Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses of Spain, along with six individual members of Jehovah’s Witnesses (collectively Jehovah’s Witnesses) sued the Spanish group, Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses (AEVTJ) for interfering with their right to honor. Here is the factual background to the case.
The judgment for this case (Case No: SJPI 1623/2023 – ECLI:ES:JPI:2023:1623 with ID No: 28148420062023100001) was issued December 5, 2023.
Judge: Hon. Ms. Raquel Chacón Campollo
Plaintiffs: Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses of Spain, D. Inocencia, D. Justiniano, D. Laura, D. Lucas, D. Marcos, and D. Mariana.
Defendants: Spanish Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses
The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the defendants with the Court of First Instance in Torrejón de Ardoz, Madrid soon after the defendant’s association was formally registered in the National Registry of Associations on February 12, 2020. The plaintiffs claimed that the AEVTJ has caused a great discredit to the religious group by claiming that the group “generates harm and victims, systematically violates the legal system, discriminates against different groups and causes serious damage to health and life”.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses demanded that the AEVTJ’s name be eliminated, that its “insulting content” be made extinct, that its website and associated social media accounts be removed and made extinct, that it cease disseminating such “insulting content” or similar information, that AEVTJ pays the Jehovah’s Witnesses €25000 in compensation, that they publish the ruling of the court judgment on their website before terminating the website, and pay the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ court costs.
The AEVTJ categorically opposed the claims of the plaintiff and sought for the case to be dismissed. They alleged that their statutes, motivations, and purpose are protected by the rights of Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression. They alleges that those freedoms must prevail over the right to honor alleged by the plaintiff, which they claim had not been violated. The AEVTJ claimed that they give voice to former believers, to their experiences and does so in a truthful and proportionate manner. It alleged that it provides protection to those who feel like victims.
Both parties were summoned toa pre-trial hearing on June 7, 2022. In the pre-trial hearing, the plaintiff and the Prosecutor’s Office opposed all the procedural issues raised by the defendant. All evidence that was considered pertinent to the case was admitted by January 30, 2023. The plaintiff had twelve (12) persons give evidence. The defendant had eight (8), one of which was a Ukrainian national.
During the oral trial sessions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses alleged new facts, including that the AEVTJ removed the expressions “fall into its clutches” and “destructive cult” from its website; that there had been some acts of vandalism against kingdom halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses consisting of graffiti accusing them of pedophilia. The Jehovah’s Witnesses could not prove that the AEVTJ were responsible for these acts of vandalism.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses attempted to use an ECtHR Human Rights ruling dated December 13, 2022 to justify their claim for right to honor. However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office explained that such a judgment was not applicable in this case as this was not a human rights issue. Making reference to numerous court cases, the Public Prosecutor’s Office helped explain the difference between freedom of information and freedom of expression. The former is weighed against truthfulness, proportionality and general/public interest. The latter, on the other hand, does not require truthfulness because expression is understood to be opinion judgments. In view of the foregoing, the Public Prosecutor believed the AEVTJ’s website made use of both rights. Upon evaluating those rights, it understood that the truthfulness of the facts has been proven and the victims interpret the events that have happened to them. It went on to say that the right to honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not violated by the victims’ claim of psychological damage because that is how these people have experienced these events, and these are proven by the statements and the evidence.
Although the individual members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not publicly known, nor are they well known figures, there have been reporters in the courtroom in almost all sessions of the trial and newspaper articles have been published, and since the beginning of the case, the membership of the AEVTJ has increased with special attention being given to the issue of blood transfusions. All of this is evidence that the matter before the court arouses certain public interest.
Furthermore, the ECHR has established that freedom of expression means tolerating statements that cause discomfort, sometimes in ways that may even shock, offend or worry. Thus, the Public Prosecutor’s Office believes that there are victims of the religion and said victims should not be restricted from identifying themselves as such.
The court could not find any evidence that the honor of the natural persons included as plaintiffs could have been offended by the AEVTJ. In fact, two of the plaintiffs (Fermín and Gervasio) denied that there was an increase in physical or verbal violence against them. Therefore, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been proven that the creation of the Spanish Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses incited hatred or dishonored the religious group.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses also attempted to allege new facts after the case had been sent for sentencing but such evidence did “not correspond to reality”. However, their lawyer made an extensive assessment of the evidence as part of his arguments. Therefore, all legal requirements for this case were followed thus ensuring Jehovah’s Witnesses received a fair trial.