Case no 72881/01
71. In the light of the general principles outlined above, the ability to establish a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest is one of the most important aspects of freedom of association, without which that right would be deprived of any meaning. The Court has consistently held the view that a refusal by the domestic authorities to grant status as a legal entity to an association of individuals amounts to an interference with the applicants' exercise of their right to freedom of association (see Gorzelik, cited above, § 52 et passim, and Sidiropoulos, cited above, § 31 et passim). Where the organisation of the religious community is at issue, a refusal to recognise it also constitutes interference with the applicants' right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention (see Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia, cited above, § 105). The believers' right to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function peacefully, free from arbitrary State intervention (see Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria [GC], no. 30985/96, § 62, ECHR 2000‑XI).
72. The Court observes that in 1997 the respondent State enacted a new Religions Act which required all the religious organisations that had been previously granted legal-entity status to amend their articles of association in conformity with the new Act and to have them “re-registered” within a specific time-period (see paragraphs 38 and 44 above). The procedure for “re-registration” was the same as for the initial registration of a religious organisation and the same grounds for refusing a registration application applied (see paragraphs 39 and 41 above). In addition, “re-registration” could be refused if grounds existed for dissolving a religious organisation or for banning its activities (see paragraph 43 above). A failure to obtain “re-registration” for whatever reason before the expiry of the time-limit exposed the religious organisation to a threat of dissolution by judicial decision (see paragraph 44 above).
73. The Court notes that, prior to the enactment of the new Religions Act, the applicant branch had lawfully operated in Russia since 1992. It was unable to obtain “re-registration” as required by the Religions Act and consequently became liable for dissolution by operation of law. After 6 December 2001, when it exhausted ordinary domestic remedies against the judicial decision ordering its dissolution, and until that decision was quashed by way of supervisory review on 1 August 2002, the applicant branch continuously ran the risk of having its accounts frozen and its assets seized (cf. Christian Democratic People's Party v. Moldova (dec.), no. 28793/02, 22 March 2005). The Court accepts that that situation had an appreciably detrimental effect on its functioning and religious activities (see paragraphs 29 to 33 above). Even though the Constitutional Court's ruling later removed the immediate threat of dissolution from the applicant branch, it is apparent that its legal capacity is not identical to that of other religious organisations that obtained re-registration certificates. The Court observes that in other cases the absence of re-registration was invoked by the Russian authorities as a ground for refusing registration of amendments to the articles of association or for staying the registration of a religious newspaper (see Church of Scientology Moscow and Others v. Russia (dec.), no. 18147/02, 28 October 2004).
74. The Court considers that in the present circumstances, in which the religious organisation was obliged to amend its articles of association and where registration of such amendments was refused by the State authorities, with the result that it lost its legal-entity status, there has been an interference with the organisation's right to freedom of association. As the Religions Act restricts the ability of a religious association without legal-entity status to exercise the full range of religious activities (see Kimlya, Sultanov and Church of Scientology of Nizhnekamsk v. Russia (dec.), nos. 76836/01 and 32782/03, 9 June 2005), this situation must also be examined in the light of the organisation's right to freedom of religion.
75. Accordingly, as the Court has found that there has been an interference with the applicant's rights under Article 11 of the Convention read in the light of Article 9 of the Convention, it must determine whether such interference satisfied the requirements of paragraph 2 of those provisions, that is whether it was “prescribed by law”, pursued one or more legitimate aims and was “necessary in a democratic society” (see, among many authorities, Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia, cited above, § 106).back