Jehovah's Witnesses' activity in legal limbo


Kavkazskii Uzel, 5 May 2017


The decision of the Supreme Court that liquidated the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia may be seen as a signal for prosecution of believers by siloviki [security forces] and local authorities, attorneys for the religious organization who were questioned by Kavkazskii Uzel declared. However they said that it is still not necessary to speak of mass repressions.


As Kavkazskii Uzel has written, on 20 April the Russian Supreme Court granted the demand of the Ministry of Justice for the liquidation of 396 religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, including their administrative center in St. Petersburg, as extremist. The court ordered confiscation of the property of these organizations for state use. The Jehovah's Witnesses called the court's sentence prejudiced. On 24 April the Zamoskvoreche district court of Moscow concluded that the decision of the Ministry of Justice to suspend the activity of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is legal.


The side of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses received on 2 May the rationale part of the Supreme Court's decision. The decision for the liquidation of the religious organizations of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses will take effect only after it goes through the appellate stage, attorney Anton Omelchenko declared.


"Only after the full text of the decision is handed over will the counting of the appeal period of one month begin. Then in the course of several months it will be considered in the judicial college of the Supreme Court. And there is a chance that the decision may be overturned or changed," the attorney explained.


The session of the appellate college of the Supreme Court on the lawsuit to suspend proceedings on the administrative case from the religious organization "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" has been scheduled for 11:40 on 13 June, the court's website says.


Since the activity of 396 legal entities has been immediately stopped by the court's decision of 20 April, then all actions in the name of these organizations are impermissible.


"I think that members of the organizations are law-abiding people. In Derbent, apparently, ordinary citizens professing the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and not representatives of the banned organizations, wanted to arrange a public event. In that case, nobody had the right to prevent private individuals from believing as they wish. The court's decision does not speak of a ban on belief," Omelchenko thinks.


Earlier Dagestani Jehovah's Witnesses told Kavkazskii Uzel that the landlord had terminated the agreement for rent of one of the buildings that was used in 2016 as the place for religious meetings. A representative of the congregation said that such a decision by the owner of the building was made after siloviki summoned him and threatened him with problems "in doing business."


"The court's decision may be interpreted as a ban on the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses"


The Supreme Court's decision does not specify the grounds for the liquidation of local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, an attorney of the Russian Administrative Center, Viktor Zhenkov, thinks.


"395 legal entities (local religious organizations—K.U. note) were liquidated without the participation of their representatives, and this is specified in the decision. In neither the resolution part nor the reasoning part does the court indicate what the extremist actions of each of the closed local religious organizations consisted of. The Supreme Court's decision noted only the arguments of the Ministry of Justice and the arguments of the defense are not mentioned once and are not refuted in any way," he told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


In his opinion, the future of individual believers in Russia depends on the decisions of law enforcement agencies. "If one follows the letter of the constitution, then article 28 speaks of the right of a person to believe and to profess his religion, that is, to conduct specific actions: to read Scripture, to discuss faith with other people—friends or strangers. However the Supreme Court's decision does not say a word confirming or denying such a right of believers. The judge did not give an assessment of the fears of the defense side about the fate of individual Jehovah's Witnesses: whether they can gather together and conduct actions in accordance with their convictions, not as members of a forbidden organization but as private individuals," Zhenkov noted.


The attorney fears that in places the Supreme Court's decision may be interpreted as a ban on the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses. "Governmental bodies of local self-government may view this decision as requiring them to resist all Jehovah's Witnesses, whether they are individual believers or united in an organization or not," he supposes.


In its lawsuit, the Ministry of Justice referred to decisions pertaining to local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, where literature that had been ruled to be extremist was found. The Ministry of Justice's attorney declared in court that after the liquidation of the organization, law enforcement agencies will be able to open criminal cases against believers of this confession on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF (arranging the activity of an extremist organization), which provides for fines of from 300 to 800 thousand rubles and incarceration of from two to 12 years. The right of Jehovah's Witnesses to freedom of conscience will be regularly and massively violated in Russia after the liquidation of their local religious organizations and police, and prosecutor's offices will not focus on legal niceties in assessing the practices of believers, lawyers and rights advocates questioned by Kavkazskii Uzel predicted. The siloviki have received carte blanche for criminal prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, legal scholars conclude.


