Scholars find trial of Jehovah's Witnesses absurd


Kavkazskii Uzel, 8 April 2017


Conviction of the exceptional nature of their beliefs is inherent in many religious movements, according to personnel of rights advocacy organizations and religious studies scholars who were questioned by Kavkazskii Uzel. They question the reasonableness of the lawsuit for the liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses being considered by the Russian Supreme Court.


As Kavkazskii Uzel has reported, on 7 April a hearing on the lawsuit of the Ministry of Justice for banning the activity of the administrative center as an extremist organization continued. In the opinion of the ministry, the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses carries a threat to the rights of citizens and to public safety. Lawyers for the defendant called the attempt to ban their activity political repressions, although the court did not agree with this assessment. According to an attorney for the Ministry of Justice, after the liquidation of the organization, law enforcement agencies may initiate cases on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (arranging activity of an extremist organization), which provides for fines of from 300 to 800 thousand rubles and prison terms of from 2 to 12 years.


The proceedings look extremely absurd


Prohibition of the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses on the basis of their conviction of the truth of their beliefs appears questionable, thinks the senior academic fellow of the Center for the Study of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Urals-Volga Region of the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Roshchin.


"The theory of the exceptional nature of a religion is shared by both Catholics, Christians, and Muslims. This is a normal, reasonable position for monotheistic religion. However it is not characteristic for far eastern religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, and Shinto. At the present time, in the "western" world it is considered that all religions are the same and the postulate of the exceptional nature is not pertinent," the religious studies scholar explained for a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


After studying the arguments of the plaintiff, Roshchin came to the conclusion that the attorneys for the Ministry of Justice do not have a clear position. "They are not in a position to answer the judge's questions. The plaintiff side is unable to articulate specifically which actions are regarded as extremism. One gets the impression that the ministry is not prepared for the trial," Roshchin said.


The scholar called attention to the fact that religious studies experts were not involved in the trial. "I think that was done so that the position of the plaintiff would not seem quite flimsy. "While there are specialized experts who have studied the Jehovah's Witnesses, particularly Sergei Ivanenko, the author of two books (about this religious organization)," Roshchin said.


The expert said that he would not refuse to participate in the trial if he were invited. "This is interesting. Judging by accounts in the press, the trial appears extremely absurd," Mikhail Roshchin explained.


In Russia, there are 396 registered religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, which include 2277 religious groups of this confession. The number of adherents reaches 175 thousand persons. Of them, around 48 thousand "actively practicing adherents" of the confession reside in the regions of the South Federal District and North Caucasus Federal District, not counting sympathizers, Kavkazskii Uzel was told by the press secretary of the head office of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, Ivan Belenko. According to information of attorney Omelchenko, the overall number of attendees at meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is about 300 thousand persons.


Thesis is inherent to the overwhelming majority of world religions


Faith in the exceptional nature of one's own convictions is the basis for the judicial prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, thinks Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the right's advocacy center "SOVA" and an expert on matters of religion, nationalism, and xenophobia.


"This thesis is inherent to the overwhelming majority of world religions; it is their natural property. This aspect was not considered in the drafting of the law about extremism. It migrated there from old legislative norms, which were sketched out irrelevantly when the issue was the prohibition of national exceptionalism. However race and religion are not one and the same. There is an enormous difference between the assertion that some people are better than others by their innate properties and the claim that they are exceptional by virtue of their views," Verkhovsky told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


By article 1 of the federal law "On combating extremist activity," as such activity is considered "propaganda of the exceptionalism, superiority, or inferiority of a person on the basis of his social, racial, national, religious, or linguistic affiliation or attitude toward religion."


In early 2009 a campaign for pressure on Jehovah's Witnesses was initiated by the office of prosecutor general, Verkhovsky recalled.


"Whether at the time they had in mind reaching liquidation is unknown. Throughout Russia there occurred mass synchronized inspections of organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, conducted by the Ministry of Justice, fire inspection, and prosecutors' offices. Here and there representatives of an inspection party showed a warrant on the basis of which the inspection was conducted. The document mentioned the Office of the Prosecutor General," Verkhovsky said, clarifying that "at the last minute the office tossed the judicial proceedings to the Ministry of Justice."


"In February 2009 the prosecutors of constituent entities [subjects] of the RF were sent an order . . . to conduct inspections of the legality of the activity of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. Unfortunately, the nature of the formulation of the order and the extremely tight deadlines for its execution show that the issue was a clear statement for the liquidation of this religious organization," according to an open letter written in April of the same year by a representative of the head office of Russian believers, Vasily Kalin, to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. The then commissioner for human rights in Russia, Vladimir Lukin, noted in a letter to Chaika that the prosecutor's office "has formulated a negative attitude with respect to the religious organization," and "it is promoting persecution aimed at finding a basis for banning its activity."


The refusal of the court to involve religious studies specialists in the trial seems to Verkhovsky "not normal, but typical."


"In the majority of cases with the application of extremist legislation, if the issue is about religious organizations, the expert analyses are not done by religious studies scholars. Such a system is, of course, perverse," the expert summed up.


It feels as if the trial will not end in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses


"The situation is ambiguous. It is still good that the Ministry of Justice did not involve its own religious studies specialists; that could even be worse," Lev Levinson, an expert of the Institute of Human Rights and director of the Library of Rights Advocacy Literature, expressed his own point of view, implying specialists who are connected with the official church.


