Friday 4 June 2010

Religious Oath in Court Proceedings Judgment

In Greece, witnesses and suspects in criminal proceedings are required to indicate epxlicitly if they do not want to take an oath on the Bible. This way they are forced to reveal their religious( or non-religouis) convictions. Four different people complained about this in Strasbourg and yesterday won their case, in which they were represented by the Greek Helsinki Monitor. In Dimitras and others v. Greece the Court decided that such an obligation violated the freedom of religion under Article 9 ECHR. This is an excerpt from the Court's press release on the relevant part of the judgment:

The Court reiterated that freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which went hand in hand with pluralism, was one of the foundations of a “democratic society” and that in its religious dimension that freedom was an essential part of any believer’s identity, as well as being a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. It had already held that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs included an individual’s right not to reveal his faith or his religious beliefs and not to be obliged to act or refrain from acting in such a way that it was possible to conclude that he did or did not have such beliefs – and all the more so when aptitude to exercise certain functions was at stake.

The applicants had been considered as Orthodox Christians as a matter of course, and had been obliged, sometimes in hearings, to point out that they did not subscribe to that faith and, in some cases, to specify that they were atheists or Jews in order to have the standard wording of the minutes amended. In some court records they were expressly described as “atheists” or “of the Jewish faith”.

This interference with their freedom of religion had been based on Articles 218 and 220 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and pursued the legitimate aim of the proper administration of justice. Article 218 regulated the taking of the oath in court, on the Bible. It was thus presumed in the Code of Criminal Procedure that all witnesses were Orthodox and willing to take the oath, as reflected in the standard wording of the records of court proceedings. Indeed, it is only exceptions to the rule that Article 220 provides for, allowing those who were not Orthodox Christians to take the oath in conformity with another religion or to make a solemn declaration if they had no religion or their religion did not permit oath taking.

The wording of Article 220 actually required people to give details of their religious beliefs if they did not want the presumption contained in Article 218 to apply to them. Some of the applicants had had to convince the court officials concerned that they did not subscribe to any religion, failing which they would have had to take a religious oath. The incompatibility of the impugned legal provisions with Article 9 of the Convention was even more evident in Article 217 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which stipulated that in any event all witnesses were required, amongst other information, to state their religion before testifying in criminal proceedings. The Court further noted that, unlike the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Code of Civil Procedure provided for witnesses, if they so wished and without any other formality, to be able to choose between taking a religious oath and making a solemn declaration.

The Court found that requiring the applicants to reveal their religious convictions in order to be allowed to make a solemn declaration had interfered with their freedom of religion, and that the interference was neither justified nor proportionate to the aim pursued. There had therefore been a violation of Article 9.
The problem was to be found firstly in the fact that the Code of Criminal Procedure itself started with the assumption that witnesses are Orthodox Christians and secondly that it preconditions exceptions to that rule on more information on the other religion (or lack thereof) that the witness adheres to, in order to decide on the kind of oath they are allowed to take. The practice is a clear example in which due to tradition a certain religion is given the main stage. It seems to me that this could be easily changed without prejudice to any religion into a more neutral provision, just as the one already existing in Greek civil law (and the ones existing in many other countries).

The judgment is available in French only, but the enitre English press release can be found here.