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European Court of Human Rights; Turkey: Criminal Conviction of Religious Group Members for Wearing Religious Clothing in Public Space Violated Freedom of Religion

(Mar. 1, 2010) On February 23, 2010, in Ahmet Arslan and Others v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Turkey had violated article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. (Affaire Ahmet Arslan et Autres c. Turquie (Requête n° 41135/98), ECHR website,
(last visited Feb. 24, 2010) [The judgment is available only in French.].)

The applicants, 127 Turkish nationals, belong to a religious group they referred to as Aczimendi tarikatÿ, founded in 1986. (Id. at § 6.) On October 20, 1996, the applicants, coming from various parts of Turkey, met in Ankara to participate in a religious ceremony organized at the Kocatepe Mosque. They were wearing the distinctive clothing of their group, a turban, salvar (traditional baggy trousers), and a tunic, all of them black, and each man carried a stick. They toured the town, and following various incidents, were arrested on October 20, 1996, and placed in preventive detention. (Id. at § 7.)

On December 2, 1996, they were indicted before the Turkish State Security Court under the Turkey's anti-terrorism legislation, charges that were dismissed several years later. (Id. at §§ 8 & 18.) At the State Security Court hearing, the Court President asked them to remove their turbans according to Turkish court custom, which requires that men must appear before a court with their heads uncovered. They refused to do so, and the State Security Court notified the Prosecutors Office. (Id. at § 9.) The men were charged with violating Law 2596, which prohibits the wearing of certain types of religious clothing in public spaces other than for religious ceremonies, and Law 671, on the wearing of headgear. (Id. at §10.) They were convicted and sentenced to pay a fine, and all their successive appeals were unsuccessful. (Id. at §§ 11-17.)

The group filed a complaint before the ECHR in November 1997, arguing that Turkey violated article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Turkish government stated that both Law 2596 and Law 671 were passed to safeguard the secular character of the Republic of Turkey and that the interference with the applicants' religious rights was aimed at preventing acts of provocation, proselytism, and propaganda and to protect both the rights of others and public security. (Id. at §§ 26 & 29.)

The ECHR stated that given the importance of the principle of secularism in the democratic system of Turkey, it could accept the interference with the applicants' religious rights, if such interference was in pursuit of legitimate aims listed in article 9: protection of public security, prevention of disorder, and protection of the rights and freedoms of others. (Id. at §43.)

The ECHR noted that the applicants did not have any official status, but were simple citizens and that Court jurisprudence concerning civil servants did not apply. (Id. at §48.) It also noted that they were convicted “for the wearing of particular clothing in public areas that were open to all and not on regulation addressing the wearing of religious symbols in public establishments where religious neutrality may take precedence over the right to manifest one's religion.” (Id. at § 49.) In addition, the ECHR found no evidence that the applicants represented a threat to public order (id. at § 50) or that they were involved in proselytism (id. at § 51).

The ECHR found that the Turkish government did not convincingly establish the necessity for interference with the applicants' religious rights and, therefore, that there was a violation of article 9. (Id. at § 52.)