POLITICAL ERROR OF COUNTRY'S LEADERSHIP
Interview with Vladimir Riakovsky, attorney and member of the presidential Council for Human Rights, about ban of Jehovah's Witnesses
by Roman Lunkin
Religiia i Pravo, 24 April 2017
On 20 April, the Russian Supreme Court ruled the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses to be an extremist organization and prohibited its activity on the territory of Russia. Thereby the lawsuit of the Russian Ministry of Justice for finding the religious organization "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" to be extremist, banning its activity, and liquidating it was granted. The Ministry of Justice demanded banning the activity of the Administrative Center and also 395 local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses. In their turn, lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses previously asked the Russian Supreme Court to receive from them a counter suit "for finding the religious organization to be victims of political repressions." The court refused to accept the lawsuit. Lawyers for the defendant complained that even before the issuance of the judicial decision, Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to persecution. A lawyer for the organization also declared that "the majority of established incidents of distribution of forbidden materials are slander." "The fact is established that the forbidden materials were planted on us. All of the arguments of the Ministry of Justice are constructed on unfounded accusations, forgeries, and false testimonies," he said. The leader of the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, Vasily Kalin, declared that the current judicial proceedings have attracted attention and evoked condemnation from the world community.
--Roman Lunkin: Esteemed Vladimir Vasilievich, how much does the decision about the ban of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia affect on the whole the situation of associations of other confessions and religions? How does one assess the religious policy of the government?
--Vladimir Riakhovsky: For a stretch of nine months in our country, legislation has been in effect regulating missionary activity, that is, the well known Yarovaya Law. At the present time, judicial practice has accumulated from approximately 100 different kinds of cases that, one way or another, affect individual groups of believers and preachers. For the most part, decisions adopted regarding fines for alleged illegal evangelism have been unjust and unjustified. A purposeful attempt to strictly control missionary activity is evidenced by the fact that the first case against a believer on the basis of the Yarovaya Law occurred on just the second day after this law took effect.
In the Yarovaya Law itself there are many ambiguities and vague wordings, and the text itself and the approach chosen by law enforcement are contradictory. For the period of initial application of this law it was possible to ascribe decisions to incorrect understanding of the provisions of the law by judges. However after this decision of the Russian Supreme Court on the ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses, illusions have been dispelled. Now it is obvious that a definite order exists.
Today a harsh decision has been adopted with regard to Jehovah's Witnesses, but on the whole this decision and, it turns out, policy as a whole are aimed against nontraditional confessions in Russia.
It is not entirely clear, in this case, why it was necessary for the Russian Supreme Court to consider the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses on the merits and to devote several days to this. The hearings and arguments revealed with all obviousness the groundlessness of the arguments of the Russian Ministry of Justice.
I followed the proceedings attentively and attended the first judicial session in the capacity of an observer from the Council on Human Rights under the president of the Russian federation. In addition, believers produced a direct broadcast of the sessions from the courtroom, a video and text broadcast, and therefore everyone can be acquainted in detail with what happened in the Russian Supreme Court. I am well acquainted with the plaintiff's declaration and the defense objections of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
I am convinced that the justice ministry's lawsuit was built on assumptions that became clear in the course of the judicial session. Local religious organizations are not subdivisions of the Administrative Center, and therefore by law the decision regarding the liquidation of the center cannot be extended to them. At the same time, local organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses are members of the canonical structure of the Administrative Center, which is the internal arrangement of the religious association. And the government does not have the right to interfere in the internal arrangement of a religious organization, which is even noted in the law on freedom of conscience. A contradiction also consists in the fact that during judicial trials in the regions, the Russian Ministry of Justice and the courts refused to involve the Administrative Center in the consideration of cases for finding Jehovah's Witnesses' literature to be extremist; that is, it did not recognize local congregations to be subdivisions of the center, but the plaintiff's declaration insisted on the other way around, in order to ban all the other organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses.
--What will be the immediate consequences of the Russian Supreme Court's decision with regard to Jehovah's Witnesses?
