Our Position
DRI's point of view: Criminalization of "actions insulting religious sentiments" is unacceptable
According to Anri Okhanashvili, a member of the parliamentary majority, Georgian Dream is planning to tighten measures of responsibility for damaging religious buildings/objects. It is not yet clear what exactly the proposed idea implies.

Such an initiative is not new during the period of the Georgian Dream rule. Draft laws initiated in the Parliament of Georgia in 2013 and 2016, which were aimed at declaring "actions insulting religious feelings" an administrative offence, were sharply criticized by the Public Defender of Georgia, the Council of Religions of the Public Defender, and civil society. Fortunately, the initiatives put forward on this topic in the past have not turned into a law. However, unlike past initiatives, the idea of the legislative initiative currently belongs to the Chairman of the Legal Issues Committee of the Parliament of Georgia.

The authors of similar initiatives, as in the past, indicate that a number of European countries have norms providing for criminal liability for insulting religious feelings. However, in this case, it is important to adequately assess the context and dynamics of how these norms are applied in practice. In the legislation of individual European countries, there are indeed norms that provide for punishment for blasphemy, but in practice these norms are almost not used and there are fewer and fewer cases when courts decide to find those who commit similar acts guilty.[1]

In recent years, the judicial practice in European countries has shifted towards the unwavering protection of freedom of expression. Among them, sometimes shocking acts related to religion are mostly considered a necessary part of public discussions and not a criminal offence.

In this regard, the case of Geert Wilders, the leader of the party that won the last parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in 2009, is interesting. Wilders' public speeches, articles and his film Fitna contained rude and derogatory remarks against Muslims, for which the plaintiff requested a symbolic fine of 1 euro. Although the far-right politician often makes anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic statements that are completely unacceptable to many people, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands considered that even such cases should be part of a legitimate public debate and not a basis for criminal liability.

The European trend of recent years is mainly developing in the direction of removing norms against "blasphemy" from the legislation. Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden did do. There is an active discussion about abolishing the relevant norm in Germany as well.[2]

Since Georgia is a candidate country for EU membership, it is interesting to see what the position of European political structures is regarding this issue. According to the EU,[3] laws related to blasphemy were in the past used to persecute and had a negative impact on freedom of expression and religion; That is why the European Union recommends to decriminalize blasphemy and abolish penalties in countries where similar measures of responsibility still exist. This position is shared by the Venice Commission, which says that the liability for offending religious feelings should be abolished (as it has already happened in the majority of European countries), and where it has been abolished, similar norms should not be reintroduced.

Taking into account the modern context, it is obvious that it is impossible to justify the idea of criminalizing actions related to religion, even offensive ones, by referring to the "dead" norms remaining in the legislation of several European countries. The current legislation of Georgia, which excludes imprisonment as a measure of responsibility for such actions, is in line with progressive European approaches and does not require changes.

Author: Konstantine Chachibaia

[1] https://europeanacademyofreligionandsociety.com/news/are-blasphemy-laws-outdated/
[3] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2016-000485-ASW_EN.html