The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Tuesday ruled that searches conducted by Russian authorities in flats and prayer halls of 14 Jehovah’s Witnesses more than ten years ago violated their fundamental rights to freedom of religion and liberty.
The court jointly examined six cases against Russia wherein the applicants were individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Kostomuksha local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Between 2010 to 2012, Russian courts authorized searches and inspections in the applicants’ flats because they may be involved in extremist activities and distribution of extremist literature as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They seized religious literature, including Bibles, magazines and books, and other personal items, such as computers, video recordings, writing pads, and notebooks.
One of the applicants, Ms. Chavychalova, was found guilty of “unlawful possession of extremist material with the aim of mass distributing” punishable under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences (CAO) and fined 1,500 Russian roubles. The applicants complained that the search and seizure were unlawful and violated their privacy rights, freedom of thought and expression, and the prohibition against discrimination under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”).
Since the searches were authorized by domestic courts, the ECHR proceeded on the assumption that the searches were lawful under domestic law. It thus examined whether these searches were “necessary in a democratic society,” which involves determining whether there is a proportionate relationship between the aim sought to be achieved and the means employed.
The court found that:
The national courts did not carry out a balancing exercise or examine whether there have been relevant and sufficient reasons for the interference, whether the interference with the applicants’ rights had answered a pressing social need and was proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued.
Further, it found that the terms of the search warrants were “excessively broad,” resulting in unrestricted discretion to the police and an extensive search and the seizure of religious literature.
The court thus found that the interference with the applicants’ rights was not “necessary in a democratic society,” and Russia’s actions violated the applicants’ right to freedom of thought under Article 9 of the Convention.