Austrian Court Upholds Conviction for “Denigrating Religious Beliefs”

Soeren Kern (Hudson New York) reports:

An Austrian appellate court has upheld the conviction of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, a Viennese housewife and anti-Jihad activist, for “denigrating religious beliefs” after giving a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam.

The December 20 ruling shows that while Judaism and Christianity can be disparaged with impunity in postmodern multicultural Austria, speaking the truth about Islam is subject to swift and hefty legal penalties.

Although the case has major implications for freedom of speech in Austria, as well as in Europe as a whole, it has received virtually no press coverage in the American mainstream media.

Sabaditsch-Wolff’s Kafkaesque legal problems began in November 2009, when she presented a three-part seminar about Islam to the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party.

A glossy socialist weekly magazine, NEWS — all in capital letters — planted a journalist in the audience to secretly record the first two lectures. Lawyers for the leftwing publication then handed the transcripts over to the Viennese public prosecutor’s office as evidence of hate speech against Islam, according to Section 283 of the Austrian Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB). Formal charges against Sabaditsch-Wolff were filed in September 2010; and her bench trial, presided on by one multicultural judge and no jury, began November 23, 2010….

[At trial,] Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted of … “denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion,” according to Section 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code.

The judge ruled that Sabaditsch-Wolff committed a crime by stating in her seminars about Islam that the Islamic prophet Mohammed was a pedophile (Sabaditsch-Wolff’s actual words were “Mohammed had a thing for little girls.”)

The judge rationalized that Mohammed’s sexual contact with nine-year-old Aisha could not be considered pedophilia because Mohammed continued his marriage to Aisha until his death. According to this line of thinking, Mohammed had no exclusive desire for underage girls; he was also attracted to older females because Aisha was 18 years old when Mohammed died….

Sabaditsch-Wolff appealed the conviction to the Provincial Appellate Court (Oberlandesgericht Wien) in Vienna, but that appeal was rejected on December 20….

In January 2009, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician and Member of Parliament, was convicted for the “crime” of saying that “in today’s system” the Mohammed would be considered a “child molester,” referring to his marriage to Aisha. Winter was also convicted of “incitement” for saying that Austria faces an “Islamic immigration tsunami.”

If anyone can point me to an English translation of the opinion, or an English-language news story on the subject that adds more details, or even to the German-language original of the appellate decision, I’d love to see it. The court says she will go to prison if the fine is not paid within the next six months. She says she will take the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights.

I should note that Austria has indeed tried to restrict blasphemy of Christianity at least as recently as 1985, and continued to defend such a restriction until 1993 — see this post, which links to Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria, the European Court of Human Rights case upholding the restriction. Elsewhere in Europe (though I realize that none of this reflects on Austria as such), a Greek court convicted a cartoonist of blasphemy in 2005 for a comic book related to Jesus, but that conviction was reversed on appeal; a Polish singer was prosecuted for insulting Christianity in 2010, but that prosecution was likewise rejected on appeal; and just this year, a Russian court banned the exhibition of a painting that alleged blasphemed Christianity.

By way of perspective, several early 1800s American cases (I know of four published opinions, Ruggles, Updegraph, Kneeland, and Murray) upheld convictions for blasphemy of Christianity, sometimes based on similar facts: People v. Ruggles (N.Y. 1811), for instance, involved a defendant who had said “Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore,” reasoning thus:

We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all the moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order. Nothing could be more offensive to the virtuous part of the community, or more injurious to the tender morals of the young, than to declare such profanity lawful. It would go to confound all distinction between things sacred and profane; for, to use the words of one of the greatest oracles of human wisdom, “profane scoffing doth by little and little deface the reverence for religion;” and who adds, in another place, “two principal causes have I ever known of atheism — curious controversies and profane scoffing.” Things which corrupt moral sentiment, as obscene actions, prints and writings, and even gross instances of seduction, have, upon the same principle, been held indictable; and shall we form an exception in these particulars to the rest of the civilized world? No government among any of the polished nations of antiquity, and none of the institutions of modern Europe (a single and monitory case excepted), ever hazarded such a bold experiment upon the solidity of the public morals, as to permit with impunity, and under the sanction of their tribunals the general religion of the community to be openly insulted and defamed. The very idea of jurisprudence with the ancient lawgivers and philosophers, embraced the religion of the country….

The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right. Nor are we bound, by any expressions in the constitution, as some have strangely supposed, either not to punish at all, or to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama; and for this plain reason, that the case assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters.

But fortunately American free speech law has changed since then, and I’m disappointed that a European democracy such as Austria is, in the early 2000s, as intolerant of condemnation of religion — even harsh condemnation of religion — as was America in the early 1800s.

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