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Macedonian Minority Organizations, OMO Ilinden and OMO Ilinden PIRIN,
Win Landmark European Court of Human Rights Cases Against Bulgaria


October 21, 2005


Press release issued by the Registrar

Two Chamber judgments concerning Bulgaria


The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing the following two Chamber judgments, neither of which is final[1]:

United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Ivanov v. Bulgaria (application no 44079/98)
United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden – PIRIN and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 59489/00)

In both cases the Court held, unanimously, 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 in the first case 6,000 euros (EUR) for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 800 for costs and expenses and the applicants in the second, EUR 3,000 for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 3,000 for costs and expenses. (The judgments are available only in English.)

United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Ivanov v. Bulgaria

The applicants are the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden (UMO Ilinden) and its chairperson, Yordan Ivanov, a Bulgarian national, who was born in 1932 and lives in Sandanski (Bulgaria).

UMO Ilinden is an association founded on 14 April 1990 and based in south-west Bulgaria, in an area known as the Pirin Region or the geographic region of Pirin Macedonia. In 1990, 1998-99 and 2002-04 it applied unsuccessfully for registration; the courts found, among other things, that “its statute and programme were directed against the unity of the nation”. Every year from 1990 UMO Ilinden tried to organise commemorative meetings, which were banned by the authorities. (See the Court’s judgment in the case Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden (2.10.2001)[2]).

This case concerned the applicants’ complaints that the members and followers of UMO Ilinden were prevented from holding peaceful meetings on a number of occasions during the period 1998-2003. The applicants relied on Article 11 (freedom of assembly).

The European Court of Human Rights found that there had been interferences with the applicants’ freedom of assembly concerning 12 events between March 1998 and September 2003 and no interference concerning three events during that period.

The Court accepted that those interferences were prescribed by law and that the bans were intended to safeguard one or more of the interests cited by the Bulgarian Government (protecting national security and the territorial integrity of the country, guaranteeing public order in the local community, protecting the rights and freedoms of others and preventing disorder and crime).

Despite the Government’s assertion that, following the Court’s judgment in Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden, the authorities had undertaken measures to ensure the exercise of the applicants’ freedom of assembly, the Court noted that, with a few exceptions, the authorities persisted in their efforts to impede the holding of the commemorative events which UMO Ilinden sought to organise, much as they had during the period 1994-97, when they had adopted the practice of imposing sweeping bans on Ilinden’s meetings. The Court further observed that the authorities’ justification for so doing was substantially the same and thus insufficient to make the measures in question necessary in a democratic society.

It was also noteworthy that, on one of the occasions when they did not interfere with the applicants’ freedom of assembly (in August and September 2002), the authorities appeared somewhat reluctant to protect the members and followers of Ilinden from a group of counter-demonstrators. As a result, some of the participants in Ilinden’s rally were subjected to physical violence from their opponents. The Court recalled that genuine, effective freedom of peaceful assembly could not be reduced to a mere duty not to interfere on the part of a State which had ratified the European Convention on Human Rights; it was that State’s duty to take reasonable and appropriate measures to enable lawful demonstrations to proceed peacefully. The Court also recalled that, 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 authorities were therefore bound to take adequate measures to prevent violent acts directed against the participants in Ilinden’s rally, or at least limit their extent. However, it seemed that they, while embarking on certain steps to enable the organisation’s commemorative event to proceed peacefully, did not take all the appropriate measures which could reasonably have been expected from them under the circumstances. The Bulgarian State therefore failed to discharge its positive obligations under Article 11.

Finally, the Court noted with concern, one of the bans was imposed, with almost identical reasoning, even after similar measures had been declared contrary to Article 11 in the Court’s judgment in Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden.

The Court therefore held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 11.

United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden – PIRIN and Others v. Bulgaria

The applicants are: United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden – Party for Economic Development and Integration of the Population (UMO Ilinden – PIRIN); Ivan Singartiyski, born in 1953 and living in Mosomishte; Ivan Bikov, born in 1938 and living in Samuilovo; and Atanas Orozov, born in 1948 and living in Razlog (Bulgaria). Mr Singartiyski, Mr Bikov and Mr Orozov, who are all Bulgarian nationals living in Bulgaria, were formerly the chairman, vice-chairman and secretary of UMO Ilinden – PIRIN.

UMO Ilinden – PIRIN was a political party founded on 28 February 1998 and based in south-west Bulgaria, in the Pirin region. On 29 February 2000 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court found that the party and the organisations which preceded it (in particular UMO Ilinden) had advocated separatist ideas and “imperil[ed] [Bulgaria’s] national security”. The party was consequently declared unconstitutional and dissolved.

