The FIDE World Chess Championship in Dubai, December 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER
Serbia discriminated against four blind chess players who won medals at Blind Chess Olympiads by excluding them from awards and benefits that were granted to sighted players, the European Court for Human Rights announced on Tuesday.
The Strasbourg-based said that the Serbian authorities “clearly exercised their discretionary power in such a way as to treat differently the sighted and the blind chess players despite them winning similar international accolades”.
The court ordered Serbia to give each applicant 4,500 euros in compensation and pay them the accrued amount and any future benefit payments due if they had been a sighted chess player who had won a medal at a Chess Olympiad.
Four blind chess players, Dragoljub Baretic, Branko Negovanovic, Sretko Avram and Ziva Markov, won a number of medals for Yugoslavia, as part of the national team, at the Blind Chess Olympiads between 1961 and 1992.
In 2006, Serbia adopted a Sporting Achievements Recognition and Rewards Decree, which established a national recognition and rewards system consisting of an honorary diploma, a lifetime monthly cash benefit, and a one-time cash payment. However, the decree omitted to recognize or reward achievements at Blind Chess Olympiads.
The Serbian government argued that the decree “pursued a justified objective, specifically the recognition of only the highest sporting achievements in the most important competitions”.
When deciding which sports should be included, the government included criteria such as “the popularity of the sport and its tradition in Serbia” and “its contribution to the ‘development and affirmation’ of the country’s reputation”.
But the Strasbourg court said that “while it was obviously legitimate for the Serbian authorities to focus on the highest sporting achievements and the most important competitions”, the authorities failed to explain why the high accolades won by the blind chess players would have been less “ popular” or “internationally significant” than similar medals won by sighted chess players.
It also said that in terms of the “development and affirmation” of the country’s reputation, “equal treatment of blind and sighted chess players for similar achievements, in Serbian legislation as well as in practice, could only have served to enhance the country’s reputation abroad and promote inclusiveness domestically”.
“In any event, it is, in the Court’s view, inconceivable that the ‘prestige’ of a game or a sport as such, including for example some of the most popular sports such as football, basketball or tennis, should depend merely on whether it is practiced by persons with or without a disability,” the court said.
The four players initially sued the Serbian state but lost after a retrial in 2012. In 2015, they also lost at the Constitutional Court, before taking their case to Strasbourg.