STRASBOURG, France — Europe’s top rights court ruled Thursday that French judges were wrong to convict activists who staged a “boycott Israel” demonstration at a supermarket, saying the protest could not be considered an incitement to discrimination.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered French authorities to pay each of the applicants 7,380 euros in damages, and a further 20,000 euros to jointly cover legal expenses.
Eleven members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France, known as “Collectif Palestine 68,” were charged after displaying Israeli-origin products and urging clients not to buy them at a store near Mulhouse, eastern France, on two occasions in 2009 and 2010.
The protests, which came a few months after a flare-up in fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas terrorists in Gaza, echoed longstanding calls by anti-Israel NGOs to denounce Israel’s policies, including its settlements in the West Bank.
Israel has denounced the boycott movement as an attempt to undermine its legitimacy, and has banned entry to foreigners who support the calls.
Though the activists were initially cleared of charges after arguing it was a case of free speech, an appeals court overturned the ruling and found them guilty of inciting people to discriminate against products from Israel.
They were ordered to pay a joint fine of 1,000 euros ($1,140) to three civil parties, including the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA).
But the Strasbourg-ECHR said the French judges should have taken into account the fact that “the applicants had not been convicted of making racist or anti-Semitic remarks or of inciting hatred or violence.”
Political speech is by nature controversial, the court said in its ruling, but remains a legitimate public interest, “provided that it did not cross the line and turn into a call for violence, hatred or intolerance.”
Amnesty International, which in 2018 saw one of its US employees denied access to the West Bank over its support of the boycott, hailed the European court’s ruling.
“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 of Amnesty France said in a statement.