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Two prosecutions of Islam critics, but one worrying outcome


ON October 25, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) approved the conviction in Austria of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff for hate speech after she described the Prophet Mohammed as a paedophile.

Yet on 5 December 5, 2019, the same court censured the government of Azerbaijan for convicting two journalists who were highly critical of Islam.

Whilst a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is at the same time a member of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). Members of the OIC subscribe to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which allows freedom of expression only within the demands of sharia law.

In November 2006, the Azerbaijani journalists, Rafig Nazir oglu Tagiyev and Samir Sadagat oglu Huseynov, wrote an article entitled ‘Europe and us’ in Sanat Gazeti,  a newspaper were Mr Huseynov was editor-in-chief. In the article they dared to openly compare Islam and Europe, to the detriment of Islam.

Their comparison of the two cultures led them to acknowledge the superiority of Western culture, and the ‘stupidity’ and the ‘madness’ of Muslim philosophers.

They also came to the conclusion that ‘in comparison with Jesus Christ, the father of war fatwas the Prophet Mohammed is simply a frightful creature’. They wrote that such is the inherent nature of Islam that it can only develop in Europe through ‘tiny demographic steps’ and not through its own qualities.

The article was immediately condemned by Azerbaijani and Iranian Islamic scholars and a fatwa was pronounced followed by public demonstrations demanding their death. Shortly after the publication of the article, they were prosecuted for inciting religious hatred and hostility.

Tagiyev was found guilty of incitement to religious hatred over the article and Huseynov was convicted of incitement to religious hatred for having authorised publication.

Tagiyev was sentenced to three years in prison and Huseynov to four years. Their guilt was based on a ‘forensic linguistic and Islamic assessment’ of the article carried out by the religious expertise department at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations.

They appealed, but their convictions were upheld. After 13 months in prison, they received a presidential pardon and were released. The two journalists subsequently appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights in 2008.

Sadly, before the appeal could be heard, Mr Tagiyev was stabbed to death by a stranger while walking home from work in Baku in November 2011. As is often the case with religious killings in the Muslim world, the judicial authorities failed to complete the investigation. The price of freedom of expression in Islamic countries can be high. His widow nevertheless, bravely continued the case.

Mayila Tagiyev refuses to be intimidated. She also has a separate case pending over her husband’s killing, which is important for Press freedom in Muslim countries. Mrs Tagiyev is claiming that the Azerbaijani government failed to protect his right to life and that he was targeted over his journalistic activities.

Last month, the ECHR finally ruled in the journalists’ favour. It found that the Azerbaijani courts had not justified why their conviction had been necessary when the article had clearly only been comparing Western and Eastern values.

According to the ECHR, the Azerbaijani courts should have assessed the content of the disputed statements themselves and considered them in the broader context of a public interest debate on the role of religion in society.

The ECHR also considered that the criminal conviction of the journalists was too severe and likely to deter the Press ‘from openly discussing matters relating to religion (and) its role in society’. On December 5, 2019, Azerbaijan was ordered to pay 24,000 euros in compensation.

Just a year earlier, the same chamber of the ECHR had approved the conviction in Austria of Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff for hate speech after she compared the union of Mohammed with his nine-year-old wife Aisha to paedophilia. In its judgment, the ECHR said it considered her comments to be capable of ‘arousing justified indignation’ of Muslims.

This decision was condemned by many in the West as a serious attack on freedom of expression and an abdication of reason. Meanwhile, the highest Islamic authorities saw it as the ECHR giving approval to their repression of blasphemy.

In a signed opinion column, published on March 15, 2019 in the French weekly news magazine Valeurs Actuelles, about 20 leading figures had asked the European Court, in vain, to refer the case back to its Grand Chamber for a retrial.  

We cannot doubt that this strong reaction was taken into account when the appeal by the Azerbaijani journalists was heard. A strict application of the case law which led to the approval of Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff’s conviction could have led to the approval of the conviction of the journalists. Indeed, their words were far more subjective, significant and scandalous to Muslims than those of Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff.

It can be argued that the court saw a priority in protecting minorities – that is, Muslims in Austria and free thinkers in Azerbaijan.

It is, however, worth noting that Mrs Sabaditsch-Wolff is close to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and therefore considered to be ‘far-Right’, while the Azerbaijani journalists were pro-European activists, and therefore ‘democrats’.

Although the comments were similar and caused the same reaction amongst Muslims, it seems that from the Strasbourg point of view, their origins count.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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