The European Court of Human Rights found that Romania violated the free speech rights of a prominent politician by telling him to remove flags associated with a movement to make ethnic Hungarian areas autonomous.
(CN) — Romanian authorities unjustifiably sanctioned a prominent politician and Calvinist bishop from the country’s ethnic Hungarian minority for displaying flags associated with an autonomy movement at his private office building, Europe’s human rights court found on Tuesday.
In a ruling only available in French, the European Court of Human Rights said Romania violated Laszlo Tokes’ free speech rights by taking actions to force him to remove the flags outside his office. Tokes is best known as a dissident pastor who helped spark Romania’s revolution that brought down dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
After the fall of communism, Tokes went into politics and became a member of the European Parliament in 2007 and pushed for autonomy of ethnic Hungarian areas in Romania known as Szeklerland and Partium. In Brussels, he served as a Hungarian member of the European Parliament.
He incurred the wrath of Romanian authorities in the Transylvanian city of Oradea when he flew the Szeklerland and Partium territory flags on the building where he had an office alongside Romanian, Hungarian and European Union flags.
After displaying a large Szeklerland flag in June 2014, the local police ordered him to remove it because they said he had not obtained permission to display the banner, which they claimed was a form of advertising that needs to be approved.
In August 2014, police imposed a minor-offense sanction on him in the form of a warning, according to the rights court. In 2015, he added the Partium territory flag and the local police told him to remove that flag too and issued another minor-offense warning.
All of this sparked a legal battle with Tokes challenging the police orders. A court of first instance in Oradea dismissed his complaints and the Bihor County court upheld the dismissals. After getting struck down in Romanian courts, Tokes filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
Romanian judges said it wasn’t illegal to fly the flags on a private building but that Tokes needed to get approval to do so because they constituted a form of advertising.
The Romanian courts justified their position by saying that Szeklerland is not a recognized state and Tokes was seeking to draw the public’s attention to it by making a statement that should be regarded as “advertising material,” the rights court said in a news release in English.
In February 2020, after a police check, Tokes removed the flags. By that time, he was no longer a member of the European Parliament.
The Strasbourg court said the Romanian judges failed to provide adequate reasons for their findings against Tokes.
“It found that the domestic courts had not examined in depth all the relevant evidence before them, and that the reasons given for their decisions had been insufficient,” the press release said.
The rights court faulted Romanian courts for not considering that Tokes was flying the flags merely as “a means for him to express his own identity” rather than an effort to promote his activities. It added that Romanian judges also failed to take into account his “status as a member of the European Parliament or his rights flowing from that status.”
The Strasbourg court also rejected arguments put forward by Romania that it wanted to ensure public safety and respect for the rights of others by demanding Tokes remove the flags.
“The domestic courts had not cited any evidence to suggest that the flying of the flags had been liable to give rise to any public-safety issues,” the court said.
The European Court of Human Rights further said Romania’s laws on advertising were meant to regulate commercial activities and “that their purpose was thus far removed from the message which the applicant was seeking to convey.”
In Brussels, Tokes served as a member of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania and later with Hungary’s Fidesz party, which is run by Viktor Orban, Hungary’s controversial far-right prime minister. Tokes has expressed strong support for Orban’s politics and his views that Christian Europe is under attack.
Tokes remains active in politics and acts as a representative for Transylvanian Hungarians, according to his website. There are about 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania. Many ethnic Hungarians live in Szeklerland, a historical and ethnographic region of Transylvania. In Romania, Hungarians are recognized as a national minority and Szeklers are an ethnic group within the Hungarian minority.
A Calvinist bishop in Oradea, Tokes became a hero after his congregation resisted attempts by Romania’s secret police to arrest him in 1989, events that helped sparked the uprising against Ceausescu.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.