In the first reading at the beginning of December, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted amendments to the Penal Code. They will punish with prison time from one to five years and a fine of 5.000 leva (2.500 euros) persons who preach radical Islam or other ideology and use beliefs for political purposes. The bill was submitted by the far-right coalition United Patriots, which is playing an active role in the country’s governance.
According to the adopted amendments, “radical Islam” is “when a person campaigns for the establishment of an Islamic state (caliphate), when he/she strives for the enforcement of Sharia law over secularism, when he/she agitates for violent implementation of religious principles or promotes violence in the form of a sacred war against non-Muslims, when he/she campaigns in order to raise followers for Islamic terrorist organizations.”
According to international treaties, Bulgaria has an obligation to criminalise certain forms of public expression, namely that which incites to violence or hatred, or aims to insult certain groups because of their racial, ethnic, religious or national affiliation; incitement to terrorist attacks or other violent acts; which promotes ideas of racial superiority or hatred, or incites racial discrimination. Moreover, the Bulgarian Penal Code provides for criminal liability for libel or defamation, as well as for forms of expression that constitute incitement to crime, revealing state secrets, etc.
The new bill is based on a section of the Penal Code that provides for detention of up to three years for preaching “fascist or other anti-democratic ideology”. This provision is a residue of the criminal law of the totalitarian regime and contradicts the international standards for protection of freedom of expression because of the ambiguity of “anti-democratic ideology”. This may constitute a total ban of all forms of “preaching” regardless of its context or effect.
In the 2003 Günde v. Turkey case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that peaceful preaching of an undemocratic ideology, when expressing religious beliefs, is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The punishment of such forms of expression under Bulgaria’s new bill violates this provision.
Today, many widely spread religious doctrines preach the supremacy of the norms of religion over those of the state. Some of them even reject the laws of the democratic society in the name of a society that is based on the prescriptions of the religious doctrine. When this is done in a peaceful way, doesn’t incite to violence and conveys a deep religious belief, it is unacceptable to criminalise the form of expression.
Certain amendments which are introduced with the new bill raise big concerns. One of them criminalizes the use of “religious beliefs for political purposes” or campaigning for a “modification of the existing constitutional and legal order”. In a number of cases against Bulgaria, the ECtHR noted the ambiguity of this text and the unacceptable extent of the scope of the concept of “political objectives”. In Bulgaria, the law enforcement authorities adopted this concept in some cases of registration of political parties and non-profit organizations. Although, the discussed text is utterly absurd, this deficiency is established in the legislation. This means that no religious community in Bulgaria will be able to propagate changes in the legislation even when there are issues with its own status.
The proposed amendments are discriminatory and contradict international law. They will lead to the stigmatization of the religious beliefs of large groups of people – Muslims, as well as people who belong to other religious communities. The bill is yet to be voted at second reading.
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