The applicants complained that UMO Ilinden – PIRIN’s dissolution was not prescribed by law or necessary in a democratic society. They relied on Article 11 (freedom of association).

The European Court of Human Rights found that UMO Ilinden – PIRIN’s dissolution did constitute an interference with its right of association. That interference was prescribed by law and pursued the legitimate aim of protecting national security.

In considering whether dissolving the applicant party was “necessary in a democratic society” the Court noted that the interference in question was radical: the applicant party was dissolved with immediate effect. Such a drastic measure required very serious reasons by way of justification before it could be considered proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued; it would be warranted only in the most serious cases.

The Court observed that the Bulgarian Constitutional Court, in ordering the applicant party’s dissolution, did not find that any of the party’s leaders or members had made any calls for the use of violence or for the rejection of democratic principles. Indeed, it conceded that the applicant party had not engaged in any concrete action which could effectively endanger the country’s territorial integrity.

The Court considered that it was not unreasonable for the authorities to suspect that certain leaders or members of the applicant party harboured separatist views and had a political agenda that included the notion of autonomy for the region of Pirin Macedonia or even its secession from Bulgaria. However, the Court reiterated that a political party might campaign for a change in the legal and constitutional structures of the State on two conditions. Firstly, the means used to that end had to be, in every respect, legal and democratic. Secondly, the change proposed had itself to be compatible with fundamental democratic principles. There was no indication that those conditions were not met in the applicants’ case.

As regards the first condition, it was noteworthy that on none of the occasions cited by the Constitutional Court in support of its decision did the applicant party’s leaders and members hint at any intention to use violence or any other undemocratic means to achieve their aims. There was, furthermore, no indication in the case file that any practical actions were undertaken by the applicant party which could pose a threat to Bulgaria’s national security. In that connection, the Court observed that the incidents referred to by the Constitutional Court were rallies, speeches, press conferences, letters or maps, in which members of the applicant party or its predecessor organisations had stated that there existed a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and that the Pirin Region was not part of Bulgaria, and had made certain peaceful demands.

Concerning the second condition, the Court considered, even if it might be assumed that the political project advocated by the applicant party was indeed the autonomy or even secession of Pirin Macedonia, it was not necessarily at variance with the principles of democracy. The mere fact that a political party called for autonomy or even requested secession of part of the country’s territory was not a sufficient basis to justify its dissolution on national security grounds. In a democratic society based on the rule of law, political ideas which challenged the existing order without putting into question the tenets of democracy, and whose realisation was advocated by peaceful means, had to be afforded a proper opportunity of expression through, among other things, participation in the political process. However shocking and unacceptable the statements of the applicant party’s leaders and members might appear to the authorities or the majority of the population and however illegitimate their demands might be, they did not appear to warrant the interference in question. The fact that the applicant party’s political programme was considered incompatible with the prevailing principles and structures of the Bulgarian State did not make it incompatible with the rules and principles of democracy. It was of the essence of democracy to allow diverse political programmes to be proposed and debated, even those that called into question the way a State was currently organised, provided that they did not harm democracy itself.

Moreover, there was no indication that the applicant party had any real chance of bringing about political changes which would not meet with the approval of everyone on the political stage. Indeed, it was recognised that the public influence of the applicant party was negligible. It therefore appeared that the constitutional court’s holding that the applicant party’s activity truly “imperil[ed] [Bulgaria’s] national security” was not based on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts.

Considering that there did not exist a pressing social need to order the applicant party’s dissolution and that the dissolution was therefore not necessary in a democratic society, the Court held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 11.

***

These summaries by the Registry do not bind the Court. The full texts of the Court’s judgments are accessible on its Internet site (www.echr.coe.int).

Registry of the European Court of Human Rights
F – 67075 Strasbourg Cedex
Press contacts: Roderick Liddell (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 24 92)
Emma Hellyer (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 90 21 42 15)
Stephanie Klein (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 21 54)
Beverley Jacobs (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 90 21 54 21)
Fax: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 27 91


The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Since 1 November 1998 it has sat as a full-time Court composed of an equal number of judges to that of the States party to the Convention. The Court examines the admissibility and merits of applications submitted to it. It sits in Chambers of 7 judges or, in exceptional cases, as a Grand Chamber of 17 judges. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe supervises the execution of the Court’s judgments.

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[1] 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.

[2] in which it found a violation of Article 11 because the authorities “resorted to measures aimed at preventing the dissemination of the applicants’ views at the demonstrations they wished to hold ... in circumstances where there was no real foreseeable risk of violent action or of incitement to violence or any other form of rejection of democratic principles”.

     
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