SUPREME COURT SPENDS NINE HOURS IN SEARCH OF EXTREMISM AMONG JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES
Kavkazskii Uzel, 13 April 2017
Eight witnesses questioned, examination of charters of local congregations, history of a believer's illness, search for answer to the question what believers do with extremist literature—this is the way a session of the Supreme Court in the case about the liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia turned out, which was conducted on 12 April.
As Kavkazskii Uzel wrote, at the start of the session, lawyers for the believers declared that the Administrative Center informed local religious organizations about the entry of some publications into the list of extremist materials and created a commission to prevent their appearance. It also was reported that several believers from Taganrog (Rostov province) had received political asylum in Europe as their congregation was liquidated and the court sentenced them to fines and suspended prison terms.
In the opinion of the Russian Ministry of Justice, the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses threatens the rights of citizens and public safety. Lawyers for the defendant called the attempt to ban their activity political repressions, although the court did not agree with this assessment. A lawyer for the Ministry of Justice said that after liquidation of the organization, law enforcement agencies will be able to initiate cases on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF (arranging the activity of an extremist organization) providing for fines of from 300 to 800 thousand rubles and imprisonment of from two to 12 years. The Ministry of Justice also demanded the confiscation of the property of Jehovah's Witnesses.
We learned about this story only in court
One of the central topics of the 12 April session was a discussion of a decision earlier made by the court to add to the case evidence of "violations of the rights of citizens on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses." As attorney Viktor Zhenkov explained, the issue was a story of the illness of a minor patient, whose parents made the choice to use bloodless medicine.
"The doctors diagnosed the child with a low hemoglobin level. The question was how to raise it. The doctors recommended to the parents a treatment of a blood transfusion, although the parents decided to use a drug that helps an organism to produce red blood cells. Whether blood was used or not is unknown. There was no operation and the child spent several days in the hospital. He is alive and healthy. We, the defense, learned about this story only in court," Zhenkov reported.
The attorney thinks that the story of illness has nothing to do with the case about extremism. "Every patient has a choice of how to be treated," Zhenkov told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.
We note that in the course of consideration of the question, the attorney read excerpts out of an order of the Russian Ministry of Health pertaining to the dangers of transfusion of components of blood and also to the necessity of getting written agreement for conducting this procedure from the patient in advance. "There is no qualification in the order that representatives of some religions are allowed to exercise the right of informed consent and others are not allowed," Zhenkov quoted the official website of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.
The defense also expressed puzzlement because the justice ministry possessed a document containing medical confidence. Kavkazskii Uzel still has not obtained commentaries from lawyers for the ministry.
In June 2010, the European Court for Human Rights, having reviewed the case of Religious Community of Jehovah's Witnesses versus the city of Moscow, and others against the "Russian Federation" came to the conclusion that refusal of blood transfusion cannot be compared with attempted suicide or murder. "If one understands the decision of the national courts as implying equality between refusal of a blood transfusion and suicide, then, in the opinion of the European court this analogy is not applicable, inasmuch as the situation in which a patient tries to hasten the onset of death by means of discontinuing treatment is different from situations in which patients, for example Jehovah's Witnesses, simply select a method of treatment while wanting to recover and not wanting to reject treatment in general," the decision of the European court says. In June 2013 the ECHR ordered the Russian government to pay 5,000 euros to the daughter of a female Jehovah's Witness from Nalchik, finding disclosure of information from her medical record to be a violation.
Function of the Administrative Center is purely logistical
A special place in the trial was occupied by clarification of the role that the Administrative Center plays in the activity of local religious congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses. This question was studied in the context of the liquidation, by decisions of courts, of eight congregations, a Kavkazskii Uzel conrrespondent who was in attendance in the courtroom reported.
Defense attorney Yury Toporov declared that the charters of regional organizations may differ. The Russian Administrative Center, at the request of fellow believers from the regions, provides recommendations, for example, what are the dimensions for building a house of worship. However the local religious organization agrees the construction project with local authorities.
To the question of Judge Yury Ivanenko whether the head office had confirmed the charters of liquidated local religious organizations, Toporov answered that the founders of a new local religious organization may send a request for membership in the structure of the Administrative Center in order to speed up the procedure of registration. In that case, the Administrative Center examines the charter in order to be sure that the founders are Jehovah's Witnesses and that their goals coincide with the teachings of the religious organization.
Congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the South Federal District and North Caucasus Federal District have frequently been fined for the use of literature that was later entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials. And several local organizations have been liquidated, including those in Taganrog, Abinsk, Cherkessk, and Elista. Believers have reported increasing incidents of plants of printed materials ruled to be extremist in houses of worship and Russian rights advocates have noted that prosecutions have attained unprecedented proportions, according to information of "Jehovah's Witnesses—extremists or victims of lawlessness?" published in Kavkazskii Uzel.
"Did the Administrative Center import literature that subsequently was ruled to be extremist?" the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses' website quoted the judge's question. The defendants described the function of the head office as "purely logistical": a foreign publisher amasses orders from individuals and then sends literature to the believers. As regards publications ruled to be extremist, Jehovah's Witnesses' attorneys said that the Administrative Center reports to local congregations about the entry of printed materials into the Federal List of Extremist Materials and asks them not to use them.
"What is the fate of printed productions that have been ruled extremist? Is it taken away from believers by the center? Is it destroyed?" the judge asked. The attorneys declared that the Administrative Center cannot dictate to believers what to do with literature that is in their possession but it only calls attention to the provisions of the law.
A justice ministry's attorney asked what measures had been undertaken by the Administrative Center for "preventing extremist activity." After attorneys' repeated information that had been voiced in previous sessions, Judge Ivanenko recalled that even in the event of an absence of such measures, these are not grounds for the liquidation of all congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, Portal-Credo reported. "Is there extremism on the basis of carelessness or inaction?" the judge asked a lawyer for the plaintiff and he received a negative answer. [. . .]
I destroyed [publications] that were entered into the list of extremist materials
In the course of the session, attorneys for the defendant questioned their own witnesses: for this role, four believers with academic degrees were chosen. Most emotionally spoke Vilen Kantere, a doctor of technological sciences and member of the Russian Academy of Engineers, the International Academy of Engineers, the International Academy of Organic Products and Biotechnology and laureate of the State Prize.
"After becoming a Jehovah's Witness 25 years ago, did you pursue extremist goals?" attorney Toporkov asked. "God help me! Of course not!" Kantere literally screamed. "Extremism is not compatible with my faith. After materials were entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials, I destroyed them, although the question of the justice of entering publications into the Federal List of Extremist Materials I consider to be beyond the limits of this discussion," a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent quoted the witness for the defense.
This speech was received by the believers present in the courtroom with enthusiasm: uneasy applause broke out. The judge looked at the bailiff sternly, who looked around the room attentively.
In response to a question of the justice ministry's lawyer, Kantere explained that his religion does not prevent receiving higher education and he thinks that this question should be approached responsibly, the details of the hearings were reported on the website of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.
Regular inspections of the premises for services to find forbidden literature were described by Valentin Zavyalov, a professor of the Moscow Construction Engineering Institute and fellow of the department of theoretical mechanics and aerodynamics of the Moscow State Construction University. "The appearance of extremist materials at worship services is categorically ruled out," a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent quoted Zavyalov, who has been a Jehovah's Witness more than 20 years. Zavyalov clarified that the titles of literature that has been entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials are hung on the wall of premises where worship services are conducted.
"We are encouraged to reject forbidden literature and to get rid of it. But there are dishonest people and we always check whether extremist literature has been hidden behind a toilet, behind batteries, or under stairways," Interfax-Religiia quotes Zavyalov.
"I am engaged in prevention of child abuse and the struggle with the distribution of extremist materials among youth. I can assure you that the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses is incompatible with extremism. This teaching helped me to raise my own child, of whom I am very proud," a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent quotes the answer to a question by the judge by Tatiana Kremneva, a doctor of pedagogy and professor of the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute.
"In services do you not arouse hatred of other religions?" Judge Ivanenko asked. "No," the professor said, specifying that she deals with colleagues and students who do not share her convictions "positively, without hatred, disrespect, contempt, or discrimination," the website of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses quotes Kremneva.
"Believers say that their convictions do not prevent them from being educated people, because science and religion do not conflict. Faith helps them treat all people with respect," defense attorney Viktor Zhenkov comments on the results of the examination of the witnesses.
If harm was caused, why did they not appeal to law enforcement?
