Round Table Pre-Session on the Universal Periodic Review of the Czech Republic

With the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for the Czech Republic coming up next month, a Round Table National Pre-Session for the UPR of the Czech Republic was held in Prague on October 4, 2017 in order to provide foreign country delegates with the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding the current human rights situation in the Czech Republic. This autumn, the delegates will meet in Geneva in order to present their recommendations in this international forum.

In Section C- Anti-discrimination legislation from the National Report submitted at the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Fourteenth session, Geneva, 2012, at point 29, we find references to the Anti-discrimination legislation, which is based on the constitutional principles of equality in dignity and rights, and on the prohibition of discrimination on illegitimate grounds.

As religion, belief, or world view are among the rights which should be protected and not grounds for discrimination, the event served as an opportunity to raise the attention of participants to a possible misunderstanding of religious practice in the Czech Republic.

Soteria International, the only foreign organization present, was invited to speak on the topic of the effects of globalization and new religious movements on the development of freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, within the national framework of a case that is currently taking place in the Czech Republic.

Here are some excerpts from Soteria's presentation at the event:

Public fear and ignorance regarding unfamiliar religious traditions has increased. Discrimination and hate speech increasingly target religious minorities or New Religious Movements and the public debate is increasingly harsh on any group that is considered unfamiliar to society. This reaction on unfamiliar thoughts and religions started at the end of the last millennium, with France and Belgium’s arbitrary sect lists. This modern inquisition was fuelled by a growing fear of Islam.

Instead of discussing ideas and insights, criminal intent has been brought into speculation behind the ideas of witchcraft, subversive plans and mind manipulation. The very same rhetoric has recently arisen again in a new kind of inquisition, in judicial cases where it is not the actions themselves that are tried, but the speculations on the motives. Volunteer work in new spiritual communities is called human trafficking, a consensual love affair is called sexual abuse, etc.

The experience demonstrated by humankind so far, indicates that often legality prevails over righteousness, but when things are considered just as an exclusive result of legislative decisions, human rights can miss the ethical and moral dimensions.  

Very often, conflicts, discrimination, and non-tolerance stem from diversity and from the dichotomy created by the idea of being right or wrong in our beliefs. However, it is in fact very important to embrace diversity and to understand it in an inclusive and superior nature. We all have the same origin as human beings, and diversity is nothing other than a great opportunity for enrichment.

In our globalized society, we are witnessing a restriction on the freedom to choose a spiritual path, due to the fact that society understands the actions of individuals in a local paradigm of behaviour that is appropriate to the rules of social life in a respective region.

On the other hand, globalization has resulted in the expansion of the field of human behaviour. Hence, we can speak, for example, of some religions, which prescribe rituals and practices, that may not have an equivalent in Christian worship—predominant in the EU and the West. Some of these rituals and practices may seem unusual or strange in the Western paradigm, exceeding the limit of comfort created by traditional norms.

However, regardless of our personal habits and subjective perceptions, these rituals and practices are absolutely legitimate and normal, as long as they remain peaceful and non-abusive. Respecting the freedom of individuals to have and create their own spiritual convictions, and respecting the will of each person to follow the spiritual path suited to their personal system of values is imperative. However, social order and rules of social coexistence must adjust to the changes taking place at the social level, without abusively restricting fundamental human rights and freedoms.

In a democratic society based on the rule of law, all fundamental rights – including the right to freedom of religion – are individual rights that belong to each individual, regardless of affiliation to a majority or minority, and nobody – not even the majority—has  the right to prohibit or impede the exercise of these rights.

We have arrived in a time where certain behaviours, rituals, or actions related to a spiritual path can be considered as material elements of criminal behaviour, simply because they do not fall within the behavioural limits known and accepted by society.

Since 2014, the Soteria International team has studied the case of Jaroslav Dobeš, aka Guru Jara, a Czech citizen, and his spiritual organization from the Czech Republic. Our delegation also met with individuals—professors, doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, etc.—who  seemed to suffer social marginalization after a media campaign against their belief system, and due to the fact that they were students or followers of Jaroslav Dobeš. Some of the individuals interviewed (a PhD candidate, architects, accountants, a psychologist, etc.) lost their job or clients due to the influence of the media campaigns and the police investigations on their private lives.

Due to the specific context of their religious practices, it is possible that a faulty process and conviction occurred simply due to ignorance or prejudice regarding the religious practice of the defendants. In October 2014, the Regional Court in Brno, the Zlin Branch, convicted the leaders of this spiritual movement to 10 and 9.5 years’ imprisonment. Following the appeal, in May 2015 the High Court of Olomouc annulled and revoked, in its entirety, the Regional Court’s conviction decision as they found the accusations to be without sufficient basis.

Now, more than two and a half years later, the case is still pending before the court and the re-judgment has been postponed, while the two suspects, Jaroslav Dobeš and Barbora Plaškova, are being kept in a detention centre in Manila, Philippines because of the arrest warrants issued by the Czech authorities.

We fear that the faulty practice may be related to structural discrimination of smaller and unfamiliar religious groups. The concern is strengthened by the fact that the defendants and their religious practice, at the time of the trial, was publicly labelled as “sectarian” by an overwhelming number of articles, in written and electronic form, as well as, TV and radio broadcasts.

There is reason to raise questions regarding the leak of confidential information to the media during the police investigations and court trials. This puts the commitment of the state and prosecutors to secure the fundamental rights of the defendants—such as the right to a fair trial, the right to the presumption of innocence, and the right to privacy—into question. Public stigmatization plays an important role in the possible violations of the fundamental rights of the religious practitioners. If the police or the prosecutor’s office has leaked confidential material, it indicates the fragility and danger the Czech Republic faces in maintaining a pluralistic and tolerant society.

Members of the spiritual group were rejected by their friends and family, finding themselves questioned at work and, even, losing their jobs. All these are direct consequence of the negative media attention, which permeates Czech society even today, on the group.

Soteria International recommends for the UN and other competent bodies to investigate situations when actions related to a spiritual path can be considered as material elements of criminal behaviour and to take the needed measures in order to avoid the misinterpretation of spiritual beliefs and choices and the potential of subsequent subjection of spiritual communities or practitioners to investigations based on such alleged crimes.

We are concerned with the way in which the Czech authorities treat religious minorities, as in the above mentioned case of Jaroslav Dobeš and Barbora Plaškova, fuelling social marginalization and segregation from society.

Soteria International has recognised patterns in how the Czech authorities have dealt with this case, in other countries which commit abuses towards religious minorities considered as “sects.” It appears as though the authorities are in danger of being influenced by the media and a socially accepted discrimination of certain groups, which are publicly described as strange or subversive. Within the EU there is a continuous fight to let go of the “sect” stigma of smaller religious groups, based on, and fuelled by, popular intolerance and ignorance.

From our observations, we have also concluded that, in the above mentioned case, we are dealing with structural discrimination against individuals who employ their fundamental right to religious freedom.