ECtHR, Refah Partisi (The Welfare Party) v. Turkey, Grand Chamber, App. Nos. 41340/98 et al. (2003), excerpt | Samuel Moyn | August 10, 2016


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ECtHR, Refah Partisi (The Welfare Party) v. Turkey, Grand Chamber, App. Nos. 41340/98 et al. (2003), excerpt

European Court of Human Rights (Grand Chamber)

Refah Partisi v. Turkey

App. Nos. 41340/98, 41342/98, 41343/98 and 41344/98 (2003)



A. The applicants

10. The first applicant, Refah Partisi (the Welfare Party – “Refah”), was a political party founded on 19 July 1983. …

11. Refah took part in a number of general and local elections. … The results of the 1995 general election made Refah the largest political party in Turkey with a total of 158 seats in the Grand National Assembly (which had 450 members at the material time). On 28 June 1996 Refah came to power by forming a coalition government with the centre-right True Path Party (Doğru Yol Partisi), led by Mrs Tansu Ciller. According to an opinion poll carried out in January 1997, if a general election had been held at that time, Refah would have obtained 38% of the votes. The same poll predicted that Refah might obtain 67% of the votes in the general election to be held roughly four years later.

12. On 21 May 1997 Principal State Counsel at the Court of Cassation applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court to have Refah dissolved on the grounds that it was a “centre” (mihrak) of activities contrary to the principles of secularism. …

23. On 16 January 1998 the Constitutional Court dissolved Refah on the ground that it had become a “centre of activities contrary to the principle of secularism.”…

25. With regard to the merits, the Constitutional Court held that while political parties were the main protagonists of democratic politics their activities were not exempt from certain restrictions. In particular, activities by them incompatible with the rule of law could not be tolerated. The Constitutional Court referred to the provisions of the Constitution which imposed respect for secularism on the various organs of political power. It also cited the numerous provisions of domestic legislation requiring political parties to apply the principle of secularism in a number of fields of political and social life. The Constitutional Court observed that secularism was one of the indispensable conditions of democracy. In Turkey the principle of secularism was safeguarded by the Constitution, on account of the country’s historical experience and the specific features of Islam. The rules of sharia were incompatible with the democratic regime. The principle of secularism prevented the State from manifesting a preference for a particular religion or belief and constituted the foundation of freedom of conscience and equality between citizens before the law. Intervention by the State to preserve the secular nature of the political regime had to be considered necessary in a democratic society….



49. The applicants alleged that the dissolution of Refah Partisi (the Welfare Party) and the temporary prohibition barring its leaders – including Mr Necmettin Erbakan, Mr Şevket Kazan and Mr Ahmet Tekdal – from holding similar office in any other political party had infringed their right to freedom of association, guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention, the relevant parts of which provide:

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association ...

2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. ...”

A. Whether there was an interference

50. The parties accepted that Refah’s dissolution and the measures which accompanied it amounted to an interference with the applicants’ exercise of their right to freedom of association. The Court takes the same view.

B. Whether the interference was justified

51. Such an interference will constitute a breach of Article 11 unless it was “prescribed by law”, pursued one or more of the legitimate aims set out in paragraph 2 of that provision and was “necessary in a democratic society” for the achievement of those aims….

86. On the question of the relationship between democracy and the Convention, the Court has already ruled, in United Communist Party of Turkey and Others v. Turkey (judgment of 30 January 1998, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1998-I, pp. 21-22, § 45), as follows:

“Democracy is without doubt a fundamental feature of the European public order ...

That is apparent, firstly, from the Preamble to the Convention, which establishes a very clear connection between the Convention and democracy by stating that the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms are best ensured on the one hand by an effective political democracy and on the other by a common understanding and observance of human rights ... The Preamble goes on to affirm that European countries have a common heritage of political tradition, ideals, freedom and the rule of law. The Court has observed that in that common heritage are to be found the underlying values of the Convention ...; it has pointed out several times that the Convention was designed to maintain and promote the ideals and values of a democratic society ...

In addition, Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention require that interference with the exercise of the rights they enshrine must be assessed by the yardstick of what is ‘necessary in a democratic society’. The only type of necessity capable of justifying an interference with any of those rights is, therefore, one which may claim to spring from ‘democratic society’. Democracy thus appears to be the only political model contemplated by the Convention and, accordingly, the only one compatible with it.”

