Jehovah's Witnesses frustrated in Rostov courts


Kavkazskii Uzel, 29 March 2021


An appeals court in Rostov-on-Don refused to acquit the Jehovah's Witness Semen Baibak, who was sentenced to a suspended prison term on a charge of extremism. The arguments of the convict to the effect that meetings of believers and financial transfers to relatives were unreasonably deemed to be extremism were ignored by the court and Baibak decided to appeal its decision.


As Kavkazshii Uzel has written, Semen Baibak was arrested in June 2019. On 21 December 2020, a court sentenced him to a suspended sentence of 3.5 years of incarceration, having ruled that he was a member of an extremist organization (part 2 of article 282.2 of the CC RF) and that he financed its activity (part 1 of article 282.3 of the CC RF). Baibak did not admit guilt, declaring that he was being subjected to prosecution for exercising his constitutional right to religious confession and he decided to appeal the sentence.


Semen Baibak is one of 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in Rostov oblast against whom criminal cases were opened on the basis of a judicial decision in a lawsuit of the Ministry of Justice for the liquidation of all structural subdivisions of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia." Rostov oblast leads among regions of the south of Russia in number of criminally prosecuted believers, according to the article from Kavkazskii Uzel "Jehovah's Witnesses—extremists or victims of lawlessness?"


The panel of judges of the Rostov oblast court today concluded a review of the appeal of 23-year-old Semen Baibak and his attorney, which began on 1 March, and it left the sentence without change, a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent who was present at the sessions related.


Speaking before the judges, Baibak emphasized that he "did not have any reason to commit such a crime." "Nevertheless often in the ruling of a court extending for me the measure of restriction and in many documents of the investigator there was the allegation which claimed that I, 'realizing that by his actions he was undermining the foundations of the constitutional structure and the security of the state, foreseeing the onset of socially dangerous consequences and wishing for their occurrence, deliberately performed the activities.' However these claims were not proven in any way and they were not even considerd in the trial. I did not have any reasons for committing such actions and, naturally, I did not wish for any consequences. In addition, such actions, which were classified as criminal deeds, did not contain in themselves any evidence of extremism. There was neither the violent changing of the borders of our country nor violation of the rights of other people. There even were no victims in the case and there never could be because I am merely a believing person," Semen Baibak said.


Baibak also recalled that a witness for the prosecution—a native of Egypt and director of a Rostov language school, Davud Avad Allah Abdel Mallek Yussef—gave testimony in court that differed from the evidence in the preliminary investigation.


On 2 September 2020, Davud Avad Allah Mallek Yussef affirmed to the court that several years ago Semen Baibak was a teacher of the Chinese language in his school and they talked "two or three times." The witness characterized Semen Baibak as "a normal person," who did not advocate the overthrow of the government. The school director  reported that the investigator gave him a disk with a video and audio of a person. He said that he recognized Baibak in one of the videos and that on one of the audios he said the "voice was similar," although he could not confirm that it was the voice of the defendant, since he had talked with him little and "he listens to 30 to 50 persons a day."


"The essence of his questioning was to the effect that he perused the video recording and told the investigator whether or not he heard my voice, since according to the verdict he supposedly knew him well. However he came to the trial with a translator and explained that he speaks Russian badly and we had conversed briefly 2 or 3 years ago and only 3 or 4 times, and he did not remember my voice, which he told the investigator. We discovered how the questioning went with the investigator: the investigator instructed him to look at a different video tape, which apparently had been made on the day of my arrest when there was an interrogation in front of a video camera, where he was able to see my face and identify me for him. After that the investigator suggested to compare the voice on the video recording with the voice that he heard on the compact disks. . . . He was asked whether he could determine the places in the video files that were the precise moments he heard my voice. The translator responded that the investigator himself opened the video files and said 'here you will hear Semen's voice,' and this was not even a leading question but simply a specific assertion! The verdict did not state the fact that the witness gave a different testimony," Semen Baibak told the judges.


According to the verdict, the testimony of this witness led into the incident of the financing of extremist activity, Baibak added. "He was my employer and he had nothing to do with the Jehovah's Witnesses. He could not know what kind of expenses I had or where I sent money and where I didn't. But nevertheless the verdict said that there wasn't a single question posed on this matter. His testimony cannot be used as evidence about whomever I was financing," Semen Baibak explained.


