Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests
Vajnai v. Hungary
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After the authorities announced they would not allow a protest rally to take place in a village in Dagestan, Russia, protesters still gathered and violent clashes ensued between protesters and the police. Three persons filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), alleging violation of the right to public assembly, among other violations. The ECtHR determined that the violation occurred in regards to two of the applicants due to the authorities’ actions to prevent the protest from occurring.
On April 10, 2006, seven people living in Dokuzparinskiy District, Dagestan, posted a written notice informing the authorities that on April 25, they would hold a rally in Usukchay village to highlight the local administration’s corruption. The applicants in this case–Niyaz Dzhanlatovich Primov, Nasir Dzhanlatovich Dzhavadov, and Bunyam Askerovich Askerov–were not the organizers of the event. The notice was also sent by mail to the district administration and to the prosecutor’s office. On April 17, the head of the administration, who was also the principle target of the rally’s criticism, informed the organizers that the administration opposed the rally. The reasons were as follows: the organizers’ request had come too late, the venue they had selected had a maximum capacity of 500 people, while the organizers were expecting 5,000 attendees, and the corruption allegations had already been looked into by the government and found to be false. The administration had also warned that if the rally were to proceed, the organizers would be held legally accountable.
On April 19, a fight broke out between two groups near the Khiv village. Police set up a roadblock to check cars and to prevent clashes. A group of 300 men, armed with iron rods and bats, arrived at the roadblock. According to the police, Dzhavadov had been in the group and had motivated the group to force its way through the police blockade. He denied these allegations, claiming that he had been at a gathering in Kurakhskiy District. Nonetheless, charges were brought against him for mass rioting, and he was sentenced. He was eventually released on appeal because he had a family to take care of and the charges were not serious.
On April 25, the police blocked the road from Usukhchay village to the rally site. The police gave the protestors the option to move to a different location, but they refused. The rally participants marched to a different site near Miskindzha. Near Miskindzha, the protesters blocked the road with two barricades, and when the police tried to clear the obstacles, the protesters attacked them with iron rods and knives. Several persons, including police, were wounded and even killed during these clashes.
Primov and Askerov had been present at the rally, but had left before the police arrived. Dzhavadov, as discussed above, had been in detention during the rally. Primov and Askerov argued that the authorities’ refusal to let the protestors hold the rally had violated their rights to freedom of expression and public assembly. One argued that the police had arrested him so as not to allow his participation in the rally, and, therefore, his right to public assembly had been violated.
The ECtHR ruled that since none of the applicants had been organizers of the rally, they could not claim that the authorities’ denial of the group’s right to hold a rally had personally affected them, and thus, they could not claim a violation of right to public assembly on that basis. Nonetheless, the ECtHR still reviewed the refusal to hold a rally as it led to the clashes. The ECtHR reiterated that a rally could not be denied for lack of capacity to hold the organizer: authorities must offer an alternative. The ECtHR also asserted that the authorities should not have the power to ban a rally when they find its message to be wrong, especially when the message is aimed at the authorities.
The ECtHR also put forward that the mere existence of a risk of clashes is an insufficient reason to ban an event, unless such risk is supported with ascertainable facts and the potential clashes have been deemed dangerous enough to justify the authorities’ actions. Therefore, the ECtHR ruled that although the authorities had felt a real fear of clashes due to the events that had preceded the rally, it had been wrong to disperse a demonstration just because some of its participants had a history of violent behavior. Therefore, there was a violation of Primov and Askerov’s right to assemble under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights in regards to their inability to participate in the rally on April 25.
The ECtHR ruled that the police’s actions near Miskindzha had not been disproportionate, as the protesters had attacked the police first, used weapons, and blocked a federal road that prevented the flow of people from several villages. As to Dzhavadov, who had been in detention during the protests, the ECtHR ruled that his detention did not constitute a violation of Article 11 since the authorities had not acted in bad faith. He had been a participant in a violent rally, and the authorities had reasons to believe that he had instigated it. Moreover, the authorities later released him due to personal circumstances.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ECtHR reiterated that fear of violence, or fear of participation of persons in a rally who have a history of violence, is not a justifiable reason to prevent a public protest.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
“[T]he mere existence of a risk [of clashes with a counter-demonstration] is insufficient for banning the event: in making their assessment the authorities must produce concrete estimates of the potential scale of disturbance in order to evaluate the resources necessary for neutralising the threat of violent clashes.”
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The primary value of the case is that it reiterates that, although the authorities need to protect peace, they cannot take actions that would prevent people from enjoying their right to public assembly just because of fear of violence or because the participants have a history of violence.
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