87. The Court has also confirmed on a number of occasions the primordial role played in a democratic regime by political parties enjoying the freedoms and rights enshrined in Article 11 and also in Article 10 of the Convention.

In United Communist Party of Turkey and Others, cited above, it stated that it found even more persuasive than the wording of Article 11 the fact that political parties were a form of association essential to the proper functioning of democracy (p. 17, § 25). In view of the role played by political parties, any measure taken against them affected both freedom of association and, consequently, democracy in the State concerned (p. 18, § 31).

It is in the nature of the role they play that political parties, the only bodies which can come to power, also have the capacity to influence the whole of the regime in their countries. By the proposals for an overall societal model which they put before the electorate and by their capacity to implement those proposals once they come to power, political parties differ from other organisations which intervene in the political arena.

88. Moreover, the Court has previously noted that protection of opinions and the freedom to express them within the meaning of Article 10 of the Convention is one of the objectives of the freedoms of assembly and association enshrined in Article 11. That applies all the more in relation to political parties in view of their essential role in ensuring pluralism and the proper functioning of democracy (ibid., pp. 20-21, §§ 42-43).

89. The Court considers that there can be no democracy without pluralism. It is for that reason that freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 10 is applicable, subject to paragraph 2, not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb (see, among many other authorities, Handyside v. the United Kingdom, judgment of 7 December 1976, Series A no. 24, p. 23, § 49, and Jersild v. Denmark, judgment of 23 September 1994, Series A no. 298, p. 26, § 37). Inasmuch as their activities form part of a collective exercise of the freedom of expression, political parties are also entitled to seek the protection of Article 10 of the Convention (see United Communist Party of Turkey and Others, cited above, pp. 20-21, § 43).

(β) Democracy and religion in the Convention system

90. For the purposes of the present case, the Court also refers to its case-law concerning the place of religion in a democratic society and a democratic State. It reiterates that, as protected by Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion (see Kokkinakis v. Greece, judgment of 25 May 1993, Series A no. 260-A, p. 17, § 31, and Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], no. 24645/94, § 34, ECHR 1999-I).

91. Moreover, in democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on this freedom in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups and ensure that everyone’s beliefs are respected (see Kokkinakis, cited above, p. 18, § 33). The Court has frequently emphasised the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs, and stated that this role is conducive to public order, religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society. It also considers that the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs (see, mutatis mutandis, Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France [GC], no. 27417/95, § 84, ECHR 2000-VII) and that it requires the State to ensure mutual tolerance between opposing groups (see, mutatis mutandis, Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others v. Moldova, no. 45701/99, § 123, ECHR 2001-XII).

92. The Court’s established case-law confirms this function of the State. It has held that in a democratic society the State may limit the freedom to manifest a religion, for example by wearing an Islamic headscarf, if the exercise of that freedom clashes with the aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, public order and public safety (see Dahlab v. Switzerland (dec.), no. 42393/98, ECHR 2001-V).

While freedom of religion is in the first place a matter of individual conscience, it also implies freedom to manifest one’s religion alone and in private or in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares. Article 9 lists a number of forms which manifestation of a religion or belief may take, namely worship, teaching, practice and observance. Nevertheless, it does not protect every act motivated or influenced by a religion or belief (see Kalaç v. Turkey, judgment of 1 July 1997, Reports 1997-IV, p. 1209, § 27)….

93. In applying the above principles to Turkey the Convention institutions have expressed the view that the principle of secularism is certainly one of the fundamental principles of the State which are in harmony with the rule of law and respect for human rights and democracy. An attitude which fails to respect that principle will not necessarily be accepted as being covered by the freedom to manifest one’s religion and will not enjoy the protection of Article 9 of the Convention (see the opinion of the Commission, expressed in its report of 27 February 1996, in Kalaç, cited above, p. 1215, § 44, and, mutatis mutandis, p. 1209, §§ 27-31).

94. In order to perform its role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of religious beliefs, the State may decide to impose on its serving or future civil servants, who will be required to wield a portion of its sovereign power, the duty to refrain from taking part in the Islamic fundamentalist movement, whose goal and plan of action is to bring about the pre-eminence of religious rules …

96. The freedoms guaranteed by Article 11, and by Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention, cannot deprive the authorities of a State in which an association, through its activities, jeopardises that State’s institutions, of the right to protect those institutions….