"We have not gotten statistics on those who have left Russia"


An accounting of the number of believers who have left Russia and become political refugees has not been conducted, declares Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the liquidated administrative center.


"There is information that one or another person has left. We do not consider it our task to monitor, analyze, or collate these processes. To leave one's country is a serious decision, which each one makes personally," Sivulsky told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"A few people, including from the south of Russia, have left and received political asylum. But we have not gotten any statistics on those leaving Russia," Anton Omelchenko confirmed this information.


In the session of the Supreme Court of 12 April, lawyers for the defendant reported that several believers from Taganrog (Rostov province) received political asylum in Europe after the activity of the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses was ruled to be extremist and was banned by a court in September 2009. According to the account of the investigation, after the prohibition a group of believers continued to conduct prayer services and to study literature that had been ruled to be extremist. The defendants did not acknowledge their guilt, considering that they were being persecuted for religious convictions. On 30 November 2015, four defendants in the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog were given suspended sentences and another 12 were fined. This decision came as a result of a review of the original verdict, according to which in 2014 nine of the 16 defendants were acquitted. On 16 March 2016, the Rostov provincial court confirmed the conviction of the Taganrog Jehovah's Witnesses.


"Law-enforcement machine 'traps' believers for reading the Bible"


Yaroslav Sivulsky pointed out the information about the warnings issued to individual believers by law enforcement agencies about the "impermissibility of extremist activity" for assembling in a home to read the Bible.


"The law-enforcement machine has already actually begun 'to trap' believers for reading the Bible. In Tatarstan, for example, the prosecutor's office issued a warning to a religious group that was not a member of any currently officially forbidden local religious organization. And the person gathering a group of believers was warned not to conduct a meeting of believers and not to read the Bible along with them," he noted.


After the issuance of the Supreme Court's decision there occurred attacks of hooliganism. "For example, they broke windows with stones in the Hall of Congresses in St. Petersburg that is idle at the present time. However one cannot say that massive repressions throughout Russia against Jehovah's Witnesses have begun," Yaroslav Sivulsky emphasized.


In the regions of Russia, at least four such cases have been identified. In particular, in the night of 22 April in the city of Gukovo (Rostov province) unidentified persons damaged the residence in which meetings of believers were held. A mailbox was damaged and the entrance door was smeared with mud and the gate damaged, the official website of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses reports.


"Are Jehovah's Witnesses here?"


"From Vladikavkaz there have arrived, still not confirmed, reports about the collection of information in educational institutions about children who adhere to the confession of Jehovah's Witnesses. If we receive more precise information, we will be able to report this in detail. From Stavropol, audio recordings were sent of a class in one of the schools, but for now it is not known which one. On the recording is heard the voice of a teacher who is conducting a unique lesson in political information, telling the pupils that Jehovah's Witnesses are banned in Russia and they may present a danger," Yaroslav Sivulsky explains.


Kavkazskii Uzel is in possession of an audio recording made, according to Sivulsky, at an event in a Stavropol school.


A female voice says:  "Jehovah's Witnesses are totally forbidden on the territory of our state by law. This is because . . . Americans are trying to disable us and they are trying to do this with the help of religion. After all, Jehovah's Witnesses are from America. And all this is clearly being paid for . . . After all, they all do not work, these Jehovah's Witnesses. But what do they live on? Are there Jehovah's Witnesses here—can someone enlighten us?"


A question also is raised about the rationale of the judicial ban of religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, supposedly addressed to pupils, which also expresses uncomplimentary opinions about adherents of this religion.


The Ministry of Education and Science of North Ossetia refused to comment on the information collected from these schools of the republic about children from families of Jehovah's Witnesses. A representative of the ministry told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent that written or oral reports on this matter have not been received.


A representative of the Ministry of Education of Stavropol territory had difficulty commenting on an audio recording of a class that was conducted, in the opinion of representatives of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, in one of the schools of the region. "Perhaps the issue is an educational hour conducted by leaders of the class," a representative of the ministry told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent. (tr. by PDS, posted 7 May 2017)

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