The convict considers charges of the investigation unfounded


In court Baibak also was upset that the video recordings of the meetings of believers presented by the investigators were called "criminal." "The response of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly shows that regardless of the fact that the religious organization of the 'Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia' was liquidated (for whatever reasons is not important), adherents of this religion have the right to conduct it independently, including as part of religious groups that do not require registration. Even without raising the question whether I attended them, I had the right to attend them, and this cannot be a criminal activity inasmuch as the provision of article 28 of the constitution (on freedom of conscience and religious confession—K.U. note) has not been rescinded by anybody. Despite the fact that the legal entities do not exist, and I am not a member of any legal entity, and I also may profess my religion in a legal manner, which I have done throughout practically all my life," Baibak said.


He called "comical" the list of material exhibits, among which there is in particular "a sheet with the image of a mountain and the printed text: 'Fear not because I am your God.'" "Just how the quotation from the Bible proves my guilt is beyond my understanding," the convict said.


"Also as evidence of my guilt are excerpts from Sberbank [savings bank], confirming that I have a bank card, which is not blocked, showing payments to my relatives and neighbors. All these payments—300 and 550 rubles—were characterized as 'aiming at reviving the activity of an extremist community,' but there is no proof and confirmation anywhere of where this money really was going and this matter was not examined at all. And, again, the court did not see any contradiction in this. All that I ask is that my thoughts be objectively considered," Baibak urged the judges.


The lawyer Elena Diakonova supported Baibak's arguments. "I ask that you take into consideration that the materials of Baibak's criminal case do not contain a single proof that could confirm that he is guilty of the charge presented. Due to the fact that we have, in the first place, the fundamental law of the country, the constitution, which proclaims the freedom of religious confession and he is exercising his right and that is not the commission of a crime. There is no proof that he is guilty of financing and participation in an organization that has been prohibited by the Supreme Court. I ask that the verdict be overturned and my client be acquitted," she said.


The representative of the prosecutor's office, in turn, asked that Baibak's appeal not be granted. "I submit that during the judicial proceedings in the court of the first instance, all the circumstances connected with Baibak's commission of the crimes with which he is charged were investigated in detail. . . . I consider that Baibak's actions have been properly considered and the verdict was based on the totality of the evidence examined and the court gave an appropriate assessment and they were found to be sufficient and fully confirmed Baibak's guilt. The verdict of the Lenin district court was legal and reasonable," the representative of the prosecution said, asking that the verdict be left without change.


Believers expressed support for Baibak


Semen Baibak told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent that he intends to appeal the verdict "I have read up on the practice of the European Court of Human Rights and I noted that in the reasoning portion it is required that the person who is filing an appeal has exhausted all possibilities of protection within his own state. This is also my definite goal—to exhaust all the possibilities of protection: an appellate complaint and then a cassation appeal. I will try to get somebody in the end to recognize me innocent, since my name is being besmirched," the convict said.


Because of the blocked bank card, it is difficult for Baibak to get employment, his stepfather, Ilia Korytko, said. "In comparison with house arrest, it definitely gets easier; it is possible that Semen will get work. It's just a question of where, because with the blocked accounts it is not particularly easy to work it out officially. It turns out that it is necessary to be self-employed, to look for yourself. Because, for example, they will not officially employ him in a school, since the salary must be paid through a bank card. But still the prison term is suspended and it is not real time. Semen is at liberty," he told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


Today four believers came to the court to support Baibak. "We know that Semen is devoted to God. He is a good person. He hasn't violated anything. We think that it [the court's decision] is unjust. We are trying to support him in his decision to remain true to his own high principles," one of them, Oksana, told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


"I came to support Semen, because he is my friend. On the whole, although we do not expect special changes from these trials, still by being in them not only do we show support for those who are undergoing trials, but also in some measure we show that we really are not criminals since a criminal is afraid to show up where there is authority," Ruslan Alyev told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent; he also was convicted earlier on the same article as Baibak.


We recall that the decision in Baibak's case is the third appeal of verdicts against Rostov Jehovah's Witnesses since the beginning of the year. Thus, Ruslan Alyev on 17 December 2020 was given a suspended 2.5-years prison sentence on a charge of participating in an extremist organization and he also appealed the verdict, but on 1 March it was left without change. On 26 January a court in Rostov-on-Don found the Jehovah's Witness Galina Parkova to be a member of an extremist organization and sentenced her to a suspended two-years-three-months prison term. The believer refused to admit herself to be guilty. On 22 March, the Rostov oblast court left the decision in Galina Parkova's case without change. (tr. by PDS, posted 1 April 2021).

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