98. [T]the Court considers that a political party may promote a change in the law or the legal and constitutional structures of the State on two conditions: firstly, the means used to that end must be legal and democratic; secondly, the change proposed must itself be compatible with fundamental democratic principles. It necessarily follows that a political party whose leaders incite to violence or put forward a policy which fails to respect democracy or which is aimed at the destruction of democracy and the flouting of the rights and freedoms recognised in a democracy cannot lay claim to the Convention’s protection against penalties imposed on those grounds (see Yazar and Others v. Turkey, nos. 22723/93, 22724/93 and 22725/93, § 49, ECHR 2002-II, and, mutatis mutandis, the following judgments: Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden v. Bulgaria, nos. 29221/95 and 29225/95, § 97, ECHR 2001-IX, and Socialist Party and Others v. Turkey, judgment of 25 May 1998, Reports 1998-III, pp. 1256-57, §§ 46-47).

99. The possibility cannot be excluded that a political party, in pleading the rights enshrined in Article 11 and also in Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention, might attempt to derive therefrom the right to conduct what amounts in practice to activities intended to destroy the rights or freedoms set forth in the Convention and thus bring about the destruction of democracy (see Communist Party (KPD) v. Germany, no. 250/57, Commission decision of 20 July 1957, Yearbook 1, p. 222). In view of the very clear link between the Convention and democracy (see paragraphs 86-89 above), no one must be authorised to rely on the Convention’s provisions in order to weaken or destroy the ideals and values of a democratic society. Pluralism and democracy are based on a compromise that requires various concessions by individuals or groups of individuals, who must sometimes agree to limit some of the freedoms they enjoy in order to guarantee greater stability of the country as a whole (see, mutatis mutandis, Petersen v. Germany (dec.), no. 39793/98, ECHR 2001-XII).

In that context, the Court considers that it is not at all improbable that totalitarian movements, organised in the form of political parties, might do away with democracy, after prospering under the democratic regime, there being examples of this in modern European history.

100. The Court reiterates, however, that the exceptions set out in Article 11 are, where political parties are concerned, to be construed strictly; only convincing and compelling reasons can justify restrictions on such parties’ freedom of association. In determining whether a necessity within the meaning of Article 11 § 2 exists, the Contracting States have only a limited margin of appreciation. Although it is not for the Court to take the place of the national authorities, which are better placed than an international court to decide, for example, the appropriate timing for interference, it must exercise rigorous supervision embracing both the law and the decisions applying it, including those given by independent courts. Drastic measures, such as the dissolution of an entire political party and a disability barring its leaders from carrying on any similar activity for a specified period, may be taken only in the most serious cases (see the following judgments: United Communist Party of Turkey and Others, cited above, p. 22, § 46; Socialist Party and Others, cited above, p. 1258, § 50; and Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP) v. Turkey [GC], no. 23885/94, § 45, ECHR 1999-VIII). Provided that it satisfies the conditions set out in paragraph 98 above, a political party animated by the moral values imposed by a religion cannot be regarded as intrinsically inimical to the fundamental principles of democracy, as set forth in the Convention….

102. In addition, the Court considers that a State cannot be required to wait, before intervening, until a political party has seized power and begun to take concrete steps to implement a policy incompatible with the standards of the Convention and democracy, even though the danger of that policy for democracy is sufficiently established and imminent. The Court accepts that where the presence of such a danger has been established by the national courts, after detailed scrutiny subjected to rigorous European supervision, a State may “reasonably forestall the execution of such a policy, which is incompatible with the Convention’s provisions, before an attempt is made to implement it through concrete steps that might prejudice civil peace and the country’s democratic regime” (see the Chamber’s judgment, § 81).

103. The Court takes the view that such a power of preventive intervention on the State’s part is also consistent with Contracting Parties’ positive obligations under Article 1 of the Convention to secure the rights and freedoms of persons within their jurisdiction. Those obligations relate not only to any interference that may result from acts or omissions imputable to agents of the State or occurring in public establishments but also to interference imputable to private individuals within non-State entities (see, for example, with regard to the State’s obligation to make private hospitals adopt appropriate measures to protect life, Calvelli and Ciglio v. Italy [GC], no. 32967/96, § 49, ECHR 2002-I). A Contracting State may be justified under its positive obligations in imposing on political parties, which are bodies whose raison d’être is to accede to power and direct the work of a considerable portion of the State apparatus, the duty to respect and safeguard the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention and the obligation not to put forward a political programme in contradiction with the fundamental principles of democracy….

