PARIS (AP) — The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that France violated the freedom of expression of pro-Palestinian activists who were convicted for campaigning against Israeli goods.
The court ordered the French government to pay 101,000 euros ($115,000) in overall damages to a group of 11 activists. The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement hailed the court’s decision as a major victory.
The protesters, led by French activist Jean-Michel Baldassi, were convicted of incitement to economic discrimination after taking part in a 2009 demonstration at a hypermarket in the eastern French town of Illzach and handing out leaflets calling for a boycott of Israeli products. France’s top court upheld the conviction.
But the European human rights court found that the criminal conviction “had no relevant and sufficient grounds” and violated the freedom of expression of the protesters. The court is based in the French city of Strasbourg, and countries that signed the European Convention on Human Rights – including France – are bound by its rulings.
“This momentous court ruling is a decisive victory for freedom of expression, for human rights defenders, and for the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality,” Rita Ahmad from the Palestinian-led BDS movement said in a statement.
BDS activists say other governments have also tried to use discrimination laws to unfairly target them as the movement has grown in global popularity. The movement urges boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions. Supporters say it uses nonviolence to resist unjust policies toward Palestinians.
Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state and has called for a tougher European response to BDS activities, citing anti-Semitic attacks in western Europe in recent years. German lawmakers approved a resolution last year describing the BDS movement’s methods as anti-Semitic and reminiscent of Nazi-era calls to boycott Jews.
In the French case, the human rights court described the protesters’ actions as a form of political expression and a subject of public interest. It noted that Article 10 of the human rights charter, which guarantees freedom of expression, allows for such protest action as long as it doesn’t “cross the line and turn into a call for violence, hatred or intolerance.”
The French government has three months to appeal the decision, but did not immediately comment Thursday.
Amnesty International expressed hope that the ruling would “send a clear message to all European states that they must stop the prosecution of peaceful activists.”