Rights advocates speculate about Russian president's intentions


Vladimir Putin speaks for the first time about persecution of religious minorities

by Pavel Skrylnikov

Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 15 January 2019


At a meeting with rights advocates, Vladimir Putin proposed dealing with the "nonsense" in the state's religious policy.


The last session in the past year of the presidential Council on Development of Civil Society and Human Rights evidently became the highest placed platform at which the question was raised of the ban of Jehovah's Witnesses, who are considered in Russia to be an extremist organization, since the confirmation of the decision regarding their prohibition by the Constitutional Court in 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed for the first time that laws may be used incorrectly against religious minorities and urged "dealing attentively with this."


Of 489 organizations that have been entered into the list of participants in terrorist and extremist activity, available on the websites of the Ministry of Justice and the F.S.B., political scientist Ekaterina Shulman recalled at the session that 404 are Jehovah's Witnesses religious communities: "I will make a foreboding pause here. It may be that there are many complaints against Jehovah's Witnesses—they do not transfuse blood, they do not take their children to the hospital—but they certainly do not call people to violence and they do not commit it. I would like to express the hope that the antiextremist legislation will be, let's say, moderated in accordance with the requirements of society and in accordance with the real level of crime."


Vladimir Riakhovsky, the director of the Slavic Legal Center, also spoke about freedom of conscience. "In July 2016 a federal law was adopted under the title 'On adopting additional measures for combating terrorism,' popularly known as the Yarovaya Law." The law on freedom of conscience was supplemented with a chapter on missionary activity. Article 5.26, concerning establishment of accountability, was introduced into the Code of Administrative Violations of Law. A year and a half has passed, and I would very much like to ask the initiators of this law: has the goal of the authors been achieved? Has even one extremist been brought to account on the basis of this law? But nevertheless law enforcement agencies have initiated and taken to court more than 600 administrative cases concerning representatives of various confessions, with really only one exception—the most widespread one. These cases are as incredible as fantasy can possibly imagine."


In his opinion, the most egregious example of the incorrect application of anti-evangelism legislation was the situation involving a woman student from Zimbabwe who was a parishioner of the Embassy of Jesus church, Kudzai Niamarebvu. In the autumn of 2016 she posted on her page in VKontakte a video with an invitation to the church for a gospel concert, which in 2018 led to a judicial investigation. For the violation of the law on missionary activity and also for the absence in the video of the complete name of the Embassy of Jesus religious organization, she was fined a total of 80,000 rubles. The student was found guilty on the basis of article 18.8 of the Code on Administrative Violation of Law (inconsistency with the stated purpose of entry into Russia) and she was subject to deportation. She managed to appeal the sentence in oblast court, postponing expulsion from the country until completion of studies (in the summer she finished the sixth year and received a diploma). In May 2018 the chancellor of the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals), Bishop Konstantin Bendas, on the pages of NG called the cases against protestants in Nizhny Novgorod oblast a "genuine safari" organized by security forces.


Riakhovsky noted: the conclusion of experts that established the existence in the student's video of indicators of covert missionary activity creates a precedent for interpreting any statement in such a way: "That is, do you understand what the case is? Covert. There are no clear indicators of missionary activity. And why are there not? Because it is covert and for this she was held accountable."


The president's reaction to these statement permits one to expect that the legal position of "nontraditional" religious groups in the country may improve—or at least that law enforcement practice in "missionary" cases will become somewhat more benign. He called the case against the African student and the listing of Jehovah's Witnesses communities as extremist organizations nonsense: "We can and even must, at such a moment, be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects, but we should not forget that our society does not consist exclusively of religious sects. Ninety percent or so of citizens of the Russian Federation consider themselves Orthodox Christians. We have another three effectively traditional religions to which the state provides help. We should treat representatives of all religions in the same way—this is true, but we should still take into account the country and society in which we live. To be sure, this does not at all mean that we should characterize representatives of religious communities as if some are destructive or even terrorist organizations. Of course, this is complete nonsense and we must attentively deal with this." On 18 December, the Russian president's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, explained that specific cases of the Witnesses will be examined further. However, by 19 December the press service of the Ministry of Justice, commenting on the Witnesses' situation, stated: judicial orders regarding the ban of individual organizations that have taken legal effect must be carried out.


