Campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russian north


Authorities, church, and FSB against "incorrect" religions

by Anton Chivchalov, Arkhangelsk

Religiia i Pravo, 9 March 2016


It is accepted to think that the state protects its citizens. It is for this that law enforcement agencies exist. But sometimes the opposite happens: representatives of government attack citizens, taking advantage of their defenselessness before the governmental machine, and additionally depriving them of all means for judicial defense, when both judicial and supervisory agencies, and the laws themselves, simply cease to work. The story that is working out in Arkhangelsk is one of many examples, but it eloquently shows the depth of those practices that today some officials are not averse to.


It began on 3 April 2015, when some personnel of the FSB arrived at the house of worship of the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, which is officially registered with the justice ministry and wasn't violating any law. Having displayed the warrant for a search, signed by FSB General Major V.F. Tataurov, they immediately, in front of the astonished believers and on videotape, carried out (according to the words of the believers themselves) a plant of "extremist" literature into a book shelf. At the same time, even the [state's] witnesses tried to do everything possible in order to conceal the moment of the plant from the believers. While the telephones of the director of the local religious organization, Alexander Parygin, and his wife were blocked so that they were not able to telephone anybody and nobody could telephone them.


We enclosed "extremist" in quotation marks because the whole of the "extremism" of Jehovah's Witnesses is seen by the authorities only in the fact that they consider their religion to be correct, as if there exists a religion that considers itself incorrect. And notice how clever is the tactic used in this: first some literature is declared to be "extremist" because it calls a certain religion correct, and then this literature is planted on the believers in order to incriminate them for possession, and then their religious confession is delegalized, turning them de facto into criminals. This has already happened in Taganrog, where by court decision people were denied to right to believe in God in accordance with their conscience and convictions.


In the Arkhangelsk house of worship unexpectedly, right in the shelf with literature, 11 brochures were "found" that had been entered into the federal list of extremist materials, although the believers had diligently seen to it that such literature was not inside the building. On the videotape is seen how one of the officers goes up to the shelf, takes something out of his pocket, and then quickly takes from the shelf a packet of literature, and without even inspecting it says to the [state's] witnesses: "Attention, look." When the judge later asks this officer what he was doing at the shelf with the literature and why he rummaged in his pockets, he answers innocently: "I was checking whether there was a certification on site."


Several months later, on 16 December, another plant was carried out, this time in the automobile of Alexander Parygin. Law enforcement agents again resorted to an authorized search which was conducted for only one purpose: "to find" literature that they themselves had planted. While his rights were grossly violated: he was prevented from calling a lawyer and his wife, his telephone was monitored and confiscated and so he was deprived of personal things, including computers.


During the choreographed search in Parygin's automobile, suddenly in a prominent place a package of 31 brochures was "found", which the Jehovah's Witnesses had ceased to use long ago, along with inscriptions which they have never used. For example, "Hand out before 15 January 2016" was written on the package. Later a believer who had been fined 1500 rubles tried unsuccessfully to prove in court that such inscriptions do not appear on Witnesses' literature and the word "hand out" is not in their lexicon, on principle. The director of this drama did not even try to portray something similar to what the Witnesses have. The judge was not interested in this. Just as he was not interested in the contents of the package, which were not even disclosed in the course of the hearings. Paradoxically, neither the prosecutor during the composition of the report about an administrative violation of law nor the judge during the issuance of the guilty verdict examined the literature for which Parygin was fined and placed on trial.


But the attack on Jehovah's Witnesses in Arkhangelsk does not go only along the FSB line. Simultaneously with the planted literature, the directorate of the Ministry of Justice for Arkhangelsk province decided to fine the local religious organization for formal violations in its charter, despite the fact that this very same agency had earlier confirmed said charter and did not find any violations in it. However in the summer of last year, officials suddenly decided that the charter contained incorrectly formulated goals and tasks, and even not so much formulated as executed. This charge was not based on a single rule of the law, but the believers did not succeed in protesting the absurd fine. Nobody in Arkhangelsk has any doubts that this is just another phase in the cycle of attempts to falsify an accusation against Jehovah's Witnesses and thereby to liquidate their local religious organization, for which the most devious means are employed.


