CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

Dimitras III. New ECHR Decision about Religious Oaths and Symbols

by Massimo Introvigne

imgOn January 8, 2013 the European Court of Human Rights issued its decision on the case Dimitras and others v. Greece.

In fact, this is the "third time" of a long match between Mr Panayote Dimitras and his organization Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Greek government. There have been two other cases between Mr Dimitras and Greece judged by the ECHR in 2010 and 2011.

The problem concerns the oath to be sworn when testifying before a Greek Court. There is a substantial difference between civil and criminal cases. In civil cases the witness can simply select between a religious oath on the Bible and a secular oath, without explaining why he or she chooses one oath or the other. In criminal cases the written report of the hearing was, until 2012, pre-printed with a Greek Orthodox religious oath on the Bible and if the witness wanted to replace the Orthodox oath with an oath referring to a different religion or with a secular path he or she should state his or her religion and persuade the judges that such alternative religious convictions are genuine.

In the parallel 2010 and 2011 Dimitras cases the ECHR decided that the civil procedure on the oaths was not objectionable, while the criminal procedure was a breach of religious liberty, since it created a privilege for Orthodox believers and compelled the non-Orthodox to release confidential information about their religion. As a result of the two initial Dimitras cases, Greece amended its law in 2012 an now the oath in criminal cases is administered in the same form of the civil cases, a form the ECHR found acceptable.

In this third Dimitras case, filed before the new 2012 Greek law but decided after, the ECHR could only confirm that the old criminal procedure was in violation of religious liberty. At the same time, reading between the lines, it seems that the ECHR found the fact that Mr Dimitras decided to bring three different cases against Greece somewhat exaggerated, and awarded to him costs only in the measure of Euro 500, much less than he probably spent for the case.

It is also interesting, and in my view positive, that the ECHR confirmed that a religious oath is acceptable, as long as there is the possibility for the witnesses to select an alternative non-religious oath without having to give any explanation for this preference.

It is also positive that a parallel request by Mr Dimitras to remove the crucifixes from Greek tribunals was denied, although the reasons given were technical rather than substantial.

Finally, if I can add a personal and somewhat humorous recollection, Italy went thirty years ago to the same change in criminal cases, when the original religious oath was replaced by the words by the judge "Please swear before God, if you are a believer, or otherwise before men..". At that time I was practicing as a lawyer in criminal cases, and a member of a Marxist party was called to witness. He did not understand the new formula and, when the judge started to say "Please swear before God, if you are a believer..", he interrupted him and quite enthusiastically said: "I swear that I am not a believer... I swear it before God"!