Of statues and Santa Claus: does Article 10 protect hooliganism acts on a historical figure’s statue?

By Juncal Montero Regules, PhD fellow of Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) at the faculty of Law, Hasselt University

On 6 April 2021, the Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR, the Court) held that a non-criminal conviction for placing Santa Claus accessories on a communist leader’s statue in the context of nation-wide political protests violated the applicant’s freedom of expression. Handzhiyski v. Bulgaria concerns the distinction between satirical and political protests, and wanton acts of vandalism and hooliganism, as well as the necessity of the sanction against acts which do not destroy or physically impair documents. The judgment stands in line with previous case-law on monuments and political protests, while again breaking with the interpretative line in Sinkova.

Facts and judgment

The facts of the case took place in December 2013, against the background of anti-government protests which started in May of that year, when a new coalition government, led by the Socialist Party, was formed in Bulgaria following parliamentary elections. Protests erupted against the newly-formed government in the wake of the elections, and continued until mid-January 2014. In the midst of widespread citizens rejection, the government stepped down in July 2014.

In the early hours of the 25th December 2013, the statue of Mr. Dimitar Blagoev, situated in the central square of Blagoevgrad, was painted in red and white by unknown persons, so as to resemble Santa Claus. The plinth of the statue was daubed, using white spray, with the words “Father Frost”. Shortly before 10am on the same day, the applicant, Mr. Handzhiyski, placed a red Santa Claus hat on the painted statue’s head and a red sack at its feet. The sack featured a white band with the word “resignation” on it. Later that day, he was arrested and placed in police detention for twenty-four hours. He was charged and found guilty of minor hooliganism for having placed the cap and the sack on Mr. Blagoev’s statue, for which he was fined around 51 euros. The Regional Court upheld the lower court’s judgment, considering that the applicant’s act amounted to minor hooliganism, as his act had been indecent and had breached the public order.

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