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Top rights court rejects Bulgarian language requirement for campaigning

A political candidate was fined for giving a stump speech in Turkish in violation of a total ban on campaigning in any language other than Bulgarian.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Europe’s top rights court sided with a multilingual politician on Tuesday, finding that a law requiring campaign events to be held in the Bulgarian language violates freedom of expression.

The European Court of Human Rights sided with Lyutvi Mestan, a Bulgarian politician, who was convicted of violating Bulgarian election law after he spoke to a gathered crowd for seven minutes in his native Turkish while campaigning for parliament in 2013.

The Strasbourg-based court found that obligating candidates to use the Bulgarian language in their campaign speeches and materials violated freedom of expression as protected by the European Convention of Human Rights. The 1953 treaty protects the civil and political rights of Europeans and underpins the court.

“A regulatory framework consisting of an absolute ban on the use of a non-official language … cannot be said to be compatible with the essential values ​​of a democratic society,” the seven-judge panel wrote in a ruling only available in French.

Mestan, the leader of the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, was giving a speech at an open-air rally in the eastern Bulgarian town of Yablanovo along with several other politicians, some who spoke in Turkish and some who spoke in Bulgarian.

The Balkan nation is home to about 500,000 Bulgarian Turks, descendants of Turkish settlers who moved to the region during the Ottoman Empire.

The country’s 2014 Electoral Code prohibits using any language other than the country’s official language — Bulgarian — in any election campaign. Sofia argued that the rule is needed to ensure integration in the country and prevent citizens who do not speak other languages from being excluded from elections.

The local electoral commission reported the use of the Turkish language and Mestan was fined 2,000 Bulgarian levs ($1,100), the maximum penalty allowed by the law. He appealed, arguing that much of his constituency was not fluent in Bulgarian. The fine was eventually reduced to 500 Bulgarian levs ($280) because it was the politician’s first offense.

The ruling stressed the importance of pluralism and tolerance in a democratic society and found that the law is more likely to divide than unite. “Respect for minorities, far from weakening democracies, can only reinforce them,” the judges wrote.

The Council of Europe, the body that oversees the court, has repeatedly condemned the law and The European Commission for Democracy through Law and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, organizations dedicated to protecting human rights, have also been critical of it.

The court ordered Bulgaria to pay Mestan 4,400 euros ($4,800) in damages.

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Categories / Civil Rights, International, Politics

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