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ECHR: France Condemned for Having Willfully Deported a Coptic Egyptian Accused of Proselytizing



June 21, 2013

9 min read




By Grégor Puppinck

The Court of Strasbourg ruled that there exists “a real risk” that a Coptic Egyptian accused of proselytizing would be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment by the Egyptian authorities in the event that the measure of deportation to his country of origin, decided by the French authorities, be implemented.  Consequently, he ought to obtain refugee status.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) welcomes the judgment M.E. v. France on June 6, 2013 (application N° 50094/10), rendered unanimously by the fifth section of the European Court of Human Rights (the Court). In this decision, the Court considered that the deportation of a Coptic Egyptian, accused of proselytizing Muslims, to his country of origin, would constitute, taking into account the risks that may incur in his country, an “inhuman or degrading treatment” contrary to article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Convention).

The story of this Egyptian- alas, becoming too familiar in Egypt – was the following.  In May 2007, while he lived with his family in Assiout, the Egyptian Houte region known for being the home of a violent Islamism, he began to be the target of attacks by Muslim groups.  He was especially reproached for having given a CD containing songs that he himself had recorded, to two young people of Muslim origin who had recently converted to Christianity. To the verbal and physical attacks he endured, soon were added death threats which were left at his home. In the end, the families of these two young converts filed a complaint against the applicant for proselytizing, and he was summoned on the 20th of August 2007 to the police station of Assiout and placed in custody. Proceedings were opened against him but, before they began, the applicant preferred to quickly leave Egypt and sought refuge in France in September 2007.  In August 2010, not having taken any steps with the French authorities in order to obtain refugee status, he was detained by German police while visiting a friend, and returned to the French authorities.  A prefectural order of The Deportation of an Illegal Immigrant was made against him and he was placed in jail.  The appeal that he exercised against the prefectural order was rejected by the French administrative jurisdictions, judging that the concerned party did not bring convincing evidence in order to prove the reality of the risks. The request for the granting of refugee status, which was simultaneously introduced, was also unsuccessful.

Therefore, with the Court of Strasbourg remained the last hope of escaping a return to Egypt. The applicant introduced an appeal to complain that in the case of a removal to his country, he would be subject to treatment contrary to article 3 of the Convention (prohibiting torture and inhuman treatment). He also emphasized the procedural aspect, where he criticized the manner in which his asylum request had been conducted. He claimed that, because they used a priority procedure, he did not have sufficient time to gather all the documents, which would have allowed him to prove the incurring risks; and that he had a private right, according to article 3 combined with article 13 of the Convention, to receive the most effective remedy. 

Thus, two principle claims were raised, one founded on the merits (concerning the true risk that he would run in being returned to Egypt), the other founded on the procedure (did he receive enough time in order to prepare his asylum request?).

In its judgment, the Court, who had indicated to the French government that it was desirable not to expel the applicant to Egypt pending the duration of the procedure, dismissed the procedural claim.  This dismissal resulted from having recalled that the Convention did not itself forbid that an asylum request be treated according to a priority procedure and therefore in a restricted timeframe. The Court raised the fact that the applicant, who arrived on French territory in September of 2007, had had three years in order to present a request for asylum and to procure the proper documents to support such a request.

However - it is on this point that the decision deserves attention - the claim founded on the merits was received because the Court held that there existed “a real risk” that the applicant “would be subject to treatments contrary to article 3 of the Convention by the Egyptian authorities in the event that the measure of deportation to his country be implemented.” Focusing on the particular circumstances of the case at hand, the Court considered that the applicant had produced numerous documents, notably two summons, one before the Tribunal dated 2007 and the other on June 16, 2010 coming from the Assiot police, demonstrating that he was still today “actively sought.”  The Court also noted that the criminal proceedings instituted against the applicant had been concluded by a sentence in absentia to three years in prison for proselytizing, rendered July 21, 2009, by the Assiout Tribunal.  Finally, the Court rejected the objection raised by the French government in reference to the petitioner’s punishment, that - three years of immediate imprisonment - is insufficient to constitute “torture” or an instance of “inhuman or degrading treatment” under article 3 of the Convention, and stressing that there was every indication that “the petitioner could be, as a condemned proselyte, a prime target of persecution and violence by Muslim fundamentalists, whether free or incarcerated.”

