Jehovah's Witnesses mount defense in south of Russia


Kavkazskii Uzel, 14 March 2020


The investigation and prosecution may summon Jehovah's Witnesses for questioning, but this will not force them to refuse to support their fellow believers, who have already been put on trial on a charge of extremism, representatives of the congregation declare.


As Kavkazskii Uzel has reported, the investigation charged five believers from Volgograd—Valery Rogozin, Sergei Melnik, Igor Egosarian, Viacheslav Osipov, and Denis Peresunko—with extremism. They were placed in detention and then their restriction was mitigated to a prohibition of certain activities. The defendants do not acknowledge themselves to be extremists. They insist that they are not participating in the activity of a legal entity that has been banned by a court but they simply profess their own religion as individual persons. The defense attorneys of the believers have pointed to the lack of evidence of their guilt.


Wives and mothers of defendants arrived to support them


The scheduled hearing in the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses from Volgograd occurred on 13 March in the Traktorozavod court. The trial began a half hour late because of the arrangement for the questioning of a secret witness. While the questioning was being arranged, the participants in the trial and attendees waited in the hall. The wives of Valery Rogosin, Sergei Melnik, and Denis Peresunko came to support their husbands, along with Igor Egozarian's and Viacheslav Osipov's mothers. In all, the support group consisted of approximately 30 persons.


The believers conversed with one another, discussing the prospects of the trial and daily affairs. Marina Rogozin said she would not attend the sessions but is waiting in the corridor, since she is a witness in the case. Egozarian's mother and Peresunko's wife also are witnesses and they also will await the conclusion of the sessions in the corridor. "We are worried and nervous, and we support them," Marina Rogozina told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


The fellow believers declared readiness for prosecution for support of the defendants


A fellow believer of the defendants named Katerina, who came to the trial in order to support them, explained that she is not afraid of the prospects of receiving a summons to questioning, as happened in Dagestan. "I have come in order to encourage my fellow believers with my support and also to be encouraged myself because we are enduring so much. But I think that will not happen here because in order to take you down there must be some accusation. There is some kind of human, subconscious fear, but in reality there shouldn't be. Although they can drag everybody in for everything. So we will present our passport and they can copy the passport information, and welcome," she told the Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


The same position was also expressed by another believer named Nina. "I think that it depends on who gave such evidence to the investigator, and so our conscience is clear. I was prompted to come to the trial by love for the brothers [what the fellow believers call one another—Kav. Uzel note]. We are for unity; we support one another with our presence. If I were the defendant, then I could count on the support of fellow believers," she explained.


"With each session it is clearer that any one of us could wind up in the dock. It is evident that the defendants have nothing to do with extremism; that's obvious," the observer Vladimir told the Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


The Jehovah's Witness Tsolak came to the trial for the third time. "I come in order that our fellow believers have support," he told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent. The man also stated that he is not afraid of a summons for interrogation. "It's possible, but not scary. God supports us and we place our hope in him," he emphasized.


The fellow believers shared that they feel a oneness with the defendants. "Like close relatives, we experience one and the same feeling. We are joined by spiritual bonds. What the defendants go through, we also go through, only by proxy. It is hard to imagine that we may be summoned. Everything is possible, what have you," a believer named Mikhail said to a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


A believer named Irina agreed with him. "We have come to support so that our friends will know that they are not alone. This should be evidence for those who work here that we are not frightened and that we are one family. We have heard that it happened in other cities that believers who come to a trial are summoned for interrogation.  [see related article]  But why be afraid of what hasn't happened? And I also want to say that it is possible to shut down an organization, but not to forbid belief in God. After the revolution the church was threatened, but our grandmothers continued to believe and they read the Bible and baptized their children and grandchildren in secret," Irina told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


The defense opposed questioning a secret witness


The state prosecutor Anna Miagkova addressed the audience and trial participants with the words "my friends" and invited them to proceed to the courtroom on the first floor. The first to enter the room were the defendants. They appeared concentrated and several were ready with paper and pen in order to make notes. Then the audience entered. The room was packed; only 17 observers were present.


Igor Egozarian's 81-year-old mother tried to attend the session, but the believers themselves explained to her that she could not attend since she is a witness in the case. One of the audience asked the others whether there were in the corridor some who were first to arrive and when it was discovered that there were such, she gave her place to a girl who arrived first and she herself went out into the corridor. The court session began after the state prosecutor asked the audience whether it was too hot or too cold for them in the room.


The state prosecutor announced that witnesses Gul and Belikova were not at the court today and she filed a motion for questioning a secret witness. The witness himself was in a room near the courtroom, behind a screen.


The defense objected to the secrecy of witnesses. Attorney Alexander Obukhov declared that by law witnesses may be kept secret in the event that there is information about threats to the witness or to his relatives of murder, use of force, or destruction or damage of property. He also pointed out that the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses advocates pacifism and does not use force. The lawyer noted that without knowing the identity of the witness it is impossible to conduct the defense of his clients.


Other defense lawyers also expressed objection. "The participation of witnesses in a criminal case under a pseudonym is provided for by the national legislation of many countries, but in Russian practice often witnesses are kept secret not for reasons of safety but with a goal of giving false evidence and avoiding criminal liability," the lawyer Olga Zinchenko said.


However the state prosecutor declared that the secret witness will be questioned under the pseudonym Klintsov. Klintsov himself reported that despite the fears for his safety, he went to the investigator to give evidence, since he considered this to be his civic duty. At the same time he noted that the investigator "found him by himself." "Several members of the congregation were in psychiatric hospitals and I do not know what to expect from them," Klintsov explained the reason for his secrecy.


