- Prosecution alleges that right to religious freedom exists only within certain boundaries; defense responds that open dialogue is key to a democracy
- The former Finnish Minister of the Interior has pled “not guilty” to three criminal charges she faces after sharing her deeply held beliefs
HELSINKI (24 January) – The criminal trial of Finnish parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola is underway in Helsinki.
Finland’s Prosecutor General has brought three criminal charges against Räsänen over the contents of a pamphlet Räsänen wrote on these topics in 2004, for engaging in a debate on a 2019 radio show and for a tweet containing a picture of Bible verses Räsänen directed at her church leadership. Bishop Juhana Pohjola faces trial alongside her for publishing a pamphlet for his congregation that Räsänen wrote on the topic over 17 years ago.
During the session held this morning, the prosecution argued that the views shared by Räsänen and Pohjola are discriminatory towards minorities. Religious freedom exists, but must be limited within certain boundaries, they submitted.
Räsänen’s defense, supported by ADF International, have urged the court not to impose their own theological interpretation of scripture on to citizens by criminalizing traditional Christian views on marriage and sexuality. A guilty verdict, the defense explained, would appear as a de facto criminalization of the Bible verses tweeted by the parliamentarian.
The defense have further supported their argument by referring to Article 9 of the European Court of Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Sharing from the Bible is a key part of manifesting one’s faith, they submitted.
Furthermore, it was argued, dialogue is key to a democracy. For a pluralistic society to thrive, matters of political and social sensitivity must be discussed openly. An opposition politician, of all people, must have the right to speak freely.
Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International who are supporting the defence, said that although a guilty verdict would not set an immediate legal precedent across Europe, “it will set a new European low bar for free speech standards.”
He said that people in Finland had found the case “very shocking” but warned that “it really could happen anywhere else” because of hate speech laws across Europe.
Earlier this week, UK MPs filed an Early Day Motion in parliament, highlighting the controversial prosecution and raising concerns about “the potential implications of that case for other countries”.
Support for free speech gathers outside of court
As the defendants arrived this morning, crowds gathered outside of the courthouse to show their support for the politician and her Bishop, who are both being accused of “hate speech” for expressing their faith-based views.
Räsänen and Pohjola are officially being prosecuted for the crime of “ethnic agitation”, under the section of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the Finnish criminal code.
From inside the court, the defendants pled “not guilty” to the charges.
Speaking to journalists from the Christian Network Europe, demonstrators outside the courtroom said:
“We hold the same beliefs as Päivi Räsänen but are not prosecuted today. The least we can do is support her by this demonstration and show the world that many people will not abandon the Biblical truths, no matter the consequences.”
Ahead of her trial, Päivi Räsänen said:
“Now it is time to speak. Because the more we are silent, the narrower the space for freedom of speech and religion grows. If I’m convicted, I think that the worst consequence would not be the fine against me, or even the prison sentence, it would be the censorship.”
Facing prosecution for a Bible Tweet
The parliamentarian of over twenty-five years, and grandmother, Päivi Räsänen, spoke to reporters today while clutching a Bible – the book from which she had quoted in the tweet for which she faces criminal prosecution.
“I will continue to stand for what I believe and what I have written. And I will speak and write about these things, because they are a matter of conviction, not only an opinion. I trust that we still live in a democracy, and we have our constitution and international agreements that guarantee our freedom of speech and religion,” said the MP, former Minister of the Interior and grandmother ahead of her trial for a tweet.
Free speech on trial
Police investigations against Räsänen started in June 2019. As an active member of the Finnish Lutheran church, she had addressed the leadership of her church on Twitter and questioned its official sponsorship of the LGBT event ‘Pride 2019’, accompanied by an image of Bible verses from the New Testament book of Romans. Following this tweet, further investigations against Räsänen were launched, going back to a church pamphlet Räsänen wrote almost 20 years ago. In the last two years, Räsänen has attended several lengthy police interrogations about her Christian beliefs – including being frequently asked by the police to explain her understanding of the Bible.
Two of the three charges Räsänen faces come after the police made strong recommendations not to continue the prosecution. Räsänen’s statements also did not violate the policies of Twitter or the national broadcaster, which is why they are still freely available on their platforms. As her trial date approaches, ADF International continues to support Räsänen’s defence and the right for everyone to freely share their beliefs.
Counting on the court
“In a free society, everyone should be allowed to share their beliefs without fear of censorship. This is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Criminalizing speech through so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws shuts down important public debates and poses a grave threat to our democracies. These sorts of cases create a culture of fear and censorship and are becoming all too common throughout Europe. We hope and trust the Helsinki District Court will uphold the fundamental right to freedom of speech and acquit Päivi Räsänen of these outrageous charges,” said Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International and author of ‘Censored: How European Hate Speech Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech’.
Räsänen has served as a Finnish Member of Parliament since 1995, was chair of the Christian Democrats from 2004-2015, and from 2011-2015 she was the Minister of the Interior, during which she held responsibility for church affairs in Finland.