116. The Court considers on this point that among the arguments for dissolution pleaded by Principal State Counsel at the Court of Cassation those cited by the Constitutional Court as grounds for its finding that Refah had become a centre of anti-constitutional activities can be classified into three main groups: (i) the arguments that Refah intended to set up a plurality of legal systems, leading to discrimination based on religious beliefs; (ii) the arguments that Refah intended to apply sharia to the internal or external relations of the Muslim community within the context of this plurality of legal systems; and (iii) the arguments based on the references made by Refah members to the possibility of recourse to force as a political method. The Court must therefore limit its examination to those three groups of arguments cited by the Constitutional Court.

(a) The plan to set up a plurality of legal systems…

119. The Court sees no reason to depart from the Chamber’s conclusion that a plurality of legal systems, as proposed by Refah, cannot be considered to be compatible with the Convention system. In its judgment, the Chamber gave the following reasoning:

“70. ... the Court considers that Refah’s proposal that there should be a plurality of legal systems would introduce into all legal relationships a distinction between individuals grounded on religion, would categorise everyone according to his religious beliefs and would allow him rights and freedoms not as an individual but according to his allegiance to a religious movement.

The Court takes the view that such a societal model cannot be considered compatible with the Convention system, for two reasons.

Firstly, it would do away with the State’s role as the guarantor of individual rights and freedoms and the impartial organiser of the practice of the various beliefs and religions in a democratic society, since it would oblige individuals to obey, not rules laid down by the State in the exercise of its above-mentioned functions, but static rules of law imposed by the religion concerned. But the State has a positive obligation to ensure that everyone within its jurisdiction enjoys in full, and without being able to waive them, the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention (see, mutatis mutandis, Airey v. Ireland,  judgment of 9 October 1979, Series A no. 32, p. 14, § 25).

Secondly, such a system would undeniably infringe the principle of non-discrimination between individuals as regards their enjoyment of public freedoms, which is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. A difference in treatment between individuals in all fields of public and private law according to their religion or beliefs manifestly cannot be justified under the Convention, and more particularly Article 14 thereof, which prohibits discrimination. Such a difference in treatment cannot maintain a fair balance between, on the one hand, the claims of certain religious groups who wish to be governed by their own rules and on the other the interest of society as a whole, which must be based on peace and on tolerance between the various religions and beliefs (see, mutatis mutandis, the judgment of 23 July 1968 in the “Belgian linguistic” case, Series A no. 6, pp. 33-35, §§ 9 and 10, and Abdulaziz, Cabales and Balkandali v. the United Kingdom, judgment of 28 May 1985, Series A no. 94, pp. 35-36, § 72).

(b) Sharia…

123. The Court concurs in the Chamber’s view that sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy, as set forth in the Convention:

“72. Like the Constitutional Court, the Court considers that sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable. Principles such as pluralism in the political sphere or the constant evolution of public freedoms have no place in it. The Court notes that, when read together, the offending statements, which contain explicit references to the introduction of sharia, are difficult to reconcile with the fundamental principles of democracy, as conceived in the Convention taken as a whole. It is difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts. ... In the Court’s view, a political party whose actions seem to be aimed at introducing sharia in a State party to the Convention can hardly be regarded as an association complying with the democratic ideal that underlies the whole of the Convention.”

124. The Court must not lose sight of the fact that in the past political movements based on religious fundamentalism have been able to seize political power in certain States and have had the opportunity to set up the model of society which they had in mind. It considers that, in accordance with the Convention’s provisions, each Contracting State may oppose such political movements in the light of its historical experience….

(c) Sharia and its relationship with the plurality of legal systems proposed by Refah

126. The Court will next examine the applicants’ argument that the Chamber contradicted itself in holding that Refah supported introducing both a plurality of legal systems and sharia simultaneously.

It takes note of the Constitutional Court’s considerations concerning the part played by a plurality of legal systems in the application of sharia in the history of Islamic law. These showed that sharia is a system of law applicable to relations between Muslims themselves and between Muslims and the adherents of other faiths. In order to enable the communities owing allegiance to other religions to live in a society dominated by sharia, a plurality of legal systems had also been introduced by the Islamic theocratic regime during the Ottoman Empire, before the Republic was founded.