Jehovah's Witnesses reacted to Klintsov's testimony with irony


The questioning of Klintsov lasted almost four hours. After the start of the questioning, trial participants and the audience complained about the poor acoustics and the unintelligibility of the witness' speech, and a recess was declared for checking the equipment. During the recess, the audience was upset that Klintsov was secret. "They did nothing that was forbidden;" the phrase was sounded among the support group, a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent attending the session reported.


Despite the repair of the equipment, throughout the whole trial the speech of secret witness Klintsov was heard poorly. Because of this the sides in the trial re-questioned him several times. Several questions Klintsov answered after a lengthy pause. Because of this the state prosecutor asked him how he was feeling. In the course of Klintsov's responses, defendants Valery Rogosin and Sergei Melnik made notes on paper.


Klintsov described how the defendants were elders and after the ban they met in small groups, acting conspiratorially, using video connections, and leading meetings. According to Klintsov, they buried forbidden literature. Klintsov said that he himself was not a Jehovah's Witness, but he attended their meetings before and after the ban of the organization. "I was neither a baptized nor an unbaptized evangelist; I simply watched from the sideline. I began wondering when I 'fell for' their propaganda," the witness said.


When they began arresting


When they began arresting elders, then Klintsov realized that the organization was forbidden. "The actions of the defendants were directed from above," he explained, and he added that the so-called "regional supervisor" told the elders what they should do. Ridicule of these words was heard in the courtroom and "What nonsense" was whispered. The judge noted the emotional conduct of the audience in the first row.


Klintsov tried to refuse to answer some questions. The judge warned him that he could not answer questions if that could endanger his safety.


The secret witness noted that he attended at least three meetings in a private home in the village of Erzovka. "An ordinary brick house with a roof," Klintsov described the meeting place, which evoked laughter in the courtroom. "Yes there is one there," came the response in the courtroom. The witness recalled also that there was a large fence around the house and a rusty gate, and the house itself was on Victory Street. Klintsov declared that he did not recall the layout in the house. "We did not go into the rooms. They came, sat down, and remained. An ordinary wardrobe, sofa, and television," he described the situation and noted that all the elders were engaged in collecting donations.


"Can you explain why you take so long to answer the questions?" attorney Obukhov asked Klintsov about the reason for long pauses. "I am sketching in my head," the secret witness replied.


To questions by lawyer Roman Levin whether Jehovah's Witnesses called for the overthrow of the government and for participation in mass disorders and for acquiring weapons for armed confrontation with the existing government, Klintsov responded negatively. To the question of what they called for, he answered that they read forbidden literature—the magazines Watchtower and Awake. Levin noted that according to the Criminal Procedure Code, the witness is required to report the source of his information, but he is not doing this.


Klintsov also maintained that believers "spoke against the coat of arms and the Russian flag and called for not observing state holidays—23 February, New Years, 9 May." But at the same time they oppose bearing arms and expressed dissatisfaction with the government. "They had nothing against the government, but they did not bow to it," Klintsov said "And were they supposed to bow?" lawyer Zinchenko asked. "Believers were supposed to respect and observe the laws," Klintsov responded. He explained that the disrespect of Jehovah's Witnesses for the government is expressed in the way they "choose for themselves a single sovereign, Jehovah God." "Each religion has a God. Do you wish to say that all believers do not respect the laws?" the lawyer asked.


In posing questions for the witness, defendant Valery Rogozin called him by the name Anatoly. However Klintsov stated that he is not Anatoly.


In replying to the judge's questions where he learned the concept "baptized" and "evangelist," the witness explained that it was from the publications. He also told the judge that the fact that the defendants are elders he heard from them themselves, and also from the "sisters." He said that at meetings they talked about receiving instructions. He also noted that he himself saw how they conducted collection of money in envelopes.


The court extended for Denis Peresunko the means of restriction in the form of a prohibition of certain actions for four months. This was requested by both the defendant himself and the state prosecutor.


The defense pointed out the lack of evidence for the charge of extremism


The lawyers declared that they did not see in the testimony of the witness any evidence that the defendants were guilty of extremism. "I posed questions for the witness listing those actions that might be regarded as extremist activity and as participation in an extremist organization. But the witness denies such activity," Osipov's lawyer Roman Levin told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"The secret witness gave the court some testimony and he did not say that he does not recall, but he said that he supposes. Then his evidence that he gave the investigator is produced. It is obvious that he did not write it, since one can hear the difference in the wording of the sentences that were recorded in the affidavit of the interrogation and those that he gave here. We request that the witness be declassified so that it will be possible to understand whether this man really is the one who attended the meetings and participated in them and really knows something about the organization and its activity, or simply about the people," Rogozin's lawyer Irina Sulatskova told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"Today an abuse of the procedure of assuring the safety for witnesses is occurring. There is no basis here for adopting these measures, and the witness confirmed that he never received any threats. He said that he does not know 'what tomorrow will bring.' But there is no basis in the Criminal Procedure Code. It turns out to be a rather tricky situation: the witness may not answer some question, claiming that he fears identification. And we cannot confirm this information. In this regard we are not equal participants with the prosecution, although by law we are equal," Igor Egozarian's lawyer Aleksander Obukhov told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


The next session of the trial is scheduled for 14.00 on 24 March. Added by Kavkazskii Uzel on 14 Maarch: The next session of the court is scheduled for 25 March. At it questioning of prosecution witnesses will continue. Whether questioning of yet another secret witness will occur will depend on whether this special courtroom can be arranged, the state prosecutor told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent. (tr. by PDS, posted 19 March 2020)

Related article:
Jehovah's Witnesses in south Russia face delays of trial while in custody,
February 26, 2020

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