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In a landmark ruling that bolstered the principles of free speech, the Helsinki Court of Appeal discarded charges against Finnish Parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola. The pair were on trial for alleged “hate speech” due to public declarations of their Christian faith. Räsänen, a former Interior Minister of Finland, was officially indicted on incitement against a minority group in 2021 under Finnish criminal law addressing “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The charges stemmed from her 2019 Christian reflections on marriage and sex via Twitter, a live radio debate, and a 2004 church pamphlet.
Bishop Pohjola faced indictment for the circulation of Räsänen’s pamphlet from 2004. The case caught global attention as critics voiced worry about the implications for freedom of speech.
“Having experienced an enormous sense of relief, I am glad the court reaffirmed the district court’s ruling that backed everyone’s freedom of expression,” expressed Päivi Räsänen. “Tweeting verses from the Bible or participating in public discussions from a Christian perspective are no crimes. The past four years, due to efforts to indict me for expressing my beliefs, have been incredibly difficult. However, I hope this ruling will ensure protection for freedom of speech as a human right. My desire is that no one will have to experience such a predicament simply for pronouncing their beliefs.”
The Court upheld the unanimous March 2022 acquittal secured in District Court, rebuffing the prosecutor’s arguments. The court concluded that based on the presented evidence, there were no grounds to deviate from the District Court’s ruling. The prosecution was ordered to cover the hefty legal expenses of both defendants. They have until 15 January 2024 to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
The trial’s high-profile nature stemmed not only from the accused but also the prosecutor’s attack on fundamental Christian tenets. The prosecutor subjected Räsänen and the Bishop, long-standing members of parliament, to intensive theological questioning. State prosecutor Anu Mantila had claimed in her opening statement that though individuals could quote the Bible, it was the interpretation and opinion made by Räsänen about the Bible that was deemed criminal.
During her cross-examination, the prosecution frequently asked Räsänen if she considered revising or retracting her thoughts she previously expressed on marriage and sexual norms in her 2004 pamphlet, “Male & Female He Created Them.” Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International, who was involved in Räsänen’s legal team, highlighted that a main point of contention during the prosecution’s analysis of Räsänen was whether she would renounce her beliefs. He compared this to a medieval heresy trial. “The suggestion was that Räsänen had committed the modern-day equivalent of blasphemy against prevailing doctrines,” he stated in a press release.
Räsänen’s legal defense, coordinated by ADF International, underscored the robust defense of free speech in international and Finnish law. It submitted that her use of the word “sin,” which the prosecutor deemed as offensive and unlawful, was a direct quotation from the Bible. Thus, condemning its usage was a direct condemnation of the Bible.
The Appeal Court upheld the District Court’s judgment unaltered, recognizing a requirement for an overriding societal need to intrude upon and limit freedom of expression. The District Court had concluded that it was not its responsibility to decipher biblical ideas.
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