Bulgaria Condemned by Strasbourg Court in Religious Violence Case

Bulgaria violated the right of religious freedom and failed to properly investigate a clash between supporters of a far-right party and Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Sofia, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

A Bulgarian far-right party’s 2011 attack on a mosque in Sofia, which authorities failed to prevent, resulted in a violation of article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Karaahmed v. Bulgaria.

The court held the country responsible for its failure to protect the applicant, Veli Karaahmed, and other worshippers from stones and metal pipes thrown by demonstrators, and also criticized authorities’ inadequate—and incomplete—investigation into the attack.

The attack

Ataka, a nationalist party in Bulgaria, began a campaign in 2006 against what it called the "howling" emanating from the loudspeakers of the Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia. In May 2011, party supporters mounted loudspeakers on a car and circled close to the mosque, playing recordings of church bells and Christian chants during the regular Friday prayer that was taking place at the time.

During the next Friday prayer, Ataka organized a protest next to the mosque, which had been authorized by the mayor. Around 150 Ataka members and supporters, including party leader Volen Siderov and other high-ranking officials, gathered directly in front of the mosque near many worshippers.

Waving flags and banners with nationalist slogans, protesters shouted racist insults, including "filthy terrorists," "scum" and "Turkish stooges." One of the participants slowly cut a Turkish fez with a pocketknife while saying, "Can you hear me? We shall now show you what will happen to each one of you!"

The police allowed the demonstration to continue even after protesters began hurling stones, wooden flagpoles and metal piping at the worshippers, and even set fire to prayer rugs. Only after this violence was underway did officers intervene, and five Muslims, five policemen and one Ataka MP were injured in the clash, which was widely reported on and filmed by numerous media outlets.

Access to justice in Bulgaria

Several investigations into hooliganism and the injuries that resulted from the attack were opened. After an appeal by the applicant, represented by attorney-at-law Margarita Ilieva, director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Legal Program, an investigation into preaching religious hatred was opened. The Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office refused a request made by Mr. Karaahmed to be allowed to take part in that investigation as a victim because the offense was one of "conduct," i.e. one that did not have a specific harmful result and therefore one that could not have produced a victim.

The applicant appealed this decision, but it was later confirmed and he received a definitive refusal to take part in the proceedings, inspect the case files or exercise rights he would have as a victim. By January 2013, the proceedings were still pending with no charges brought to court.

The ECtHR ruling

The applicant, together with his fellow worshippers, was the victim of an infringement of his freedom to practice his religion, and this was a result of Ataka demonstrators’ actions, which the authorities failed to prevent. No fair balance was struck between the demonstrators’ rights and the rights of the applicant and other worshippers.

In the court’s view, given the views of Ataka on Islam and Muslims, it should have been clear to the domestic authorities what kind of demonstration could coincide with Friday prayers at the mosque. However, no concrete steps to manage the situation were taken until after the demonstration had begun.

It understates the nature of this demonstration to say that it was only about the loudspeaker volume of the Friday call to prayer. The demonstrators, mostly wearing black, sported slogans that made plain their views of both ethnic Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria. Ataka’s actions were not designed to express discontent at noise levels or even to express opposition to Islam, but were clearly calculated to cause disruption to worshippers and to provoke violence.

The inadequacy of the authorities’ actions continued after the attack. The investigation into preaching religious hatred, opened on May 25, 2011, still has yet to be completed nearly four years after the event. It is also extremely troubling that no progress has been made in identifying and charging those responsible for throwing objects and setting fire to prayers rugs, even though these individuals can be clearly seen on video recordings.

Finally, with the exception of one Ataka official, none of the individuals who took a leading role in the demonstration that day has been interviewed. The immunity of MPs does not prevent them from being questioned. Therefore, the investigation was an ineffective response to what happened.

The Court of Human Rights awarded the applicant 3,000 euros for non-pecuniary damages.