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European Court of Human Rights: Court Sides with Turkey in Case Involving Anti-Roma Comments

(Apr. 19, 2012) On March 15, 2012, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment in the case of Aksu v. Turkey and held that Turkey did not infringe on the applicant's right to respect for private life, as guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHRFF, text available from the Council of Europe website (last visited Apr. 13, 2012)). (Press Release, Registrar of the European Court of Human Rights, A Government-Funded Book and Two Dictionaries Published in Turkey Were Not Offensive to Roma (Mar. 15, 2012).)


Mr. Aksu, the applicant, who is a Turkish national of Roma origin, lodged two applications with the ECHR claiming that three publications, a book and two dictionaries, funded by the Turkish government, contained derogatory comments and used offensive terms to describe the Roma people. The applicant alleged that even though he was not specifically attacked in the publications, the demeaning definition and comments about the life-style of Roma people caused him pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage. (Id.)

Initially, Aksu had instituted a legal action in domestic courts against the author of the book The Gypsies of Turkey and against the Ministry of Culture, which provided funding for the book, because the author had described Roma by stating that they were engaged in illegal activities such as robbery, theft, and pickpocketing and that they were also involved in usury, drug dealing, and prostitution. (Id.) He requested compensation, confiscation of the book, and discontinuation of further sales. The case was dismissed by the domestic courts. (Id.)

Aksu also argued that the two dictionaries, one of which was intended for primary school, contained definitions that were discriminatory and offensive and requested that such definitions be removed. The domestic courts endorsed the position of the publishers that the definitions were based on objective historical and sociological background and that they were not intended to humiliate the Roma people. (Id.)

The ECHR Judgment

The Grand Chamber (GC) of the ECHR first dealt with the issue of discrimination under article 14 of the ECHRFF, pursuant to the applicant's claims. The GC, because the applicant failed to prove that the publication had a discriminatory effect or intent and he was not treated differently due to the words used, proceeded to examine the case only under article 8 of the ECHRFF on the right to privacy. (Id.)

The GC acknowledged that one's ethnic identity is a manifestation of physical and social identity and as such it falls within the concept of “private life” as envisaged in article 8. The GC made it clear that the basic issue was not whether the Turkish authorities had interfered with the applicant's private life, but whether they took the necessary measures to safeguard the applicant's right to private life. The GC examined whether the Turkish courts balanced the applicant's right to privacy as a member of an ethnic group against the public interest to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom of the author of a book to publish the results of scientific research involving an ethnic group. The GC found that the domestic courts had concluded reasonably that the book, taken as a whole, did not attack the Roma identity; that the author's remarks targeted only some of the Roma people, who engage in illegal activities; and that in the introduction the author mentioned that the Roma people had been ostracized from Turkish society. (Id.)

Regarding the two dictionaries, the GC stated that the term “gypsies” should have been described as “pejorative” or “insulting” rather than being quoted as “metaphorical.” The GC also noted that the applicant had been able to bring legal action before two levels of jurisdiction; consequently, there was an effective legal system in place to protect the rights and freedoms of people. (Id.)

Finally, the GC recommended that Turkey boost its efforts to increase public awareness against stereotyping of Roma people and to pay particular attention to their needs. (Id.)