Muting the Founder of a Nationalist Organisation: France vs. Freedom of Expression

Lily Parisi
Lily Parisi

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case of Bidart v. France (Application No. 52363/11) concerned whether the obligations placed on the applicant by the French courts were in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant argued that the restrictions imposed upon him to prevent his disseminating of inflammatory information and from speaking publicly had infringed upon his right to freedom of expression, as protected under Article 10. The question presented to the court was whether the domestic courts had overstepped their margin of appreciation in regards to Article 10.

 

FACTS AND BACKGROUND

The applicant, Philippe Bidart was a French national from Béziers, France. Bidart was the former leader of the Basque separatist organisation Iparretarrak, responsible for operating various nationalist paramilitary organisations.

In 1988 he was convicted of conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack, premeditated murder in connection with terrorist activity and armed robbery.

On 1ST February 2007, the Sentence Execution Division of the Paris Court of Appeal granted his release on license for a period of seven years. His release was conditional upon the following of obligations:

  1. To notify any changes of his address and employment;
  2. To obtain authorisation when travelling abroad;
  3. To continue payments in compensation for the victims of terrorism;
  4. To not possess or carry a weapon.

On 24th December 2007, the applicant participated in a peaceful demonstration in front of a prison, with the intention to support Basque prisoners being held there. Bidart’s intention for a peaceful demonstration was misinterpreted, and the media subsequently reported the incident as having violent intentions.

As a result of Bidart’s recent actions, including the demonstration at the prison, the Paris Sentence Execution Court decided to impose further obligations, including the obligations to reform from:

  • Appearing in front of any prison to express his support for individuals detained for the commission of terrorist acts; 
  • Disseminating any work or audio-visual production authored or co-authored by him concerning, in whole or in part, the offences of which he had been convicted; and 
  • Speaking publicly about the aforementioned offences.

However, the judgment was temporarily quashed on 10th June 2009 on the basis that only the Sentence Execution Judge, not the Sentence Execution Court, had the power to alter obligations.

The matter was subsequently referred to the Sentence Execution Judge of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance where the enforcement of the further obligations was permissible.

It is interesting to note here that the Judge did not appear to explicitly base the obligations on any particular measure.  Furthermore, the failure of the Judge to mention the genuine risk to the public seems somewhat unusual when considering the severity of the applicant’s conviction

The judgement was later upheld by the Paris Court of Appeal on the 31st August.

 

THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS

The applicant complained that the decision against him had breached his right to freedom of expression (and was thus in violation of Art. 10 of the ECHR) and applied to the ECtHR. The application was lodged on the 16th August 2011.

The Judges unanimously held that there had been no violation of Article 10.

Accordingly, the domestic courts have not overstepped their margin of appreciation.

However, the Court was concerned that the French Sentence Execution Judge had based his decision on hypothetical rather than actual comments made by the applicant. The Court also found it regrettable that the Judge had not weighed up the interests at stake and not fully established the risk to the public order.

The Court based their findings on the fact that the obligations were limited in their nature:

  • Limited in time: they were only applied up until the end of the period of release on licence;
  • Limited in terms of the subject matter: The obligations only affected freedom to talk about the offences committed by Bidart. This suggests that the applicant would have been allowed to express his views on the Basque question, so long as he did not mention the offences he had been convicted of.

Significantly, the Court noted the justification for the restriction on Philippe Bidart’s freedom of expression; namely the fact that Bidart was found to have been connected to the release of the founder of a well-known terrorist organisation.

 

COMMENTS

I strongly agree with the decision that there had been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention in this case. In my opinion it was difficult for the Court to reach a different conclusion considering the severity of the applicant’s convictions and the potential hysteria surrounding the organisation he had founded. The danger the applicant poses to the public, in my opinion, is most likely the fundamental basis of the Court’s decision. Further, it might be deemed ‘morally and socially wrong’ in the public eye to admit violation of Article 10 to a convicted murderer.

It appears that the Court also made this decision with the intention of providing a deterrence factor.

On the other hand, one may argue that the obligation which prohibits the applicant to express his personal support for individuals contained detained for the commission of terrorist acts does not serve a public interest.

Furthermore, the Court made it clear that the obligations were limited in terms of the subject matter. The applicant would be able to express his views on the Basque question so long as he does not mention the offences he has been convicted of. Surely one would assume that the intention of the obligations enforced by the French court was to prevent Bidart’s further involvement in the Basque question. The limited nature of the restrictions, however, still allowed a certain degree of Bidart’s involvement. In light of Bidart’s ability to be involved in these activities regardless of the restrictions, the question arises as to why the French court applied the obligations upon Bidart at all, as they appear to fail to achieve the court’s intention and serve little purpose.

Lily Parisi is a second year undergraduate at the School of Law, University of Sussex

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