The session on 12 April culminated in the examination of witnesses for the prosecution, which role was played by four persons who had left the ranks of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The first statement by St. Petersburger Natalia Koretska evoked a notice by the judge of active use of a notebook with notes. In his turn, attorney Omelchenko thought that Koretska's words were taken from one of the anti-cult websites. "The strong similarity of wording with notes in the notebook—How do you explain this?" the defense attorney questioned Koretska. However the woman answered evasively. "The court makes the decision to acquaint itself with the witness' notes," the judge ruled, declaring that the familiarization will occur later, the Kavkazskii Uzel reported.
Koretska also was not able to explain to the court how the former believer, from 1995 to 2009, could now know about "incidents of extremist activity" of recent years, the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses website reported.
The essence of Koretska's statement came down to what she said was the existing "complete and total control of life by the Administrative Center." Responding to a request from the judge to cite instances of control, Koretska reported that an example was her expulsion from the congregations after she "began her close, but not officially registered, relations with a man," TASS reports.
Plaintiff's witness Pavel Zverev declared that he suffered from the activity of the religious organization in that he was not able to receive higher education, from which he suffers "in my living." Judge Ivanenko pointed out that other Jehovah's Witnesses not only received higher education but also academic degrees, Interfax-Religiia reports. Zverev also said that while working as a volunteer chef in the Russian Administrative Center "there formed in him an attitude of hatred toward Orthodoxy and the clergy."
"We see that the witnesses give evidence in accordance with written materials, repeating the conclusions of so-called sect-scholarship literature. Some of them figure in open sources as activists of the movement that fights against Jehovah's Witnesses, TASS quotes defense attorneys. However Zverev denied that he is a member of anti-cult organizations, despite the assertion of the attorneys about the presence in open access of his photo with famous representatives of the "sect-scholars," the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses' website reports.
"Witness, if you really were caused harm, did you turn to law enforcement agencies?" the judge asked. Zverev's answer was negative. Laughter broke out in the courtroom. The judge again looked at the bailiff sternly, and he—at the hall. The laughter ended, the Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent describes that episode.
A former Jehovah's Witness, from 1983 to 2009, Volgograder Nina Petrova, declared that she did not marry since they persuaded her that she "does not need" a family, and when she "understood that this was a deception, it was too late." During the testimony, several of those present in the courtroom quietly discussed that the activity of the religious organization is not directly connected with making a family.
The publications of Jehovah's Witnesses consistently criticize the teaching of obligatory singlehood (celibacy). "Although the Bible speaks highly of marriage, it certainly does not condemn singlehood, if it is undertaken voluntarily. Honest marriage is a blessing from God. Compulsory celibacy harms spirituality," the periodical publication Awake, for 8 June 1998, states in particular.
Petrova considered that an example of extremist activity was that believers "expel from their ranks those who commit sins." The judge asked the justice ministry's lawyer just which arguments presented in the lawsuit confirm these testimonies. "A possible threat to an undefined circle of persons," the answer sounded. To the judge's question whether Petrova saw that believers distributed extremist literature, she responded negatively, Portal-Credo reported.
In the ninth hour of the session, testimony was given by Viktor Koretsky, who ceased to be a Jehovah's Witness in 2009. The lawyer of the Ministry of Justice posed the question of what Koretsky knew about the attitude of former fellow believers toward higher education and state symbols. "These points are not indicated in the grounds of the lawsuit. Why explain this for us?" the judge addressed the lawyer of the plaintiff. "The question is withdrawn," the Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent quotes the reaction of the employee of the ministry.
After that the judge declared a recess until 10:00 on 19 April.
If there is an order, testimonies may be whatever is beneficial
Believers who assembled after the session, not far from the Supreme Court building, were satisfied with the day's results.
"Representatives of the plaintiff's side compromised themselves, especially the lady who read from notes," one of the believers told the Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.
Another Jehovah's Witness was less optimistic. "Despite the ridiculous statements of prosecution witnesses, the trial may not end in favor of believers. If initially there was an order to the court, then the testimony can be as ridiculous as you want," the speaker noted.
"At the base of the decision to ban religious literature lies the "exceptionality" of Jehovah's Witnesses. But then it is logical to ban all world religious, which are based on the very same thing," trial attendee Maria shared.
Conviction of the exceptional nature of beliefs is inherent to many religious movements, personnel of rights advocacy organizations and religious studies scholars surveyed by Kavkazskii Uzel declared earlier. They doubt the rationality of the lawsuit being considered by the Russian Supreme Court. (tr. by PDS, posted 15 April 2017)
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