The expert doubted a desire of the Ministry of Justice "to drag the patriarchate into court," since in such an event the confessional bias would become obvious.


Russian Supreme Court Justice Yury Ivanenko is conducting the trial objectively, the rights advocate thinks. "The judge poses interesting questions to justice ministry's lawyers, specifically just what kind of consequences have been caused by the distribution of printed materials (subsequently ruled to be extremist)," Levinson told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"However one gets the feeling that the trial will not end in the Jehovah's Witnesses' favor. I am sure that in the event of a decision that is not satisfactory for the religious organization, it will be appealed to the European Court for Human Rights, but that will not stop the repressive measures," Levinson summed up.


In Jehovah's Witnesses' publications the specification of "exceptionalism" is not introduced with respect to their own beliefs, although the affirmation of the truth of their faith is expressed many times. "Jehovah's Witnesses are sure that they have found the true religion. Otherwise they would not profess that faith. . . . However they consider that they do not have the right to decide who will be saved and who will not be," the periodical Watchtower for 1 November 2008 specifically says. Similar thoughts are also expressed in forbidden publications, for example, in the brochure "Who are the Jehovah's Witnesses? What do they believe?" that was ruled to be extremist by decision of the Rostov provincial court of 11 September 2009 and by the determination of the Judicial College for Civil Affairs of the Supreme Court of Russia of 8 December 2009.


What kind of certification do you want to give to people whom you call extremists?


On 7 April, Justice Yury Ivanenko recalled an episode when in 2014 the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses imported into Russian territory literature that was later ruled extremist. The judge questioned the justice ministry's attorney how it was possible to know about the importation of forbidden material, if it was not in the Federal List of Extremist Materials.


One of the lawyers for the defendant successfully petitioned for adding to the case an extract from the Rossiiskaia Gazeta which indicated the dates of the entry of material into the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The judge's decision was met by an approving whisper and quiet applause from the audience in the courtroom.


An opposite effect was created by the emotional statement of the chairman of the Governing Body of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, Vasily Kalin.


Having survived exile in Siberia, Kalin showed the court the certification of a rehabilitated victim of political repressions. In deathly silence the elderly man put the question to the justice ministry's lawyer: "What kind of certification does the ministry want to present to people whom it declares to be extremists?"


Local religious organizations in the South Federal District and North Caucasus Federal District have frequently been fined for using literature that later was entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials. And several local organizations have been liquidated including those in Taganrog, Abinsk, Cherkessk, and Elista.


If one views texts in such a way, Russia may be left without books


Attorney Viktor Zhenkov pointed out that there is no extremist component in the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses, despite the fact that many of their publications have been registered in the Federal List of Extremist Materials. "No single incident of the use of force with respect to law enforcement agencies or peaceful citizens has been registered," Zhenkov noted in the courtroom.


In the opinion of the defense attorney, if one applies everywhere the criteria by which printed texts of the organization were entered into the Federal List of Extremist Materials, "then Russia could quickly be left entirely without books." As an example, Zhenkov cited the argument of the prosecutor from the lawsuit for finding the translation of the Bible produced by Jehovah's Witnesses to be extremist: "Taken as a book, the Bible ceases to be the Bible, which it is only in the Church." This quotation produced in the courtroom a big effect: the audience laughed out loud and the judge had to call them to order.


"The Bible, Quran, Tanakh, and Kangyur, their contents and quotations from them may not be ruled to be extremist materials," article 3.1 of the federal law "On combating extremist activity" says.


"For now a constructive dialogue is going on. The judge is conducting the trial correctly, giving the opportunity to work," the attorney commented on the day's results.


At the next session, scheduled for 10.00 Moscow time on 12 April, it is planned to continue the explanations of the defendant. "There also will be questioning of witnesses. The defendant has many written pieces of evidence," Viktor Zhenkov told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


There are not enough seats in the courtroom for everybody


According to eyewitnesses, around 9:00 Moscow time, an hour before the start of the hearing on 7 April, a long line had begun to form at the entrance to the Supreme Court, which extended 50 meters along the building on Povarskaia Street. In the line stood journalists and also believers, mainly Jehovah's Witnesses.


Far from everybody were allowed into the court. "This trial affects me as a believer directly; however it was impossible for me to be even a witness of the proceedings," said a girl identifying herself as Maria, who did not get into the courtroom.


"We see how, slowly but surely, a religious structure is being destroyed. Today-- Jehovah's Witnesses, tomorrow--Baptists, day after tomorrow—Muslims," a man identifying himself as Mikhail said to a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"It is my profound conviction that our religious organization became simply inconvenient to other administrative bodies of other confessions. Someone at the highest levels lobbied for the start of a trial whose result could be the prohibition of the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia," declared a believer by the name of Alexander.


The international community has frequently called attention to the application of the law on extremism to Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. Thus, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights expressed "concern about numerous reports that the aforesaid law is ever more often being used for restriction on the freedom of the expression opinion, including political protest, and freedom of religion, being aimed particularly at Jehovah's Witnesses," according to "Concluding Comments on the Seventh Periodic Report of the Russian Federation" of 28 April 2015. (tr. by PDS, posted 10 April 2017)

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