Macedonians Win Landmark European Court Case Against Bulgaria

October 2, 2001

Press release issued by the Registrar

CHAMBER JUDGMENT IN THE CASE OF STANKOV AND THE UNITED MACEDONIAN ORGANISATION ILINDEN v. BULGARIA

The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing judgment [fn] in the case of Stankov and the United Macedonian Organsation Ilinden v. Bulgaria (application numbers 29225/95 & 29221/95.) The Court held, by six votes to one, that there had been a violation of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court awarded the applicants 40,000 French francs (FRF) for non-pecuniary damage and FRF 36,127 for legal costs and expenses. (The judgment is only available in English.)

1. Principal facts

The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden is an association based in South-West Bulgaria (in an area known as the Pirin region or the geographic region of Pirin Macedonia). Its chairman for an unspecified period was Iordan Kostadinov Ivanov, a Bulgarian national living in Sandanski, Bulgaria. The other applicant, Boris Stankov, is a Bulgarian national born in 1926 and living in Petrich, Bulgaria. At the relevant time he was the chairman of a branch of the applicant association.

The applicant association was founded in 1990 to unite Macedonians in Bulgaria on a regional and cultural basis and to achieve recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. In 1991 the association was refused registration as the courts found that its aims were in reality directed against the unity of the nation, that it advocated ethnic hatred and was dangerous for the territorial integrity of Bulgaria.

The scope of the case before the Court was limited to events between 1994 and 1997, when the authorities prohibited the holding of commemorative meetings organised by the applicant association and Mr Stankov at the same times and in the same places as official ceremonies.

2. Procedure and composition of the Court

The applications were lodged with the European Commission of Human Rights on 29 July 1994. Additional complaints were introduced on various dates between 1994 and 1997. Having joined the applications, the Commission declared them partly admissible. The case was transmitted to the Court on 1 November 1999 and allocated to the First Section. A hearing was held on 17 October 2000.

Judgment was given by a Chamber of seven judges, composed as follows:

Elisabeth Palm (Swedish), President,
Wilhelmina Thomassen (Dutch),
Luigi Ferrari Bravo (Italian),
Josep Casadevall (Andorran),
Bostjan Zupaneie (Slovenian),
Tudor Pan?iru (Moldovan),
Snejana Botoucharova (Bulgarian), judges,

and also Michael O'Boyle, Section Registrar.

3. Summary of the judgment

Complaint

The applicants complained that their right to freedom of assembly guaranteed under Article 11 of the Convention had been violated.

Decision of the Court

Article 11

Considering that Article 11 of the Convention was applicable, that there was an interference with the applicants' right to peaceful assembly which was prescribed by law and pursued a legitimate aim, the Court concentrated on whether or not that interference was necessary in a democratic society for the achievement of a legitimate aim.

The Court noted that the applicant association had been refused registration in 1990 and 1991 on the ground that it was unconstitutional. It considered however that, while the findings of the courts were undoubtedly relevant, an automatic reliance on the fact that an organisation had been considered anti-constitutional - and refused registration - could not suffice to justify under Article 11 - 2 of the Convention a practice of systematic bans on the holding of peaceful assemblies.

The Court, therefore, went on to consider the particular grounds invoked by the authorities to justify the bans and the significance of the interference with the applicants' freedom of assembly.

Possession of arms

The Court found that if there had been preparation for armed action the Government would have been able to adduce more serious evidence than a newspaper article and a copy of a typewritten flyer.

Threat to public order

The Court noted that no serious disturbances had occurred at previous meetings involving the applicants and that nobody had been prosecuted. The risk of minor incidents did not justify the ban.

Dissemination of separatist ideas

The Court found that the authorities could anticipate that separatist slogans, calling for autonomy for the region of Pirin Macedonia, or even secession from Bulgaria, would be broadcast by some participants. However, the fact that a group called for autonomy or even requested secession of part of the country's territory - thus demanding fundamental constitutional and territorial changes - could not automatically justify a prohibition of its assemblies. Demanding territorial changes in speeches and demonstrations did not automatically amount to a threat to the country's territorial integrity and national security. The essence of democracy was its capacity to resolve problems through open debate. Sweeping bans on freedom of expression and assembly, other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles, did a disservice to democracy and often even endangered it. In a democratic society based on the rule of law, political ideas which challenged the existing order and whose realisation was advocated by peaceful means had to be afforded a proper opportunity of expression through the exercise of the right of assembly as well as by other lawful means. The Court concluded that the probability that separatist declarations would be made did not justify the ban on Ilinden's meetings.

Propagation of violence

Examining all the evidence before it, the Court found no indication that the meetings were likely to become a platform for the propagation of violence or the rejection of democracy to a degree warranting their prohibition. Most of the statements and declarations of Ilinden emphasised reliance on public debate and political pressure and expressly rejected violence. Isolated statements that could appear to be calling for violence were not representative, carried an element of exaggeration as they sought to attract attention and in any event could adequately be dealt with through the prosecution of those responsible.

"Conversion" of the Bulgarian people into Macedonians

There was no indication that unlawful means of "conversion" were used or were likely to be used.

Offending public opinion

Noting that Ilinden's meetings generated a degree of tension as Bulgarian national heroes were treated as Macedonian martyrs, the Court found however that the fact that what was at issue touched on national symbols and national identity could not be seen in itself as calling for a wider margin of appreciation to be left to the national authorities. The authorities had to display particular vigilance to ensure that national public opinion was not protected at the expense of minority views (the applicants' had only about 3,000 supporters), no matter how unpopular they might be.

The Court further noted that the place of the meetings were crucial to the applicants as well as for those attending the official ceremonies and that it had not been shown that the celebrations could not proceed peacefully either at the same time or shortly afterwards.

In sum, the Court found that, as there was no real, foreseeable risk of violent action, of incitement to violence or of a rejection of democratic principles, the bans on the applicants'ќ' meetings were not justified under paragraph 2 of Article 11.

Judge Botoucharova expressed a dissenting opinion, which is annexed to the judgment.

***

The Court's judgments are accessible on its Internet site (
http://www.echr.coe.int).

Registry of the European Court of Human Rights
F - 67075 Strasbourg Cedex
Contacts: Roderick Liddell (telephone: (0)3 88 41 24 92)
Emma Hellyer (telephone: (0)3 90 21 42 15)
Fax: (0)3 88 41 27 91

The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. On 1 November 1998 a full-time Court was established, replacing the original two-tier system of a part-time Commission and Court.

[fn] Under Article 43 of the European Convention on Human Rights, within three months from the date of a Chamber judgment, any party to the case may, in exceptional cases, request that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, a panel of five judges considers whether the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or its Protocols, or a serious issue of general importance, in which case the Grand Chamber will deliver a final judgment. If no such question or issue arises, the panel will reject the request, at which point the judgment becomes final. Otherwise Chamber judgments become final on the expiry of the three-month period or earlier if the parties declare that they do not intend to make a request to refer.


       
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