STRASBOURG, France (CN) – The refusal of Lithuanian authorities to prosecute online threats made against two gay men after a photo of them kissing amounts to a human rights violation, the European Court of Human Rights held Tuesday.
“It is clear that one of the grounds for refusing to open a pretrial investigation was the courts’ disapproval of the applicants’ demonstrating their sexual orientation,” the Strasbourg-based court wrote in its ruling.
In a post on Facebook in 2014, Pijus Beizaras and Mangirdas Levickas included a photo of them kissing, which went viral and garnered hundreds of comments. Many of the commenters threatened the pair with assault and murder.
The couple complained, together with the LGBTQ rights advocacy group LGL Association, about the abuse to the district prosecutor’s office in 2015. The prosecutor declined to open an investigation, arguing that commenters had merely been “expressing their opinion,” with remarks such as “Scum!!!!!! Into the gas chamber with the pair of them” and “Satan, please allow me to smash their heads into a wall.”
A few weeks later, a Lithuanian court agreed with the decision not to open an investigation, blaming the two young men for making the photo public. The court said putting the photo on Facebook was “eccentric behavior that really did not contribute to the cohesion of those within society who had different views or to the promotion of tolerance.”
After exhausting their legal options in Lithuania, the pair brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights later that year. Lithuania argued the lack of investigation did not stem from the sexual orientation of Beizaras and Levickas but rather from a lack of evidence.
Although same-sex activity is permitted by EU regulations in all 28 member states, individual countries vary on whether they allow same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships, adoption by LGBTQ couples and other issues. Lithuania has had a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage since 1992.
A 2013 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency found Lithuania to be the most hostile EU member state toward LGBTQ people and had the highest average of incidents of violence against LGBTQ people of any EU state.
On Tuesday, the European rights court wrote it “finds it clear that comments on the first applicant’s Facebook page affected the applicants’ psychological well-being and dignity,” and thus the lack of investigation and prosecution into the offenders violated the pair’s rights to respect for private and family life.
Further, the court found the lack of action by the authorities was discriminatory and prevented the pair from obtaining an effective remedy.
The court awarded the men $5,565 each in damages. Beizaras and Levickas did not request reimbursement for legal fees since the LGL Association represented them for free, but were awarded 5,000 euros in court fees.