On 14 of August 2020, ARTICLE 19 and the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University submitted a third-party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in an ‘extremism’ case in Russia. Sokolovskiy v. Russia raises the question of the permissibility and scope of restrictions on freedom of expression in the name of protecting religious beliefs, the feelings of religious believers and inter-religious harmony. It also concerns the degree to which freedom of expression may be restricted in order to protect individuals and groups against incitement, i.e. ‘incitement of hatred and enmity’ as defined under the domestic legislation.
ARTICLE 19 and the Human Rights Centre believes that Sokolovskiy v. Russia is an important opportunity for the Court to distinguish between prohibitions on blasphemy (that 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).
The case concerns the prosecution of the Applicant, Ruslan Sokolovskiy, for a series of videos posted on their Youtube and VKontakte channel on a variety of subjects. For instance, the videos contained the Applicant’s comments on a ban of an atheist group from a social network in the Chechen Republic, comments on hate mail from religious believers, his criticism of the Russian Orthodox church and showed the Applicant playing Pokémon in a church. The Applicant was prosecuted and convicted under the provisions of the Russian Criminal Code for the offences of ‘public actions insulting religious beliefs’ and ‘incitement of hatred or enmity’, and sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment conditional on two-year probation.
In the submission, ARTICLE 19 and the Human Rights Centre raise the following key issues:
- International and comparative standards on freedom of expression protect also expression deemed offensive to religious believers or denigrate or disparage religious beliefs or dogmas;
- Under international and regional free expression standards on restrictions to freedom of expression (so called three-part test), laws prohibiting ‘religious insult’ raise two major concerns: they do not pursue a legitimate aim, and they are not necessary in a democratic society. Hence, the religious insult laws have no place within a democratic society.
- Under international standards and as recognised in the jurisprudence of the European Court, when expression does not stir up or justify “violence, hatred or intolerance of believers”, it “should not be made subject to the threat of imposition of a custodial sentence, and that interference with freedom of expression in the form of criminal sanctions may have a chilling effect on the exercise of that freedom.” As a matter of principle, prohibitions on “religious insult” to protect the “feelings” of religious believers through the criminal law, where there is no incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be considered incompatible with Article 10 of the Convention.
- The intervention also outlines a wider contextual information on how the relevant provisions – under which the Applicant was prosecuted – are interpreted and enforced by the national authorities of the Respondent Government and the possible ramifications of this case for freedom of expression in the country.