Putin promises to talk with head of Supreme Court about Jehovah's Witnesses


BBC Russian Service, 17 December 2018


Russian President Vladimir Putin called the classification of Jehovah's Witnesses as extremist organizations "complete nonsense" and he urged "to deal attentively with them." At a session of the Council on Human Rights he promised that he will study the issue along with the chairman of the Supreme Court, Viacheslav Lebedev.


For the first time in the year and a half since the ban on the activity of the organization, Putin has spoken out publicly on this matter.


The question about the status of Jehovah's Witnesses was raised at the session on 11 December by political scientist Ekaterina Shulmana, according to the full transcript of the session published by the Kremlin on Monday, 17 December.


She cited statistics regarding the organizations that were classified as extremist and terrorist: "Of 489, 404 of them are Jehovah's Witnesses," Shulmana said. "There may be many charges against Jehovah's Witnesses—they do not transfuse blood, they do not take their children to the hospital—but they certainly do not call for violence nor practice it."


In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled the activity of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses" to be extremist and it ordered that the center and all its regional divisions must be liquidated. It ordered that the organization's property be confiscated in the state's favor. The trial occurred on the basis of a lawsuit by the Ministry of Justice, which had discovered in the course of an unscheduled inspection violations of the law "On combating extremist activity."


At the session of the presidential Council on Human Rights, Putin declared that there is absolutely no need to characterize "representatives of religious communities" as "somehow destructive, to say nothing of terrorist organizations."


"We can, and even should, at such a moment be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects," Putin said.


"Of course, this is complete nonsense. It is necessary to deal with this attentively. Here I agree with you," the president answered the political scientist's question.


Putin mentioned the Jehovah's Witnesses a second time when he asked about a student against whom a case about missionary activity was opened. The president also called her case "nonsense" and "some kind of poppycock."


After mentioning that he does not know which confession she belongs to, he also recalled the forbidden organization. "Jehovah's Witnesses also are Christians, for which they are persecuted, and I do not understand that well," Putin said.


After repeating that it is necessary "simply to analyze," he added that he will conduct talks with the chairman of the Russian Supreme Court, Viacheslav Lebedev, and they "will try to do this."


"We take note of the president's reaction with surprise. If he is up to date on the whole situation, then probably his reaction can change something. We hope that he will give an order to get to the bottom of this and something may happen. Although, knowing the reality of our state, there is no great optimism," the press secretary of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, Yaroslav Sivulsky, told BBC.


"It is difficult to call this statement support, but the very fact that he expressed his point of view may be a sign that the accusations against Jehovah's Witnesses of terrorism and extremism are untenable," he thinks.


Sivulsky recalled that this is not the first time when Putin was asked about the Jehovah's Witnesses, although hitherto he has not expressed his own attitude. Thus, in May 2017 German Chancellor Angela Merkel described how at a meeting with Putin she raised a question about the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses.


Sivulsky also described how Jehovah's Witnesses wrote many letters to both President Putin and his administration on the eve of the prohibition of the organization by the Supreme Court in April 2017. At the time, he said "even a formal answer" was not received.


"It is difficult to judge what really is happening, but we are nourishing a modest hope that it would be possible to release those who already are in confinement, people who did not commit crimes but simply read the Bible. This is the first thing that law enforcement agencies should do," Sivulsky suggests.


The press service of the Supreme Court was unavailable for comments Monday evening. (tr. by PDS, posted 17 December 2018)

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