127. The Court is not required to express an opinion in the abstract on the advantages and disadvantages of a plurality of legal systems. It notes, for the purposes of the present case, that – as the Constitutional Court observed – Refah’s policy was to apply some of sharia’s private-law rules to a large part of the population in Turkey (namely Muslims), within the framework of a plurality of legal systems. Such a policy goes beyond the freedom of individuals to observe the precepts of their religion, for example by organising religious wedding ceremonies before or after a civil marriage (a common practice in Turkey) and according religious marriage the effect of a civil marriage (see, mutatis mutandis, Serif v. Greece, no. 38178/97, § 50, ECHR 1999-IX). This Refah policy falls outside the private sphere to which Turkish law confines religion and suffers from the same contradictions with the Convention system as the introduction of sharia (see paragraph 125 above).

128. Pursuing that line of reasoning, the Court rejects the applicants’ argument that prohibiting a plurality of private-law systems in the name of the special role of secularism in Turkey amounted to establishing discrimination against Muslims who wished to live their private lives in accordance with the precepts of their religion.

It reiterates that freedom of religion, including the freedom to manifest one’s religion by worship and observance, is primarily a matter of individual conscience, and stresses that the sphere of individual conscience is quite different from the field of private law, which concerns the organisation and functioning of society as a whole.

It has not been disputed before the Court that in Turkey everyone can observe in his private life the requirements of his religion. On the other hand, Turkey, like any other Contracting Party, may legitimately prevent the application within its jurisdiction of private-law rules of religious inspiration prejudicial to public order and the values of democracy for Convention purposes (such as rules permitting discrimination based on the gender of the parties concerned, as in polygamy and privileges for the male sex in matters of divorce and succession). The freedom to enter into contracts cannot encroach upon the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of religions, faiths and beliefs (see paragraphs 91‑92 above).

(d) The possibility of recourse to force…

130. The Court considers that, whatever meaning is ascribed to the term “jihad” used in most of the speeches mentioned above (whose primary meaning is holy war and the struggle to be waged until the total domination of Islam in society is achieved), there was ambiguity in the terminology used to refer to the method to be employed to gain political power. In all of these speeches the possibility was mentioned of resorting “legitimately” to force in order to overcome various obstacles Refah expected to meet in the political route by which it intended to gain and retain power.

131. Furthermore, the Court endorses the following finding of the Chamber:

“74. ...

While it is true that [Refah’s] leaders did not, in government documents, call for the use of force and violence as a political weapon, they did not take prompt practical steps to distance themselves from those members of [Refah] who had publicly referred with approval to the possibility of using force against politicians who opposed them. Consequently, Refah’s leaders did not dispel the ambiguity of these statements about the possibility of having recourse to violent methods in order to gain power and retain it (see, mutatis mutandis, Zana v. Turkey, judgment of 25 November 1997, Reports 1997-VII, p. 2549, § 58).”

132. In making an overall assessment of the points it has just listed above in connection with its examination of the question whether there was a pressing social need for the interference in issue in the present case, the Court finds that the acts and speeches of Refah’s members and leaders cited by the Constitutional Court were imputable to the whole of the party, that those acts and speeches revealed Refah’s long-term policy of setting up a regime based on sharia within the framework of a plurality of legal systems and that Refah did not exclude recourse to force in order to implement its policy and keep the system it envisaged in place. In view of the fact that these plans were incompatible with the concept of a “democratic society” and that the real opportunities Refah had to put them into practice made the danger to democracy more tangible and more immediate, the penalty imposed on the applicants by the Constitutional Court, even in the context of the restricted margin of appreciation left to Contracting States, may reasonably be

135. Consequently, following a rigorous review to verify that there were convincing and compelling reasons justifying Refah’s dissolution and the temporary forfeiture of certain political rights imposed on the other applicants, the Court considers that those interferences met a “pressing social need” and were “proportionate to the aims pursued”. It follows that Refah’s dissolution may be regarded as “necessary in a democratic society” within the meaning of Article 11 § 2.

136. Accordingly, there has been no violation of Article 11 of the Convention.


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August 10, 2016

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Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

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