In what has been welcomed as a “victory for free speech,” Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen, along with Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola, have been unanimously cleared of all charges of ‘hate speech,’ bringing their high-profile trial to an end.
Both Ms Räsänen, Finland’s former Interior Minister, and Bishop Pohjola were tried for ‘hate speech’ in a trial which stretched on for four years.
Ms Räsänen was formally charged with “agitation against a minority group” in 2021 under Finland’s “war crimes and crimes against humanity” following an investigation. The charges resulted from the Member of Parliament sharing her Christian beliefs on gay marriage in a 2019 tweet – along with during a live radio debate in the same year, and a church pamphlet produced in 2004. Bishop Pohjola, meanwhile, was charged for publishing the pamphlet.
In a statement shared on Tuesday, the medical doctor and MP said she was “relieved, happy and grateful to God.”
“The Helsinki Court of Appeal has just ruled that all the charges against me have been dismissed. I am relieved, happy and grateful to God and to all those who have supported me through this stage of my life. The decision was in line with my expectations – I never doubted for a moment that I committed any offence in my writings and statements,” the statement read.
“The Court’s ruling is an important step forward for the freedom of religion of Bible-believing Christians, but also for freedom of expression more broadly and in general. I have considered it a privilege and an honour to defend freedom of expression, which is an absolutely fundamental right in a democratic state,” Ms Räsänen added.
Last month, Ms Räsänen told Gript of the lengthy legal battle she had endured since 2019, sharing that she was hopeful she would be cleared of all charges. She explained that a guilty verdict could mean a fine or a prison sentence, while cautioning Ireland on Hate Speech laws, under which she was prosecuted.
“I am deeply relieved,” the MP said earlier today as the verdict was announced. “The court has fully endorsed and upheld the decision of the district court, which recognised everyone’s right to free speech.”
“It isn’t a crime to tweet a Bible verse, or to engage in public discourse with a Christian perspective,” she said. “The attempts made to prosecute me for expressing my beliefs have resulted in an immensely trying four years, but my hope is that the result will stand as a key precedent to protect the human right to free speech.
“I sincerely hope other innocent people will be spared the same ordeal for simply voicing their convictions,” added Räsänen, who is a grandmother of eleven.
— Paul Coleman (@Paul_B_Coleman) November 14, 2023
Tuesday’s unanimous ruling upheld the District Court’s acquittal in March 2022, with the court dismissing all of the arguments made by the State prosecutor. It found that it “has no reason, on the basis of the evidence received at the main hearing, to assess the case in any respect differently from the District Court. There is therefore no reason to alter the final result of the District Court’s judgement.”
A statement released by Alliance Defending Freedom, who acted as the MP’s legal defence throughout the trial, explained that the Court has ordered the prosecution to pay tens of thousands in legal fees to cover costs incurred by both defendants. The prosecution could appeal a final time to the Supreme Court, with a deadline of 15 January 2024.
During the trial, the argument was made that certain “opinions” about the Bible are “criminal” as the prosecution questioned Christian teachings during the cross-examination of Räsänen and the Lutheran Bishop.
Finnish State prosecutor, Anu Mantila, during her opening statement when the appeal trial opened on 31st August, claimed that, “You can cite the Bible, but it is Räsänen’s interpretation and opinion about the Bible verses that are criminal”.
Throughout the prosecution, Ms Räsänen, who is Finland’s longest standing MP, was asked on numerous occasions by the prosecutor if she would update or remove what she had said regarding marriage and sexuality in her 2004 pamphlet, which was entitled, “Male & Female He Created Them”.
Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International, serving on Räsänen’s legal team, said the cross-examination “bore all the resemblance of a “heresy” trial of the middle ages; it was implied that Räsänen had “blasphemed” against the dominant orthodoxies of the day.”
During the August trial, the prosecution argued that Räsänen should have known that her words could be offensive to certain people and therefore should have refrained from voicing her beliefs.
However, her defence highlighted the protection for freedom of speech enshrined in international law, something they said was also integral to Finnish democracy. The defence submitted to the court that Räsänen’s use of the word “sin” in her tweet, was quoted directly from the Bible, and any judgement condemning its usage would directly condemn the Bible itself.
In its ruling, the Appeal Court recognized that “there is no reason to alter the final result of the District Court’s judgement,” which had recognised that while some may object to Räsänen’s statements, “there must be an overriding social reason for interfering with and restricting freedom of expression”.
The District Court had concluded that there was no such justification stating that, “it is not for the District Court to interpret biblical concepts”.
In a statement shared by ADF today, Mr Coleman described the case as “ludicrous” as he warned of the dangers of “criminalising speech”:
“While we celebrate this monumental victory, we also remember that it comes after four years of police investigations, criminal indictments, prosecutions, and court hearings. We applaud the Helsinki Court of Appeal’s ruling in this case, and we work towards the bigger victory when such ludicrous cases are no longer brought,” he said.
“In a free and democratic society, all should be allowed to share their beliefs without fear of censorship. Criminalising speech through so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws shuts down important public debates and poses a grave threat to our democracies. We are relieved to see courts enforce the rule of law when state authorities overstep by seeking to penalise and censor statements that they dislike.”
In her extended statement, Ms Räsänen described the court case and decision as “historic for freedom of expression and religion.”
“For the first time in a criminal case, the court has weighed in on whether teachings linked to the Bible can be brought forth and publicly agreed with. I was pleased to have the opportunity in the Court of Appeal to correct the prosecution’s erroneous assertions about my views,” she said.
“I have emphasized that you do not have to agree with me to defend my right to express my views. It is precisely when we disagree that we need freedom of expression.
“This process of almost five years of investigation and trial, even without a conviction, has served to curtail freedom of expression and religion by creating self-censorship. But a more serious problem would have been the demand for censorship: an order to remove social media updates or a ban on publishing a piece of writing. A sentence would have opened the door to a ban on similar publications and the threat of modern book-burnings.”
She concluded by saying she hoped that the prosecutor would be “satisfied” with the decision, but if not, she was “ready to defend freedom of expression and religion also before the Supreme Court of Finland, and if necessary even before the European Court of Human Rights.”
“At the same time, I encourage others to continue to exercise these fundamental rights,” the Finnish MP urged.