IHEU ‘frustrated’, as European Court fails to overturn ‘blasphemy’ conviction in Austria

In a recent judgement, the European Court of Human Rights has refused to overturn a conviction for ‘disparaging religious doctrines’ about Islam, effectively amounting to a ‘blasphemy’ charge.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has expressed ‘frustration’ at another judgement from the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of ‘blasphemy’ and free speech.

An Austrian right-wing activist, known only as ‘E.S.’, was charged with “disparaging religious doctrines” after hosting a series of seminars in which she criticized the central figure of Islam, calling him, among other things, a paedophile. The activist appealed the convictions, unsuccessfully, and was eventually ordered to pay a 480 EUR fine.

E.S. appealed this conviction to the European Court of Human Rights, asking the court to rule that the conviction breached her right to freedom of expression.

The European Court did not agree with this argument. Instead the European Court, in keeping with previous judgements on the issue, said that the conviction was within ‘the margin of appreciation’ for the Austrian state. This means that they did not fully examine the facts of the case, or the fundamental arguments, but instead decided to allow the original decision of the Austrian courts to stand.

Commenting on the news, IHEU Chief Executive Gary McLelland, said:

“This case deals with important issues of principles, as well as delicate matters of politics. Many people will find the nature and tone of the original comments deeply offensive, and may be concerned about the impact they will have on society.

“Nevertheless, the decision of the European Court not to intervene in this case is frustrating, and adds to the increasing timidity of the Court on these fundamental issues of free expression. With a rising tide of nationalism and populism across Europe, it’s not difficult to see why so many would like to avoid confronting these difficult issues. But curtailing free expression risks legitimising the fractures voices of the paranoid, and creating a ‘taboo’ culture of secrecy.

“To be clear, it is not our concern here that courts may want to take action to prevent genuine incitement to hatred. But it should concern everyone that European states are given the margin to criminalize ‘disparaging religious doctrines’, and that the European Court of Human Rights is actively asserting a non-existent right of people ‘to have their religious feelings protected’.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we must resist the urge to give religion a special pass from robust and even offensive criticism.”

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