Facts: In May 2003 the Lithuanian authorities issued farmers with permits to hold peaceful assemblies in selected areas. The farmers held a peaceful demonstration, but after it dispersed it caused major traffic disruptions on three main roads.
After a successful settlement with the Government, the protest ended. However, criminal charges of rioting were brought against the applicants, and they were all convicted to a sixty-day custodial sentence, suspended for one year, and ordered not to leave their places of residence for more than seven days during that period without the prior agreement of the authorities.
They appealed against the convictions, but they were unsuccessful, and the Supreme Court dismissed their final appeal in October 2005.
Issue: The case was brought to the Court to decide whether there is violation of Article 11 (Freedom of assembly and association) of the ECHR.
Holdings: Yes, there had been a violation of Article 11 of the Convention.
Court’s Rationale: The Court accepted that the demonstration had caused major disruption. However, it stated that the authorities had to show a degree of tolerance towards disruptions during protests, in order for the right of freedom of assembly to be upheld.
In this case, the applicants had permits to hold peaceful protests, the demonstration had not been violent, and negotiations between the farmers and the Government had been underway at the relevant time. They had also acted reasonably by allowing passengers and dangerous goods vehicles to pass during the blockade.
As punishment, the Lithuanian authorities had imposed the ordeal of criminal proceedings, convictions and custodial sentences, which – although suspended – had involved a 12-month restriction on the applicants leaving their place of residence.
The Court therefore held that the applicants’ conviction had not been a necessary and proportionate measure in order to achieve the legitimate aim of preventing disorder, in violation of Article 11.
Dissenting Opinion: The dissent argued that when analysing the aspect of lawfulness, the Supreme Court of Lithuania, in its judgment provided clear legal explanation of the substance of the criminal offence “riot” and the reason for its application in the applicants’ case. The applicants were not punished for their participation in the demonstrations, but for their particular behaviour in the course of those demonstrations.
The dissent noted that the criminal sanctions imposed on the applicants were lenient custodial sentences, which were proportionate to the gravity of their conduct. Furthermore, none of the applicants even had to serve their respective sentences, because the trial judge considered that the aims of punishment could be achieved by suspending the execution of the sentence.