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Macedonian Minority Organization, OMO Ilinden,
Wins Another European Court of Human Rights Case Against Bulgaria


January 19, 2006


Press release issued by the Registrar

Source: http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Press/2006/Jan/Chamberjudgments190106.htm

Chamber judgments concerning Austria, Bulgaria and Cyprus

The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 59491/00) Violation of Article 11

The applicants are the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden (“Ilinden”) and nine members of its management committee.

Ilinden is an association founded in 1990 and based in south-west Bulgaria, in an area known as the Pirin region or the geographic region of Pirin Macedonia. Its stated aims are to “unite all Macedonians in Bulgaria on a regional and cultural basis” and to achieve “the recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria”. In 1990-91, 1998-1999 and 2002-04 it applied unsuccessfully for registration. Every year from 1990 Ilinden tried to organise commemorative meetings, which were banned by the authorities. (See the judgments in Stankov and United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden (2.10.2001) and The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Ivanov v. Bulgaria, (20.10.2005)).

In March 1998 the applicants lodged an application for the registration of Ilinden with the Blagoevgrad Regional Court. In November 1998 the court rejected the application as the documents submitted were, in its view, not in conformity with the technical and substantive requirements of the law. It also claimed that by proposing to defend a Macedonian minority and by harbouring separatist views, Ilinden would, if registered, be dangerous for the territorial integrity of the country, for the public order and for the rights and freedoms of others. The applicants appealed.

Sofia Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s judgment. In addition, it found membership of Ilinden was limited to Macedonians and therefore discriminatory. It also held that it was envisaging religious activities and accordingly had to register with the Council of Ministers prior to seeking court registration. Furthermore it held that the holding of “peaceful assemblies, meetings, marches and demonstrations” and the “nomination of independent candidates” in elections were political activities allowed only to political parties. The applicants appealed unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court of Cassation, which endorsed the lower court’s reasoning.

The applicants complained about the refusal of the courts to register Ilinden in 1998-99 which they alleged had been unjustified and due to the fact that its founders belonged to a minority. They relied on Articles 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing), 14 (prohibition of discrimination) and 11 (freedom of assembly and association).

The Court found that the domestic courts’ refusal to register the association amounted to interference to the applicants’ right to freedom of association. The Court examined the three basic arguments relied on by those courts to assess whether such an interference had been necessary in a democratic society.

Firstly, regarding the alleged formal deficiencies in Ilinden’s registration documents, the Court did not accept that those constituted a sufficient reason to deny registration. Secondly, the Court was not persuaded that the supposed substantive divergences of Ilinden’s articles with the Constitution and laws of the country justified the interference to the applicants’ rights. Thirdly, as regards the alleged dangers stemming from Ilinden’s goals and declarations, the Court was not persuaded that the interference was necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of the majority of the population in the Pirin region. Their declarations and alleged intentions were not a sufficient ground to refuse registration.

In conclusion, the Court recalled that the applicant association had only about three thousand supporters, not all of whom were active and its public influence was negligible. Despite this fact, the authorities sought to pre-emptively deprive it from any chance to engage in practical action. The Court therefore found that the refusal to register Ilinden was disproportionate to the objectives pursued.

The Court held by six votes to one that there had been a violation of Article 11 and held unanimously that it was not necessary to rule on the allegations of violations of Article 6 § 1 and Article 14. It awarded the applicants EUR 1,900 for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available only in English.)

     
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