Improper use of extremism law against Jehovah's Witnesses


Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, 27 April 2016


Russian authorities have taken yet another step in the course of the aggressive campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses that they have planned. The office of the prosecutor general is threatening to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia for alleged extremist activity. In the official warning of 2 March 2016, the deputy prosecutor general, V.Ya. Grin, demanded that the Administrative Center remove all "violations" within a two-month period.


This warning introduces a new twist in the campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses, discriminating against them and restricting their religious liberties. In the event of the liquidation, the Administrative Center will be closed and entered into the list of extremist organizations and its property will be transferred to the government. Because of cooperation with the Administrative Center, all religious associations of Jehovah's Witnesses—and this is 406 local religious organizations (juridical persons) and 2,500 congregations—also will face the threat of liquidation. In the end, Jehovah's Witnesses throughout Russia may lose their Kingdom Halls (houses of worship). In the event of liquidation of the Administrative Center, Jehovah's Witnesses may be deprived of the right to confess their own religious views.


The unceasing prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses are based on fabricated accusations and deliberate improper application of the federal law "On combating extremist activity." In 2015, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights expressed concern "about numerous reports that the aforementioned law ["On combating extremist activity"] is being used more and more often for restricting the right to freedom of expression of opinion. . . and freedom of religious confession, which is being directed particularly against Jehovah's Witnesses."


Jehovah's Witnesses are a generally recognized religion. They enjoy religious liberty in democratic states throughout the world, including in all countries that are members of the European Union. Russia is the exception. A campaign directed against the peaceful religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses that began in the mid-1990s has gradually intensified. This was particularly felt after Russia adopted a law on extremist activity and began to employ it as a means of persecution.


The absence of a clear definition of extremist activity is fertile ground for abuse.


In 2002, Russia, concerned by the growth of terrorism, adopted the federal law "On combating extremist activity." However from the very beginning the vague definition of extremist activity evoked concern that Russian authorities would be able to use this law as a means of persecution. In 2003, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights called Russia to introduce changes in the legislation and give a clearer definition of extremist activity in order to "prevent any possibility of arbitrary application of this law."


However, in subsequent versions of the law, the definition was not clarified; on the contrary, it began to be applied yet more broadly. In 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted: "In the original version of the law, extremism was partially defined as 'arousing racial, ethnic, or religious strife, as well as social strife associated with violence or calls to violence.' In the version of 2006 the phrase 'associated with violence or calls to violence' was removed. . . . This vague definition of extremism permits law enforcement agencies to perform arbitrary actions."


Fears that the law would be used illegally were justified. In 2007 the office of the prosecutor general employed the wording of the law so as to begin judicial investigations against Jehovah's Witnesses. Deputy Prosecutor General V.Ya. Grin, who signed the recent warning sent to the Administrative Center, sent to prosecutors an official letter with orders to begin investigations of Jehovah's Witnesses. This letter was the first indicator that a campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses was centralized and that it encompassed the whole country.


Jehovah's Witnesses do not participate in any criminal activity whatever, but nevertheless in 2007 prosecutors throughout Russia, figuratively speaking, unfurled their nets and began more than 500 investigations against them. In the same report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe it is noted: "The federal law 'On combating extremist activity' (the law on extremism), adopted in 2002, was used improperly as a means for combating several religions, particularly against Jehovah's Witnesses, a huge community numbering 162,000 persons in Russia." Such abuses increased substantially after the introduction of amendments into that law in 2006.


Ban of religious literature is the basis for further persecution


Before the harassment involved the Administrative Center, located in the suburbs of St. Petersburg, law enforcement agencies concentrated their attention on the religious literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Prosecutors in Taganrog and Gorno-Altaisk filed lawsuits requesting that many publications of the Witnesses be found extremist and be included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials.


Based on so-called expert analyses, courts in Taganrog and Gorno-Altaisk in 2009 and 2010 issued decisions in the prosecution's favor. Since then, these two judicial decisions that put a prohibition on a total of 52 religious publications became the basis for numerous charges advanced against Jehovah's Witnesses. Authorities in other regions of the country began to act in accordance with the same scenario as in Taganrog and Gorno-Altaisk. As of now, 87 Jehovah's Witnesses' publications have been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials.


Witnesses have protested decisions finding their literature extremist that were issued in Taganrog, Gorno-Altaisk, and other Russian courts. They filed 28 appeals in the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), regarding the declaration of their publications as extremist and other abuses. Soon the ECHR will issue a decision in 22 of these cases. In defending their position before the ECHR, Russian authorities acknowledged that numerous publications of the Witnesses that have been entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials do not "contain direct appeals for and incitement of violence."


"Jehovah's Witnesses distribute their religious literature throughout the world. It is neutral in matters of politics, intended for biblical education and promotion of peace. Among the publications that a court has found to be extremist is a children's resource 'My Book of Bible Stories' and a book 'What does the Bible really teach?' that was released in more than 200 million copies in more than 250 languages." (Robert Siranko, president of the Watchtower Society of Bibles and Tracts [Pennsylvania])


Freedom of expression of opinion under threat


After Russian courts found Witnesses' literature to be extremist, the authorities have judicial levers whereby it was possible to raise barriers to the Jehovah's Witnesses and to restrict their right to freedom of expression of opinion.


