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Macedonian Minority Party, Rainbow/Vinozhito,
Wins Landmark European Court of Human Rights Case Against Greece


October 21, 2005


Press release issued by the Registrar

CHAMBER JUDGMENT OURANIO TOXO AND OTHERS v. GREECE


The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing a judgment[1] in the case of Ouranio Toxo and Others v. Greece
(application no. 74989/01).

The Court held unanimously that there had been:

a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to a fair hearing) on account of the length of proceedings;

a violation of Article 11 of the Convention (freedom of assembly and association).

Under Article 41 (just satisfaction), the Court made a joint award to the applicants of 2,000 euros (EUR) for pecuniary damage, EUR 30,000 for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 3,245 for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available only in French.)

1. Principal facts

The applicants are a political party, Ouranio Toxo (“Rainbow”) that was founded in 1994, and two Greek nationals who are members of its political secretariat, Pavlos Voskopoulos and Petros Vassiliadis. They were born in 1964 and 1960 respectively.

Ouranio Toxo, whose declared aims include the defence of the Macedonian minority living in Greece, have been regularly taking part in elections since 1994. In September 1995 the party established its headquarters in Florina. It affixed a sign with the party’s name in the two languages spoken in the region, Greek and Macedonian, to the balcony of the premises. It included the word “vino-zito”, written in the “Slav alphabet”, which means “rainbow” in Macedonian, but was also the rallying cry of forces who had sought to take the town of Florina during the civil war in Macedonia.

On 12 September 1995 priests from the church in Florina published a statement calling on the people to join a “demonstration to protest against the enemies of Greece who arbitrarily display signs with anti-Hellenic inscriptions”. The statement also called for the “deportation” of those responsible. The following day the town council published in the local press a resolution it had adopted to organise protests against the applicants and the public prosecutor ordered the removal of the sign on the ground that the inclusion of the party’s name in Macedonian was liable to sow discord among the local population.

On 13 September 1995 police officers removed the sign without giving any explanation to the applicants, who proceeded to install a replacement. That evening, the applicants say that they were insulted and threatened by a crowd that had gathered in front of the party headquarters and which included the mayor and town councillors. At about 1.30 a.m. a number of people attacked the headquarters, broke into the premises and assaulted those inside, demanding that they deliver up the sign, which the applicants did. A second attack followed at approximately 4 a.m., during the course of which equipment and furniture on the premises were thrown out of the window and set on fire.

The applicants alleged that, while these events were taking place, they telephoned the police station located some 500 metres from the party headquarters, but were told that no officers were available to come out.

The public prosecutor’s office took no action against those involved in the incidents. However, criminal proceedings were brought under Article 192 of the Criminal Code against Mr Voskopoulos, Mr Vassiliadis and others for inciting discord. They were accused of “sowing discord among the local population by affixing a sign to the party’s offices which included a word from a Slav language ‘vino-zito’”. The applicants were acquitted in September 1998.

On 5 December 1995 the applicants lodged a criminal complaint against those responsible for the incidents and applied to be joined to the proceedings as civil parties. However, owing to a lack of evidence, no proceedings were instituted. Following the proceedings before the indictment division, the applicants appealed to the Court of Cassation. Their appeal was dismissed on 30 January 2003.

2. Procedure and composition of the Court

The application was lodged on 11 March 2001 and declared partly inadmissible on 5 December 2002. The remainder of the application was declared admissible on 27 May 2004.

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

Loukis Loucaides (Cypriot), President,
Christos Rozakis (Greek),
Francoise Tulkens (Belgian),
Peer Lorenzen (Danish),
Nina Vajic (Croatian),
Dean Spielmann (Luxemburger),
Sverre Erik Jebens (Norwegian), judges,

and also Soren Nielsen, Section Registrar.

3. Summary of the judgment[2]

Complaints

The applicants complained of the length of the proceedings in the indictment division and a breach of the right to freedom of association. They relied on Articles 6 and 11 of the Convention.

Decision of the Court

Article 6 § 1

The Court noted that the proceedings in question had lasted more than seven years and one month, solely for the investigation of the case. In the light of the circumstances, it found that that period was excessive and did not comply with the “reasonable-time” requirement. It therefore held that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1.

Article 11

The Court noted that Ouranio Toxo was a lawfully constituted party one of whose aims was the defence of the Macedonian minority living in Greece. Affixing a sign to the front of its headquarters with the party’s name written in Macedonian could not be considered reprehensible or to constitute in itself a present and imminent threat to public order. The Court was prepared to accept that the use of the term “vino-zito” had aroused hostile sentiment among the local population, as its ambiguous connotations were liable to offend the political or patriotic views of the majority of the population of Florina. However, the risk of causing tension within the community by using political terms in public did not suffice, by itself, to justify interference with freedom of association.

As regards the authorities’ conduct, the Court noted that two days before the incidents, the town council had clearly incited the town population to gather in protest against the applicants and some of its members had taken part in the protests. It had thus helped through its conduct to arouse the hostile sentiment of a section of the population against the applicants. The role of State authorities was to defend and promote the values inherent in a democratic system, such as pluralism, tolerance and social cohesion. In the case before the Court, it would have been more in keeping with the aforementioned values for the local authorities to advocate a conciliatory stance, rather than to stir up confrontational attitudes.

With regard to the conduct of the police, the Court found that they could reasonably have foreseen the danger that the tension would boil over into violence and clear violations of freedom of association. The State should therefore have taken adequate measures to avoid or, at least, contain the violence. However, they had not done so. Despite being contacted repeatedly, the police, who were stationed in the vicinity, did not intervene on the night of the attack, allegedly because of a lack of manpower. The Greek Government had not provided any explanation for the lack of police officers when the incidents were foreseeable. Nor had it escaped the Court’s attention that the public prosecutor had not considered it necessary to start an investigation in the wake of the incidents to determine responsibility. It was only once the applicants had lodged a complaint that the investigation had begun. In cases of interference with freedom of association by individuals, the competent authorities had a duty to take effective investigative measures.

In those circumstances, the Court found that by both their acts and omissions the Greek authorities had violated Article 11.

Judges Lorenzen and Vajic expressed a joint partly dissenting opinion, which is annexed to the judgment.

***

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.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[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] This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.

     
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