Civil rights committee takes stand for Jehovah's Witnesses

DOCUMENT: "They are not extremists!" Statement by the Yakunin Committee in defense of persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses

Credo.Press, 8 November 2021


Jehovah's Witnesses are distinguished by their amazing steadfastness in the face of persecutions. There are almost no instances of renunciation of the faith among them. And they are persecuted in states with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Treatment of this confession is the litmus test of democracy.


On 20 April 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation liquidated the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and 395 local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses, ruling them to be extremist organizations. The basis for the liquidation was the distribution of religious literature that had been entered into the list of extremist materials. Before that, over the course of several years, dozens of magazines and books, including one translation of the Bible, were declared, one by one, to be extremist by various district courts, principally in the hinterland on the basis of unfair and biased forensic expert analyses. Almost all judicial sessions were conducted in the absence of representatives of the religious organization itself and even without notification of the congregations. Practically all expert analyses boiled down to the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses consider their teaching to be the only true one and all the others to be false. Thus, in the opinion of the courts, the Jehovah's Witnesses maintain the superiority of their religious teaching over the others, which was deemed to be a manifestation of religious extremism. The believers tried not to use forbidden editions, although there was not any extremism in them. But evidence was falsified and the believers identified numerous cases of the planting of forbidden literature in their meeting halls.


The Supreme Court's decision of 20 April 2017 did not contain a prohibition of either the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses itself or of religious groups of Jehovah's Witnesses that did not have the status of legal entity, of which there were about 2,500. The total number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is more than 170,000 persons. They have not been deprived of, nor can they be deprived of the constitutional right of professing their faith both individually and in community with others (article 28 of the constitution of the R.F.).


Therefore, despite persecution, congregations are continuing their activity. And, what is especially important, they do not thereby violate the decision of the Supreme Court. Why are they being subjected to persecution?


Law enforcement agencies proceed from a mistaken understanding of the Supreme Court's decision of 20 April 2017. They interpret the ban of the organization as a ban on community profession of their religion by believers. Jehovah's Witnesses are imprisoned for the fact that they participate together in religious meetings, by which supposedly they are continuing the activity of religious organizations that were ruled in 2017 to be extremist and forbidden.


As a result, since April 2017, more than 170,000 law-abiding citizens of the Russian Federation have found themselves outside the law, risking being accused of extremist activity. According to data as of 7 November 2021, 1,600 searches have been conducted in homes of Jehovah's Witnesses; criminal cases on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (arranging the activity of an extremist organization) have been opened against 570 persons; 49 persons have received real prison sentences; 87 received suspended sentences; and 15 believers have been fined. And these numbers are growing practically every day.


Recently, especially harsh sentences were issued. On 25 October 2021, the Trusov district court of Astrakhan sentenced Rustam Diarov, Sergei Klikunov, and Evgeny Ivanov to 8 years, and Evgeny's wife, Olga, to 3.5 years in a penal colony.


"Eight years! In Russia a criminal may receive even less time for murder or rape. Innocent conversations about the Bible are equated with horrible crimes," commented on the situation Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. Prior to that only one believer, Aleksei Berchuk, had been sentenced to 8 years incarceration for his faith. If one speaks about sentences for women, then the recent verdict against Olga Ivanova was a record. Before it, only 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya had been imprisoned for two years on that article; she barely survived these events.


The specifics of the religious teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses demand of them the observation of neutrality and rules out believers' participation both in the system of state administration and in social protests. They do not participate in political life (they do not vote in elections, they do not join political parties, they do not take part in strikes, rallies, or demonstrations). In no country of the world do they sing the state anthem, they do not salute the state flag, they do not observe state holidays, and they do not serve in the army.


At the same time, Jehovah's Witnesses respect governmental authority, they submit to the laws of their country, and they conscientiously pay taxes, as the Bible prescribes (Paul's epistle to the Romans, 13:1-7). Instead of military service they perform alternative civil service, working primarily as orderlies in hospitals.


But when authorities demand that they renounce their faith, cease preaching, or violate biblical commandments, Jehovah's Witnesses are guided by the principle established in the Bible: "One must obey God rather than man" (Acts of the Apostles 5:29).


At the present time the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses is forbidden or substantially restricted in 33 countries (including China, Russia, Vietnam, North Korea, and several Muslim countries), where their total number exceeds 220,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who are continuing their aggressive preaching activity.