--The Russian Supreme Court made the decision that the decision to terminate the activity of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses will take effect immediately. That means that even now, from the point of view of the plaintiff's declaration of the Russian Ministry of Justice, the activity of local religious organizations should stop and also any meetings of believers (the Jehovah's Witnesses state that besides the 395 organizations they also have 2,000 groups). The property of the Administrative Center is supposed to be confiscated for government use. With the liquidation of local religious organizations that are, in the opinion of the Russian Ministry of Justice, a part of an organization that has been found to be "extremist," their property also will be confiscated for government use. There also exists the possibility of an appeal within a month after the release of the rationale of the decision.
At the start of consideration of this case in the Russian Supreme Court there was still a glimmer of hope that the court would base its decision on the supremacy of the law and not on the momentary political conjunction. Moreover, it was evident that the lawyers for the Russian Ministry of Justice were not prepared for most of the questions and were unable to argue their position. The judges closed their eyes to this and granted the lawsuit of the Russian Ministry of Justice in full; that is, with the ban of all subdivisions of the Jehovah's Witnesses and with the confiscation of property.
All the efforts of the Russian Ministry of Justice and of law enforcement agencies were thrown into the preparation of this judicial trial. Throughout Russia, trials of congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses were conducted, which should rather be called "events" which did not comply with the framework of the law and contradicted common sense.
--In your view, will there be any political consequences of the decision of the Russian Supreme Court?
--The adoption of the decision to ban a whole religious movement is a political error of our country's leadership. Undoubtedly, rights advocates and international organizations will be given the standard answer that the government cannot influence the court's decision and the court is formally independent. However it is now obvious to everybody that this is not the case—a political order for the ban on believers is obvious to everybody.
I would like to know whether anybody among the representatives of the government analyzed the consequences of this decision. Will Jehovah's Witnesses really scatter to their homes and not assemble any more? As the experience of Germany and the Soviet Union shows, prohibitions will not stop the Jehovah's Witnesses. It turns out that the government itself is driving a large confession into the underground. Now this has to happen. Criminal cases are inevitable after the Russian Supreme Court's decision. If law enforcement agencies receive, for example, a denunciation that a meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses is happening somewhere, then the police will be bound to react; otherwise by law this would be covering up a crime. The very participation in Bible reading and prayer by Jehovah's Witnesses will be participation in the activity of a banned organization. This is the substance of a crime.
I would like to pose a question: who needs such problems and has history really not taught us anything? Russia's image is not very positive on the international stage and now our country will be identified as a state that persecutes believers. This is political short-sightedness that it is difficult to call anything other than a provocation.
--From your point of view, what is the meaning of the statements of approval by the leader of the Russian State Duma committee that is responsible, inter alia, for religious associations, Sergei Gavrilov, with respect to the Russian Supreme Court's decision?
--I suggest that the words of Deputy Sergei Gavrilov about the necessity of activating work for reassessing the activity of "non-traditional religious associations" in Russia may be considered to be the logical culmination of the campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses. The member of parliament urged paying attention to how other associations relate to Orthodoxy, patriotism, and love for the fatherland. The deputy's statement is not accidental within the framework of the general context. Although it is unlikely that this will add votes for the deputies in elections. Does this mean that we now should reconsider the Russian constitution and the right to profess and disseminate one's religion? Or will the country continue along the present path and close its eyes to everything, to justice, to law, to common sense, and accept unjust decisions. In any case, faith in just decisions has already been undermined. The Russian Supreme Court itself has shown an example of the appearance of justice. Moreover, nobody sees and can even explain the logic of the present persecution of believers in Russia. (tr. by PDS, posted 26 April 2017)
Editorial disclaimer: RRN does
not intend to certify the accuracy of information
presented in articles. RRN simply intends to certify the
accuracy of the English translation of the contents of the
articles as they appeared in news media of countries of
the former USSR.
If material is quoted, please give credit to the publication from which it came. It is not necessary to credit this Web page. If material is transmitted electronically, please include reference to the URL, http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/.