A. Background of the case
1. The founding and the dissolution of the applicant association
10. The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden was founded on 14 April 1990. Its aims, according to its statute and programme, were to “unite all Macedonians in Bulgaria on a regional and cultural basis” and to achieve “the recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria”. Sections 8 and 9 of the statute stated that the organisation would not infringe the territorial integrity of Bulgaria and that it “would not use violent, brutal, inhuman or unlawful means”. According to the applicants’ submissions before the Court, the main activity of the applicant association was the organisation of celebrations to commemorate historical events of importance for Macedonians in Bulgaria. Over an unspecified period it published a newspaper.
11. In 1990 Ilinden applied for, but was refused, registration. In the proceedings for registration the Blagoevgrad Regional Court and the Supreme Court examined the statute of the association, its programme and other written evidence.
12. In their decisions of July and November 1990 and March 1991 the courts found that the applicant association’s aims were directed against the unity of the nation, that it advocated national and ethnic hatred, and that it was dangerous for the territorial integrity of Bulgaria. Therefore, its registration would be contrary to Articles 3, 8 and 52 § 3 of the Constitution of 1971, as in force at the time. In particular, the aims of the association included inter alia the “political development of Macedonia” and the “united, independent Macedonian State”. Moreover, in its appeal to the Supreme Court the association had stated that “the Macedonian people would not accept Bulgarian, Greek or Serbian rule”. The formal declaration in the applicant association’s statute that it would not infringe the territorial integrity of Bulgaria, appeared inconsistent with the remaining material.
13. The judgment of the Supreme Court of 11 March 1991 stated inter alia: “[T]he lower courts correctly established that the aims of the [applicant association] under its statute and programme were directed against the unity of the nation... [The material in the case] demonstrates that the [applicant association] seeks to disseminate the ideas of Macedonianism among the Bulgarian population, especially in a particular geographical area. [Those ideas] presuppose the ‘denationalisation’ of the Bulgarian population and its conversion into a Macedonian population.... It follows that the [applicant association] is directed against the unity of the nation and is therefore prohibited under Article 35 § 3 of the  Constitution ...”
14. It appears undisputed between the parties that during the relevant period the applicant association underwent changes of leadership and that there was internal conflict. Its local branches or separate factions differed in their views and activities. 2. Public meetings prior to the period under consideration
15. The applicant association held a meeting for the first time on 22 April 1990 at the Rozhen Monastery, at the tomb of Yane Sandanski.
16. On 20 April 1991 the applicant association organised a commemoration meeting at the Rozhen Monastery. The participants adopted a declaration addressed to the President and the Parliament, which stated inter alia:
“1. Our rights as a minority, of which we have been deprived, should be guaranteed to us in accordance with the international agreements on minorities. [We demand:]
2. The introduction of the [study of] the Macedonian language, history and culture in all educational institutions in Pirin Macedonia.
3. The right to radio and television broadcasts in the Macedonian language...
5. That an end be put to the assimilation process and the destruction of the Macedonian culture.
6. The right to publish in the Macedonian language...
7. ...that the Macedonian church should be independent...
8. That all Bulgarian political parties on the territory of Pirin Macedonia should be dissolved or re-named Macedonian; they should defend the national rights of the Macedonian people.
14. The complete cultural, economic and political autonomy of Pirin Macedonia and the withdrawal of the Bulgarian occupation armies from Pirin Macedonia...
16. Should the Bulgarian Government not respond positively to our demands, Ilinden shall appeal to the United Nations Organisation, the [Conference on] Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Parliament, the Great Powers, in the interest of peace in the Balkans and in Europe and with a view to avoiding military conflicts due to the emerging nationalism in Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Albania, with the following demands: annulment of the separatist military union of 20 February 1912 between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, withdrawal of the invaders from the occupied territories, ... unification of Macedonia under the auspices of the United Nations and with the protection of the Great Powers ...”
17. According to a police report, drawn up in 1998 by the director of the police in the region and submitted to the Court by the Government, “fierce anti-Bulgarian declarations” had been made at the meetings of 22 April 1990 and 20 April 1991. In particular, on 22 April 1990 a declaration requesting the recognition of a Macedonian minority and cultural autonomy had been read out. The report did not mention any incident at that meeting.
As explained in the report, on 20 April 1991 about 300-350 Ilinden supporters had gathered during the official commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Yane Sandanski, which had been attended by 4,000 participants. Members of Ilinden, standing on a separate platform, had allegedly hissed and booed the police, labelled the Bulgarians “barbarians”, “conquerors” and “enslavers” and called on them to leave and “free” the region from their presence. The report further stated that a “shocking” incident had occurred: Mr B., a prominent politician, had been splashed with beer on his face. The police had allegedly prevented any further clashes. The report concluded:
“...[T]he events organised by Ilinden are provocative. There is a real risk of incidents. For that reason, since 1992 the municipalities in the region normally refuse to allow such events to proceed. With a view to protecting the law, the assistance of the prosecuting authorities and of the police is normally sought.”
18. The applicants submitted copies of photographs, written testimonies and statements of persons who claimed that on several occasions between 1990 and 1994 there had been police actions and acts of private individuals obstructing the activities of the applicant association.
They also submitted copies of newspaper articles accusing Ilinden of misappropriating Bulgarian national symbols, describing its leaders as uneducated, mentally ill or traitors, and denying the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. The applicants alleged that those articles reflected the public opinion in Bulgaria, as manipulated by the authorities.