In 2010 the authorities rescinded from the Witnesses permission to import and distribute the magazines Watchtower and Awake. The magazine Watchtower has been published since 1879. Both publications are the most widely distributed in the world. Since March 2015, authorities have not permitted the import into the country of a single shipment of Jehovah's Witnesses' religious literature. Since July 2015 the official website of Jehovah's Witnesses,, has been prohibited in Russia, because of which it has become difficult to receive electronic publications of the Witnesses on the territory of the country. Advertising of this website is considered a criminal offense. In early 2016, the prosecutor of the city of Vyborg filed a lawsuit to find the Bible published by Jehovah's Witnesses, Sacred Scripture: New World Translation, to be extremist. Besides the fact that the authorities have restricted freedom of expression of opinion, they have used publications that are in the Federal List of Extremist Materials as a pretext for beginning judicial investigations against local legal entities of Jehovah's Witnesses as well as for prosecuting individual Witnesses for their religious activity.


Established pattern of inspections and issuing sentences


When a publication is entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials, its mass distribution, production, and storage for the purpose of distribution are forbidden. Local authorities have used this provision of the law in order to obtain a warrant for searches in hundreds of homes of individual Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as Kingdom Halls, in order to find any forbidden literature. Often searches are conducted very aggressively and authorities have confiscated much more than the law permits. Personal items and any religious literature have been confiscated, regardless of whether it has been entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials.


In August 2010, in Yoshkar-Ola, a group of about 20 police officers, personnel of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and armed special forces interrupted a worship service. Troops seized several Witnesses and detained them, grabbing them by the neck and breaking their arms. During the search, personal items, documents, and literature were confiscated.


In July 2012 in the republic of Karelia, FSB personnel in masks and armed with automatic weapons arrested one Witness in a public place, pressing his face against the hood of his car and bending his arms back. Searches were conducted in the homes of several Witnesses, during which personal items and religious literature were seized, regardless of whether it had been entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials. In March 2016, in the republic of Tatarstan, police conducted raids in the Kingdom Hall and homes of several Witnesses. Computer equipment, personal tablets, and religious literature were confiscated.


Law enforcement agencies secretly produced a videotape in private homes of Witnesses and in Kingdom Halls. They wiretapped Witnesses' telephones, viewed their email, and resorted to other illegal means of collecting information. In several instances, in order to prove accusations of extremism and to fabricate evidence against Witnesses, police officers even planted prohibited literature in Kingdom Halls. As a result of such actions, many Jehovah's Witnesses were charged with criminal and administrative violations of law.


Law enforcement agencies not only prosecute individual Jehovah's Witnesses judicially, they also use banned literature which was planted in Kingdom Halls as the basis for liquidation of local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses. Just as soon as a local religious organization is found to be "extremist" and is liquidated, the government conducts the confiscation of its property. As a result, local Witnesses have been deprived of their Kingdom Halls, as happened in Taganrog and Samara. Authorities in other cities are acting in accordance with the same pattern.


After the liquidation of the local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog, authorities took the next illegal step, equating meeting for prayer and worship to "continuation of illegal activity by a prohibited organization." As the result of the authorities' applying this tactic, 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog were found guilty of criminal activity simply because they assembled together peacefully for worship. Exactly such religious meetings are conducted by Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the world. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, professing the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog became a criminal violation of law.


If the authorities liquidate the Administrative Center, it will be closed and its activity will be prohibited on Russian territory. Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the country, just like their fellow believers in Taganrog, may be subjected to criminal prosecution simply for attending Christian meetings and conversing about their faith with other people. Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia may find themselves in a situation where they have the right to believe in God as they wish, but they do not have the right to professes their faith along with other people.


Philip Brumley, the chief legal consultant of Jehovah's Witnesses, noted: "The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses are equated with extremist groupings and their literature is entered into lists containing publications of militant terrorists is an insult to honor and dignity, and a violation of all norms of justice. Russian authorities apply the law improperly, which violates all international legal norms, the norms of the Council of Europe, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the constitution of the Russian federation. They are using that law for persecution of peaceful believers and an attack on the center of the religious activity of Witnesses in Russia."


Vasily Kalin, a representative of the Administrative Center, said: "Jehovah's Witnesses have confessed their faith in Russia since back in the 19th century, and in soviet times they endured harsh persecution. Consequently the government recognized us as victims of repressions. We want to continue to peacefully confess our faith in Russia. Slanderous accusations against us are only a cover of religious intolerance on the part of those who do not agree with our teaching. We are not extremists."


Jehovah's Witnesses hope that Russia will protect their right to freedom of religious confession, which is securely protected in many other countries. They also have appealed to the prosecutor general of Russia to stop attacks on the Administrative Center and to the Russian authorities, requesting the securing of respect for the rights of religious minorities. The question is whether the Russian authorities will listen to this request or will begin to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses in the way it was in soviet times. (tr. by PDS, posted 11 May 2016)

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