The rights of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia must be fully restored.


The Russian Supreme Court made a first step in that direction. By a directive of 28 October 2021, No. 32, the plenum of the Russian Supreme Court introduced substantial changes in its directive of 28 June 2011, No. 11, "On judicial practice in cases of crimes of an extremist nature."


The most important clarification contained in the revised directive pertains to the establishment of responsibility for continuation of the activity of forbidden extremist religious organizations. The Supreme Court indicates that the ruling of a religious organization to be extremist does not prohibit its adherents to exercise their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession, including by means of individual or community profession of religion and the performance of divine worship or other religious rituals and ceremonies.


As the plenum's clarification states, "in proceedings on a criminal case concerning the crime specified by article 282.2 of the CC RF, courts should establish which specific socially harmful actions are committed by a guilty person and their significance for the continuation or revival of the activity of an organization, with respect to which a court has adopted a decision, which has taken legal effect, for the liquidation or prohibition of the activity because of the commission of extremism and also [establish] the motives for the conduct of said activities. In the event of a ruling that a religious association is an extremist organization and is liquidated or its activity is banned, actions by persons not connected to the continuation or revival of the activity of this extremist organization and constituting exclusively the exercise of their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession, including by means of individual or group profession of religion or conduct of divine worship or other religious rituals and ceremonies, do not in and of themselves [i.e. those actions—tr.note] constitute the crime specified by part 2 of article 282.2 of CC RF."


The directive of the plenum of the Russian Supreme Court should be implemented in judicial practice. The state should recognize its mistake and law enforcement agencies and courts should cease the repression against Jehovah's Witnesses.


The state should issue an apology to believers, as was done by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, when the head of state, "guided by a feeling of repentance," condemned "years-long terror carried out by the bolshevik party and soviet regime with respect to clergy and believers of all confessions" (Ukase of the president of the R.F. of 14 March 1996, "On measures for rehabilitation of clergy and believers who became victims of baseless repressions").


The truth of faith and the correctness of the translation and interpretation of the Bible, as well as the rootedness of a confession in national tradition—all of this should not be of interest to the state, which should observe neutrality in matters of religion.


For the return of state policy with respect to Jehovah's Witnesses in the legal realm, it is necessary:


--to cease all criminal cases and to release and rehabilitate Jehovah's Witnesses who have been convicted for their faith, after compensating them for damages suffered;


--to resume registration of religious congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian Federation;


--to register the centralized religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses;


--to return the property of Jehovah's Witnesses that has been converted to the ownership of the Russian Federation in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court of 20 April 2017.


In order to avoid unjust bans and criminal repression against innocent people, the legislature should clarify the current unrestricted definition of extremism in the federal law "On combating extremist activity." At present, extremism is understood to comprise both terrorist acts and theological disagreements; that is, both a pogrom with violence and murders and a magazine article about how after death the believers of one religion will be saved and those of another will perish. The definition of extremism in the law should be formulated in such a way that it would comprise only actions that represent a real public danger—violence, propaganda of violence, and calls to violence.


Article 29 of the constitution forbids propaganda of religious superiority. But after all, the overwhelming majority of religious organizations consider that only their teaching is absolutely true and all others are false. If this is sufficient for declaring any "false" religion to be extremist and to ban it, that means that it is necessary to rescind the unjust law, correct mistakes, and change approaches. Any limitation of rights permitted by the constitution is conditioned by the principle of nondiscrimination (article 19 of the constitution) and the rule of "economy of repression;" the limitation of rights is permitted only to the extent that it is necessary and not as much as possible (article 55 of the constitution). The European Convention on Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms specifies: to the extent necessary in democratic society. Under such conditions, the prohibition of the propaganda of religious superiority will aim for the protection from its most dangerous form—state propaganda, intended for the greater expansion of rights for adherents of one religion and discrimination against the others.


From the Yakunin Committee:

Lev Ponomarev, rights activist

Valery Borshchev, rights activist

Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, clergyman

Elena Volkova, culturologist

Sergei Ivanenko, religious studies scholar

Lev Levinson, rights activist

Alexander Soldatov, journalist, religious studies scholar

Dmitry Dubrovsky, sociologist

Elena Sannikova, rights activist

Maria Riabikova, journalist, religious studies scholar


The Statement is open for signature.

(tr. by PDS, posted 8 November 2021)

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