Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness in Russia and Frolov v. Russia (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 256
November 2021

Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness in Russia and Frolov v. Russia – 37477/11

Judgment 23.11.2021 [Section III]

Article 9
Article 9-1
Freedom of religion

Failure to protect Krishna religious organisation’s beliefs from hostile speech used by regional State authorities in “anti-cult” brochure: violation

Article 11
Article 11-1
Freedom of peaceful assembly

Unlawful and arbitrary refusal to allow Vaishnavism follower to hold peaceful public religious events: violation

Facts – The first applicant is the Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness in Russia, a centralised religious organisation established under Russian law (“the applicant centre”). It complained about the State authorities’ failure to supress hostile speech targeting the Krishna movement; more specifically, in relation to the Ulyanovsk State authorities “anti-cult project” and the brochure they had published “Watch out for cults!”. The second applicant, a follower of Vaishnavism, complained about being prevented by the Moscow authorities to hold public religious meetings promoting the teachings of Vaishnavism. The proceedings brought by the applicants before the domestic courts were unsuccessful.

Law – Article 9 (in respect of the applicant centre): The publication by the regional authorities had represented the applicant centre as a money‑greedy “totalitarian cult” “destructive” for Russian society and had accused it of “psychological manipulation” and “zombification” of the youth. It had been distributed to educators for further dissemination among their students and had been made available for download from the regional Government’s website. There had thus been an interference with the applicant centre’s right to freedom of religion. That interference had been “prescribed by law” and pursued the legitimate aims of the protection of public safety and the rights of others. The Court found, however, that the domestic authorities had overstepped their margin of appreciation and, therefore, that it not been “necessary in a democratic society”. In particular, there had been no indication that the regional authorities had taken into account the “need to reconcile the interests of various religious groups and to ensure that everyone’s beliefs had been respected” at any time before or during the “anti-cult” campaign. Rather it appeared that the exclusion of new or minority religious movements had been embedded in the set-up of the project from its inception. The publication had painted a starkly negative picture of new religious movements, including the Krishna movement, and had used emotionally charged and derogatory terms for describing its teachings. This did not suggest that any consideration had been given to the State’s duty to abstain from assessing the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the ways in which those beliefs were expressed. Further, the allegations against the applicant centre’s beliefs had been unsubstantiated. Indeed, it was particularly striking that the regional State authorities had considered themselves at liberty of casting aspersions on the religion of the applicant centre which was an officially registered and lawfully operating religious organisation.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously)

Article 11 interpreted in the light of Article 9 (in respect of the second applicant): The Moscow authorities’ rejection of the second applicant’s notifications of a public religious event constituted an interference with his rights under Article 11, interpreted in the light of Article 9. The grounds for that rejection had, however, been unforeseeable and not “prescribed by law”. The second applicant had sent the notifications within the time-limits established by law. Nonetheless, the authorities had held that the planned event could not proceed because missionary activities – which the promotion of Vaishnavism was taken to be – were inconsistent with the purposes of a public event as defined in the Public Events Act and also incompatible with the respect for the religious beliefs of others. They did not have any objections to the planned events being held at a specific location or time, but rather to their religious nature. This amounted to content‑based restrictions on freedom of assembly which should be subjected to the most serious scrutiny by the Court.

The Public Events Act did not contain a list of permissible purposes or a requirement that a public event should pursue only permissible purposes. Nor did it specify how the purpose of the event should be assessed or provide for the authorities’ discretion in determining which purposes were permissible and which were not. It also gave a broad definition of a “public event”. The domestic courts had given no reasons whatsoever for their finding that the promotion of Vaishnavism and a healthy lifestyle fell outside the scope of that definition. They had also failed to specify the nature of the alleged incompatibility of the planned event with the concept of a “meeting” (the term that had been used by the second applicant in the notifications to describe the form of the event).

Additionally, the Court found that the restriction on the second applicant’s right had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. In this connection, the Court was not convinced by the argument that the conduct of a public assembly for the promotion of Vaishnavism had been “incompatible with the religious beliefs of others”. Further, the peaceful character of the planned religious events had not been disputed and there had been no reason to presume a risk of any disturbance of public order or breach of peace on their part. It would be incompatible with the underlying values of the Convention if the exercise of Convention rights by a minority group were made conditional on its being accepted by the majority. It was also significant that the textually identical notifications filed in another Russian region had not been met with any objections and there had been no evidence of any disturbances during those events which appeared to have been able to proceed peacefully. This reinforced the Court’s finding that the Moscow authorities had acted in an arbitrary manner. Lastly, as to the allegation that a public event for the promotion of Vaishnavism had amounted to missionary work, it had not been shown that unlawful means of conversion, infringing the rights of others, had been or were likely to be employed by the second applicant or other participants.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously)

The Court also held, unanimously, that there was no need to examine separately the applicant centre’s complaint under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9.

Article 41: EUR 7,500 to each applicant for non-pecuniary damage.

(See also Barankevich v. Russia, 10519/03, 26 July 2007, Legal Summary; Lashmankin and Others v. Russia, 57818/09 and 14 others, 7 February 2017, Legal Summary)

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