Veggie Meals a Religious Right in EU Prisons

     (CN) – Romanian prison officials who refused an inmate’s request for vegetarian meals violated the man’s right to free religious expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
     Moldovan national Ghennadii Vartic received a 25-year prison sentence in 1999 for unspecified crimes. After being diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C in 2006, he asked prison authorities to provide him with a vegetarian diet both to relieve his condition and in accordance with his Buddhist beliefs – a request the prison doctor approved.
     But prison officials denied Vartic’s request, informing him that Romanian penal codes did not provide for a vegetarian diet. Instead, they offered him a Christian Orthodox fasting diet that “excluded food of animal origin” – the only one of 17 prison menus that took religious requirements into consideration.
     Vartic filed a flurry of failed actions in the Romanian courts, over both his dietary requirements and accusations that prison doctors had refused to give him his hepatitis medication. He also argued that the Orthodox fasting diet – his only vegetarian option – provided only 2,000 calories daily, while doctors had prescribed a 3,175-calorie diet to improve his health.
     In 2007, Romanian lawmakers made Vartic’s problems worse by passing a law that banned family members of inmates from sending parcels of food to their loved ones, which the man’s family had done for years. Vartic then brought an action before the European Court of Human Rights complaining that by refusing to provide him with the vegetarian diet his Buddhist convictions required, prison officials violated his right to religious expression under the EU’s Human Rights Convention.
     An eight-judge panel of the Strasbourg-based court agreed, rejecting Romania’s position that Vartic had changed from atheist to Buddhist soley to receive better food in prison.
     “The court notes that the government questioned the genuineness of the applicant’s faith and referred to a survey in Rahova Prison which had suggested that detainees were abusing freedom of religion in order to receive better food. However, the suggestion that the applicant had himself abused this right is not supported by any evidence. The applicant himself provided a coherent account of the manner in which he observed his Buddhist faith, and argued that he asked the prison authorities to provide the diet required by his faith only when, due to a change in legislation, he could no longer rely exclusively on the food provided by his family. It also appears that during the domestic proceedings the courts did not in any way question the genuineness of his faith,” the court wrote.
     Acknowledging that financial constraints preclude special treatment for a single inmate in most cases, the court noted that Vartic’s dietary request did not involve any special preparation, service or extraordinary items.
     “The court is not persuaded that the provision of a vegetarian diet to the applicant would have entailed any disruption to the management of the prison or any decline in the standards of meals served to other prisoners, all the more so as a similar diet free of animal products was already provided for detainees observing the Christian Orthodox fasting requirements,” the court wrote. It also noted that similar dietary concessions have been given to Jewish inmates in Belgium and France.
     “Despite the margin of appreciation left to the respondent state, the court finds that the authorities failed to strike a fair balance between the interests of the prison authorities and those of the applicant, namely the right to manifest his religion through observance of the rules of the Buddhist religion,” the court wrote.
     But the human rights court dismissed Vartic’s claims that Romanian officials illegally refused to treat his hepatitis, finding that “from 2008 onwards the applicant received treatment with Interferon free of charge and on a weekly basis.”
     The court declined Vartic’s demand for over $338,000 in damages against Romania, and awarded him just $4,124 for his pain and suffering in the matter.

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