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In Landmark Ruling, European Court of Human Rights Sides With BDS Movement Over French Government

"This momentous court ruling is a decisive victory for freedom of expression, for human rights defenders, and for the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality."

A woman in Toulouse, France shows a placard reading 'Stop to the slaughter in Gaza, stop to the accomplice silence of all Macron' on May 12, 2018. Several associations and organizations called for a peace march in support of Palestine and Palestinians as the 70th birthday of the creation of the state of Israel and the Naqba (catastrophe for Palestinians) approach.

A woman in Toulouse, France shows a placard reading 'Stop to the slaughter in Gaza, stop to the accomplice silence of all Macron' on May 12, 2018. Several associations and organizations called for a peace march in support of Palestine and Palestinians as the 70th birthday of the creation of the state of Israel and the Naqba (catastrophe for Palestinians) approach. (Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In a decision celebrated by international human rights advocates, a European court ruled Thursday that the conviction of 11 activists in France campaigning for a boycott of Israeli goods in solidarity with Palestinians "had no relevant and sufficient grounds" and violated their right to freedom of expression.

"The recognition by the ECtHR that these convictions violate their right to freedom of expression should send a clear message to all European states that they must stop the prosecution of peaceful activists."
— Marco Perolini, Amnesty International

"Today's landmark decision sets a significant precedent that should stop the misuse of anti-discrimination laws to target activists campaigning against human rights violations perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians," Marco Perolini, Amnesty International's France researcher, said in a statement.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which is based in the the French city of Strasbourg, ensures that member states of the Council of Europe—including France—abide by the European Convention on Human Rights. 

"The recognition by the ECtHR that these convictions violate their right to freedom of expression," said Perolini, "should send a clear message to all European states that they must stop the prosecution of peaceful activists."

The court ordered the French government to pay €101,000 ($115,000) in total damages to the activists, who had handed out leaflets at a hypermarket in the town of Illzach for a pair of events in 2009 and 2010. They were found guilty of incitement to economic discrimination and their convictions were upheld by France's highest court in 2015.

The activists were part of Collectif Palestine 68, a local branch of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The movement "works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law," according to the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which welcomed the ECtHR ruling with a statement from member Rita Ahmad.

"This momentous court ruling is a decisive victory for freedom of expression, for human rights defenders, and for the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality," she said. "It confirms a 2016 European Union position defending the right to call for BDS against Israel to achieve Palestinian rights under international law."

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Ahmad also framed the court's decision as "a major legal blow to Israel's apartheid regime and its anti-BDS lawfare," explaining that "at Israel's behest, European governments, especially in France and Germany, have fostered an ominous environment of bullying and repression to silence Palestine solidarity activists."

Echoing her explanation, Perolini said that "peaceful activists in France have been increasingly targeted using inappropriate laws and criminalized simply for freely expressing their views and advocating for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions as a tool to end human rights violations against Palestinians."

"Since 2010, French authorities have specifically instructed prosecutors to use anti-discrimination laws against BDS campaigners which are not used against activists who participate in similar boycott campaigns targeting other countries," he added. "With this decision it is now clear that no state should be exempt from peaceful criticism by campaigners."

Ahmad put the ruling into the context of the current geopolitical moment, which has featured worldwide demonstrations and demands for justice sparked by the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.

"At a time when European citizens, inspired by the Black Lives Matter uprising in the U.S., are challenging the ugly legacy of European colonialism," she said, "France, Germany, and other E.U. countries must end their racist repression of human rights defenders campaigning for Palestinian human rights and for an end to Israeli apartheid."

Ahmad saluted the Palestine solidarity activists in France "who, despite the prevalent anti-Palestinian repression, have effectively campaigned against Israeli apartheid and against corporations that are complicit in its war crimes against Palestinians, including AXA, Veolia, and Orange."

"Europe is deeply complicit in Israel's occupation, siege of Gaza, and slow ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and elsewhere," she declared. "For as long as this complicity continues, BDS campaigns will too."

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