Court finds Georgia should have protected team behind Muslim boarding school from discrimination

1 Май 2024
Court finds Georgia should have protected team behind Muslim boarding school from discrimination

On 30 November 2023, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that Georgia failed to take adequate measures to protect supporters of a Muslim school project from unlawful mob action, hate speech and other discriminatory behaviour. Almost ten years after they leased the site, their proposed school in the Black Sea port of Kobuleti has still not opened.

Georgian Muslim Relations (GMR) is a non-profit association that aims to foster support for religious education and to provide free education to socially vulnerable children. In 2014, GMR identified a site in Kobuleti where it planned to open a Muslim boarding school. Even before they had secured the lease to the property, local residents from the Orthodox Christian population began sustained protests designed to deny GMR and its supporters access to the site.

The protestors erected barricades, held placards containing Islamophobic slogans, and engaged in Islamophobic chants and other verbal abuse, including questioning the nationality of at least one applicant on the basis of his religion. They held collective Orthodox Christian prayers outside the proposed school, erected a large cross and slaughtered a pig, whose bloodied head they hung over the entrance to the building. One of the protestors appeared on television later that day, saying they had done this because ‘Muslims hate pigs.’ One member of the GMR team also received threats that the school would be burned down.

On what was supposed to be their first day at the school, students were met by a significant protest which prevented them from entering the building. Three ‘control posts’ were then established by members of the Orthodox Christian community to prevent Muslims from entering the area around the school.

Members of the GMR appealed to the local police on a number of occasions to help them enter the building, but the police found excuses not to help and turned a blind eye to the abuse and threats directed at individuals connected to the school.

The applicants also complained that the state-owned water company had failed to connect the school to the sewerage system.

Criminal proceedings in the domestic courts 

Criminal proceedings were initiated in September 2014 into the threats to burn down the school building.

Over the following seven months, the applicants’ lawyer wrote repeatedly to the Minister of the Interior and the Chief Prosecutor to complain about the police response and demand a proper investigation. She asked the Ministry of the Interior to take immediate action to ensure the school could open.

It was two and a half years before the police officers and the original investigator were interviewed about the incident with the pig’s head. They denied there had been barricades outside the school, or that the entrance had been blocked.

In February 2019 the Prosecutor amended the alleged offence to persecution on religious grounds, but the prosecution subsequently told the applicants that the charges against the police officers were not proven. They were refused the right to appeal.

Civil proceedings

In November 2014, four members of the GMR team launched civil proceedings against three individuals seen as central to the protests against the school. The civil court judged the defendants’ behaviour to have been Islamophobic, but rejected the applicants’ claims regarding police inaction.

The applicants pursued to the case to the Supreme Court but their claims that the police actions were discriminatory were rejected.

The GMR also complained to the Public Defender’s Office, regarding the failure to connect the school to the sewerage system. The GMR’s complaint was eventually upheld, but the school is still not connected to the system.

The European Court

EHRAC took the case to the ECtHR with our partner, then the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), now the Social Justice Center.

The applicants were the GMR and seven individuals involved in the proposed school project.

The ECtHR concluded that ‘the cumulative effect of the police not intervening to stop the discriminatory behaviour and of the shortcomings in the investigation was that an openly religiously biased violent acts remained without any legal consequences and the applicants were not provided with the required protection against the interference with their private life, dignity and religious beliefs.’

“(T)he Court considers that the failure to invest efforts in identifying and sanctioning at least the leaders of the mob was in disregard of the danger stemming from mob action against individuals based on hostility towards their religion… By failing to identify and sanction the perpetrators and restore legal order, the police allowed the protesters to engage repeatedly and enduringly in what the domestic courts later qualified as discriminatory treatment…” 

The Court also noted that “the deficient and protracted criminal investigation into the allegations of religious discrimination contributed to an atmosphere of official acquiescence and developed a general feeling of impunity.” 

The ECtHR found violations of Articles 1, 8 and 9, in conjunction with Article 14.

This is the second ECtHR case finding religious discrimination against the Muslim community in Georgia. In November 2021, the ECtHR found violations of Article 3 ECHR in conjunction with Article 14, in Mikeladze and Others v Georgia. The four applicants had been demonstrating, in 2014, against Government plans to convert a former mosque into a public building. They were arrested, beaten, detained and subjected to hate speech on the basis of their religion by the police.