The director of the Sova Center, Alexander Verkhovsky, thinks that the president's words, in and of themselves, do not speak of a mitigation of the position regarding Jehovah's Witnesses. "Of course, we always want to think about what is better. But it seems to me from what the president said that he does not understand what the problem is and it does not mean that there is no problem. Simply at the given moment he does not see it. Well, he does not understand and so colleagues will explain it for him, I am afraid. He will ask for information; they will prepare information for him from which it will be clear that there are real wrongdoers there," he told NGR. At the same time, laws from the Yarovaya Package do not have anything to do directly with Jehovah's Witnesses, the rights advocate thinks, but there is hope that the president's statement may have an effect on the application and contents of missionary legislation, however elusive: "The Jehovah's Witnesses' situation is worse. There is the decision on the prohibition that has entered into force and in order to rescind it, it is necessary either to change the definition of extremist activity on which this ban is based or to rescind some of the earlier bans on their literature, the incidents on which it is based. In principle, both are possible, but for this some order from above is necessary. So far this has gone in a different direction."


The missionary legislation did not fulfill the stated goals of its creators, Vladimir Riakhovsky told NGR. "When the 'Yarovaya Package' was adopted, it was called 'On adopting supplementary measures for combating terrorism.' I asked the question: a year and a half has passed; in this time has even one terrorist or extremist been brought to accountability on its basis? Has the goal been achieved that was placed before the developers of this law? Of course not. At the same time, more than 600 cases have been considered in courts with respect to religious organizations, and practically all confessions, with the exception of the most traditional and numerous, have fallen under its purview," the attorney said.


"The law gives five indicators of missionary activity," he continued. "It is that the activity is conducted by an association itself or persons authorized by it; it is targeted on those who do not belong to the given association; it is conducted for the purposes of involving them in the activity of the association; and it is conducted in a public manner." Not one of these indicators, in Riakhovsky's opinion, was present in the case of the African student from Nizhny Novgorod. "Whereas even the Constitutional Court, citing this law, pointed out that it is necessary to have them in totality." The large practice based on the laws of the "Yarovaya Package" demands that the Supreme Court synthesize it and explain what constitutes their violation and what does not and how much legal regulation of missionary activity as a whole is based on it. "Both in the constitution and in the law on freedom of conscience, and in international legal acts the right to disseminate one's convictions is declared. Where is missionary activity here? Some confessions use such terminology and others do not. The introduction of this into the framework of legal regulation is, of course, not justified and it leads to abuses."


On 20 December it became known that Russia had sent to the European Court of Human Rights comments where it denied the material claims of the Jehovah's Witnesses in regard to the ban of the organization being considered in the E.C.H.R. "There is now no doubt that the decision will not be in Russia's favor. And for what? Were there really no analysts, even those who do not know much about the history of the Jehovah's Witnesses?" Riakhovsky says. The law on combating extremism enumerates many of its signs, he thinks, but the ban is based on the presence of exceptionality, the premise about one's own religious superiority. "So what is religious superiority? They are accused of considering themselves to be the only true religion. What, are there associations that consider that what is true is not their own but some other religion?"


Nevertheless, the rights advocate thinks, a reaction to the president's words must be forthcoming. (tr. by PDS, posted 17 January 2019)

Background articles;
Russian president questions persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses
December 17, 2018
Putin promises to talk with head of Supreme Court about Jehovah's Witnesses
December 17, 2018
Further fall-out from Putin's remarks about Jehovah's Witnesses
December 18, 2018

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