The reading of the judgment M.E. v. France may inspire three observations.

First, the judgment M.E. v. France constitutes, with all the authority that attaches to the decisions of the Court, a lucid observation of the situation of the Coptic population in Egypt.  In addition, the Court explicitly calls into question the Egyptian authorities, underlining their passivity, and even perhaps revealing their guilt in regards to their compliance with the persecutions of Coptic victims: “the absence of a reaction by the police authorities directly in regards to the Copts, instills serious doubt as to the possibility of the petitioner of receiving adequate protection by the Egyptian Authorities.”  The National European Jurisdictions will take into account this factual assessment when pronouncing on other requests for the granting of refugee status.

Second, the judgment M.E. v. France testifies more generally to a growing sensitivity of international jurisdictions in regards to the persecutions targeting religious minorities in the heart of Muslim countries.  The Court, in a judgment on June 15, 2010 M.B. and others v. Turkey (N° 36009/08), led the way, in ruling that a decision of the Turkish government of deporting to Iran two Iranian Muslims who converted to Christianity would violate article 3 of the Convention. The ECLJ intervened in this case. More recently, the Court of justice of the European Union, in a judgment on September 5, 2012, The Federal Republic of Germany/Y and Z (C-71/11 and C-99/11), considered in substance that the States of the European Union must accord asylum not only in cases of a risk to the physical integrity of a person due solely to his religious affiliation, but equally when the religion’s public expression is the object of grave offense. (This is the commentary of the ECLJ on this decision).

There is reason to celebrate this evolution, it reflects the European awareness of the persecution of Christians in numerous countries and is a continuation of two adopted resolutions in January 2011 by the European Parliament (Resolution of the European Parliament of January 20, 2011 on the situation of Christians in the context of the freedom of religion) and by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (APCE Recommendations of January 27, 2011 on the “violence against Christians in the Middle-East”). The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe invited the European States “to elaborate a global policy of asylum founded on a religious motif, that would recognize in particular the specific situation of those who are converting to another religion;” without “encouraging the members of Christian communities of the Middle-East and surrounding regions to seek refuge in Europe, unless the survival of these communities becomes impossible.”

Therefore, the European Union has decided to initiate European diplomacy to be able to promote religious freedom around the world.

In this context this awareness of the situation of Christians, the judgment of M.E. v. France sounds like a severe criticism of French policy that does not willfully recognize the extent of the risks involved for the Copts in Egypt. Furthermore, we can only be surprised in seeing that the French Government, in the midst of the proceedings leading up to the judgment, continued to defend the validity of deportation and of the refusal to grant refugee status, while admitting the authenticity of the documents produced by the applicant.  And yet, these documents proved over and over again the reality of the gravity of the risks involved.

In total, the condemnation of France by he Court seems to indicate both good and bad news. The good is that of the growing awareness, including by international jurisdictions, of the persecution of Christian populations in certain Muslim countries. The bad is that this judgment testifies to the worsening of the situation for these populations.

The ECLJ worked for a number of years in order to sensitize the European institutions and jurisdictions on the situation of Christian communities in the majority Muslim countries.  Pending the 3rd of July, the ECLJ co-organized a conference on this theme at the European Parliament with the Parliamentary Intergroup on Religious Freedom.  In January 2011, the ECLJ had already organized a conference on the theme “The Persecution of Oriental Christians, what answer from Europe?” (See here the English report).  In 2010, the ECLJ submitted a report to the Court on “the change of religion in Egypt in the midst of another situation regarding a request of asylum by an Egyptian convert which the Court finally rejected. Currently, the ECLJ is intervening in a case regarding a request for asylum before the CEDH concerning an Iranian convert to Christianity (A.R.M. v. Bosnia and Herzegovina, N° 5176/13).

The European Centre for Law and Justice is an international, Non-Governmental Organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights in Europe and around the world. The ECLJ holds special Consultative Status before the United Nations/ECOSOC since 2007. The ECLJ acts within the judicial, legislative, and cultural domains. The ECLJ defends, in particular, the right to religious freedom, the life and dignity of persons before the European Court of Human Rights and the other mechanisms afforded by the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The ECLJ bases its actions on “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of [European] peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy” (Preamble of the Statute of the Council of Europe).

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