"WE ARE LAW-ABIDING CITIZENS"
by Denis Volin
Orlovskie Novosti, 25 May 2016
On 25 May in Orel preliminary hearings in the trial of the local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses were held. Earlier the Ministry of Justice, on the basis of operational activity of the UFSB and the Center for Combating Extremism suspended the activity of the organization and sent to a court a lawsuit for its prohibition and complete liquidation. The Witnesses themselves maintain that they engage in legal activity and in the accusations against them they see politics. A correspondent for Orlovskie Novosti observed the preliminary conversation in the Orel provincial court.
The session was scheduled for 10 o'clock. Not long before the beginning a lawyer for the Ministry of Justice was discussing something with his aide near the courtroom. At that moment, representatives of the Jehovah's Witnesses, men and women of various ages, began to show up in small groups. The men in trousers and bright shirts, whose appearance reminded one of members of Christian congregations from American films.
The prosecutor enters the courtroom and spots a man of a representative type and shows interest: "Where is the attorney for the Ministry of Justice? You?
"Looks like it?" a man answers with a smirk.
The rest of the Witnesses are conversing and someone answers a telephone ring: "Courtroom Five, come quickly."
One of the Witnesses, a lawyer from Voronezh, tries to get a seat in order to get a place at the table next to a real lawyer for the Ministry of Justice. But the bailiff does not permit it: "Sit in the front row," he says gruffly.
"The attitude already shows," a Witness reacts with a barely noticeable smile.
Meanwhile the courtroom continues to fill with devotees of the organization. By the time that Judge Maiorova appears in the courtroom about 18 persons have gathered.
After taking her seat, the presiding judge declared that on 25 May a conversation will be held for preparing for the judicial session. After which she began reading the rights of the sides.
First to speak was an attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Alexander Filin, who explained that the defense side had not received all documents that had been presented to the court along with the lawsuit by the Ministry of Justice.
"There are no UFSB documents about the discovery of extremist materials," in particular the attorney for the Witnesses noted and he asked the court to require the Ministry of Justice to present them.
Then the presiding judge briefly went through the suit's petition. Its requests came down to the liquidation of the legal entity of the Jehovah's Witnesses of Orel and the prohibition of the activity of the organization on the territory of the Russian federation. The basis for the lawsuit were the materials of the inspection, including operational activity of the police and the FSB, which had established that the organization allegedly was engaged in the possession and mass distribution of extremist literature. "Law enforcement agencies have often discovered incidents of the distribution of extremist literature. At the same time the organization frequently was warned by the prosecutor's office, but this activity did not cease. Thus, on 16 June 2015 in the village of Kromy during the conduct of an operational search the fact of possession of extremist literature for the purpose of subsequent distribution was established. A similar fact was established on 26 November. In particular, brochures like "Awake" and "Armageddon. What is it?" were confiscated, the lawyer for the Ministry of Justice explained.
The presiding judge asked: "And what was included in the mass distribution?"
"The literature was distributed among their members and studied together."
"And how many persons were at these meetings in Kromy?"
The Ministry of Justice attorney hesitated a bit: "Well, two persons. That is a mass. There were at least three persons at the meeting."
After an explanation of the circumstances of the conduct of the operational activity in Kromy, the Witnesses were given the floor. They immediately declared that they do not acknowledge the lawsuit's demands.
"We can now say that the organization does not distribute literature at all, much less extremist literature. Moreover, we follow the update of the list of prohibited materials of the Ministry of Justice, and we constantly acquaint our members with it. Incidentally, one of these lists was seized by police personnel in the course of the operational activity in Kromy," Alexander Filin explained.
He also noted that in 2009 and 2013 the Ministry of Justice had checked the Jehovah's Witnesses and asked to submit the facts of the inspection, from which it follows that the ministry did not discover any violations of law.
"The local religious organization has existed in Orel for 16 years, and only since July 2015 have we begun to have problems," the Witnesses' attorney continued to explain to the court. "The activity of the organization is legal. It has 11 members. The rest are citizens who profess the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses but are not members. The association in Kromy does not have anything to do with our local religious organization except as confessional affiliation. At the most we help believers there rent premises for conducting worship services."
The defense attorney declared that the Ministry of Justice had not proven the fact of distribution of extremist literature. The trial had not established this and the information of the FSB cannot be taken as proof, he is sure. In addition, Filin recalled that on 15 April 2016 the Supreme Court of the RF overturned the decision about the liquidation of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Tomsk province. In its explanation, the defense noted, the court pointed to the presence of positive inspections, the smallness of the organization, and that the "frequency of the distribution of extremist materials cannot be the straightforward basis for liquidation of an organization." "In our case, incidents of distribution do not exist at all," Filin again repeated.
However, presiding judge Maiorova refused to admit the decision of the Supreme Court. "The practice of our court is not a precedent and therefore we refuse to admit," she explained.
The international religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses was formed in the second half of the 19th century, and it received its current name in 1931. By the estimates of the organization itself, it comprises more than 7 million persons. From the point of view of traditional confessions, Jehovah's Witnesses are a sect. At the present time, the activity of the organization is forbidden in a number of regions, including Belgorod province, Samara, and Moscow. In April the press service of Jehovah's Witnesses, commenting on the representation of the office of prosecutor general of the RF, explained that the extremism of the organization is a "misconception that has been repeated a hundred time but that does not make it truth." "The Russian authorities have known well for more than 60 years now that we are as far from extremism as heaven is from the earth. Our believers have spent time in jails and even been shot just so as not to take up arms against people for the sake of any ideals. We have nothing to do with extremism," the organization assures.
"Do you have property?" the judge asked.
"Do you rent?"
"Well, we rent something, of course. To conduct worship services."
The conversation ended with the court arriving at the necessity of conducting a preliminary hearing, which is scheduled for 1 June. The session will begin at 10:30.
"What do you think," I asked the chairman of the Orel committee of Jehovah's Witnesses, Vladimir Melnikov. "Why is there a claim against you on the part of the police and the Ministry of Justice?"
A tall, thin man with an intelligent appearance, in a gray suit and a bag over his shoulder answers: "These are all false accusations."
"But if that is so, then what should be the reason for this?"
"I do not know. Perhaps some political games, orders. . . ."
"That is, you maintain that you consider your activity absolutely legal?"
"Everything is within the bounds of law."
"And what do you expect to be the outcome of the trial?"
"We are sure that we are law-abiding citizens. We think we will be able to prove that."
(tr. by PDS, posted 28 May 2016)
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