Bosnia and Herzegovina : Salafist skullcap human rights complaint set for judgement

Next week, Strasbourg judges will deliver their judgement on a complaint against Bosnia and Herzegovina, brought by a court witness, fined for refusing  to remove his religious skullcap.

The European Court of Human Rights’ decision in the case Hamidović v. Bosnia and Herzegovina (application no. 57792/15) is expected on Tuesday 5 December.

The applicant, Husmet Hamidović, is a Bosnian-Herzegovinian citizen who was born in 1976 and lives in Gornja Maoča (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

The case concerns his refusal to remove his skullcap while giving evidence before the criminal court, which was examining a case about the attack on the US embassy in Sarajevo in 2011.

A member of a local group advocating the Wahhabi/Salafi version of Islam was eventually convicted during the proceedings of terrorism and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment; two other defendants were acquitted. The accused all belonged to the same religious community, which opposed the concept of a secular State and recognised only God’s law and court.

The accused thus refused to stand up on entering the courtroom during their trial, and the presiding judge ordered their removal until they changed their minds.

In September 2012, Hamidović, who also belonged to the same Wahhabi/Salafi community, was summoned to appear as a witness during the proceedings. On standing up to address the court, the presiding judge asked him to remove his skullcap. The judge explained that wearing a skullcap was contrary to the dress code for judicial institutions and that no religious symbols or clothing were permitted in court.

However, Hamidović eventually refused, claiming that it was his religious duty to wear a skullcap at all times. The judge therefore expelled him from the courtroom, convicted him of contempt of court and sentenced him to a fine.

In October 2012 the first-instance decision was upheld, an appeals chamber of the same court holding that the requirement to remove headgear on the premises of public institutions was one of the basic requirements of life in society and that in a secular State such as Bosnia and Herzegovina any manifestation of religion in a courtroom was forbidden.

The fine was subsequently converted into 30 days’ imprisonment because Hamidović had failed to pay. He served the sentence.

In July 2015, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina fully accepted the reasoning of the domestic courts, finding in particular that fining Hamidović for contempt of court had been lawful and did not breach his right to manifest his religion.

Relying on Articles 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, Hamidović complains in particular that punishing him for contempt of court had been disproportionate.

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