Pokémon Go. Photo by Vyacheslav Bukharov. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in a Russian case concerning ‘extremism’. The Court found that criminal prosecution of the applicant for his videos criticising religion violated his right to freedom of expression. This case is an important addition to the Court’s case law on to what extent the lack of respect for a religion or other belief systems is protected under the right to freedom of expression.  

The case Sokolovskiy vs. Russia concerns the prosecution of applicant Ruslan Sokolovskiy for offending the feelings of religious believers and inciting hatred toward a social group. He allegedly committed these crimes by publishing nine videos on YouTube and Russian social media. In the videos, he was playing Pokémon Go in a church in Yekaterinburg and making statements questioning the existence of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and banned from public events for the duration of his sentence. The nine videos were also ordered to be removed from the internet. In his application to the European Court, Sokolovskiy argued that, while inflammatory, his videos neither intended to incite nor resulted in incitement of violence or hatred.  

ARTICLE 19, with the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University, submitted a third-party intervention to the European Court in 2020, arguing that the Court should distinguish between prohibitions on blasphemy (which are not allowed under international human rights law) and incitement to hatred, hostility and violence (which States are obliged to prohibit under international human rights law). 

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the Court’s decision, which found an infringement of the right to freedom of expression and ruled that the criminal prosecution of the applicant for his videos constituted a disproportionate interference that was not necessary in a democratic society.  

We appreciate that the Court agreed with our submission, which maintained that any expression linked to religious discourse, even if it may be deeply offensive, is protected under European free expression standards, and that defamation legislation exists to protect individuals, not beliefs or religions. Importantly, the Court also recalled ‘that the simple fact that a remark may be perceived as offensive or insulting by certain individuals or groups of individuals does not mean that it constitutes “hate speech”‘ and is therefore subject to legitimate criminal prosecution. 

The decision is also important in the light of ARTICLE 19’s previous criticism of the misuse of ‘extremism’ laws in Russia. We have documented that legislation on ‘extremism’ is increasingly wielded as a tool to curtail civil rights and hinder public participation. We welcome that the European Court confirmed that these are unacceptable limitations on the right to freedom of expression.