And the legislative branch is not far behind. In December 2015 the Arkhangelsk provincial assembly finally adopted the so-called law on missionary activity, which provides that citizens must receive special permission simply in order to converse about their faith (everybody understands quite well to whom such permission is given and to whom it isn't). In February of this year, Arkhangelsk deputies even suggested to the State Duma the introduction of corresponding amendments into the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations," in order to inscribe in it the concepts of "missionary" and "missionary activity." The attempt was also made to remove article 28 of the constitution of the Russian federation, according to which every citizen has the right "freely to choose, have, and disseminate religious and other convictions."


The very fact that the authorities have to resort to plants and various bureaucratic tricks speaks directly about the fact that there are no other evidences of violations of the law by Jehovah's Witnesses for which it would be possible to catch them out. After all, what is the point of planting literature if they had real violations? In the absence of real violations it is necessary to invent imaginary ones. If there is no substance of a crime, we create it by inventing "extremism" where nobody in the world sees it. If there is no evidence, we plant it; it is good that it is not complicated and the techniques have been known a long time. Thus peaceful, law-abiding citizens are turned into criminals only because they believe in God "incorrectly."


Local authorities have honed such techniques to perfection; they have already used them "successfully" in Belgorod, Samara, Tiumen, and other cities. In some cases believers have managed to thwart such attempts, for example, in Sevastopol and Balakovo, but this does not always work out. In a number of cases plants also were caught on video which is clearer than in Arkhangelsk, but this does not at all interest the courts. Paradoxically, believers have to install video cameras for protection not from criminals but from those who are supposed to protect them from those criminals.


The algorithm of action by the authorities is very simple: after a plant, a warning from the prosecutor's office is sufficient, and then the local religious organization may be liquidated by a quick court decision. In Arkhangelsk such a warning was issued on 11 June 2015. It was appealed twice (in district and provincial courts) and there were twice no results. Judges were not willing even to listen to the Jehovah's Witnesses, although in both instances the plants were quite evident to all participants in the proceedings. It is noteworthy that such brochures (the very same?) that were found on Parygin had been confiscated somewhat earlier from another local Jehovah's Witness. However, unlike Parygin, he was not a member of the local religious organization so that technically the act of possession of the literature could not be used against the organization.


The authorities actively use provocateurs and other agents who infiltrate congregations of believers and try to provoke them to various violations or they simply observe. Thus in Arkhangelsk at least one person who attended worship services of Jehovah's Witnesses back in 2014 directly admitted that the FSB asked him to plant literature for them, but he refused. Yet another person explicitly provoked Witnesses into giving him "extremist" publications. Then he suddenly showed up in court as a witness for the FSB. In another case a search was conducted by a police officer who previously had himself actively fellowshipped with Jehovah's Witnesses and studied the Bible with them.


Despite flagrant violations during searches, Arkhangelsk Jehovah's Witnesses were not able even to simply file a complaint against these violations. Both the district and provincial courts simply rejected the claims, justifying this (just imagine) by reference to the impossibility of interfering in the "internal affairs of the FSB." Thus it is considered that the FSB is an immune organization from which it is impossible to defend one's self and whose actions it is impossible to appeal against. 


When courts nevertheless investigate actions of the FSB, the most amazing things happen: a judge who is ready to listen to Jehovah's Witnesses may be replaced by one who is extremely irritated by their very existence; or a judge who at the first session was willing to honestly examine the situation suddenly changes his demeanor by the next session and has become irritated and wants to end the cases as quickly as possible, again with the right verdict; a court refuses to conduct any expert analyses for which the plaintiffs (Jehovah's Witnesses) have every right; a judge leaves [the bench] for a conference and does not actually confer but immediately announces a verdict. All of this believers in Arkhangelsk have observed many times, seeing how the entire judicial machine is transformed into a fiction when somewhere up above the right button is pushed.


Back in 2011 the plenipotentiary for human rights in the Russian federation, Vladimir Lukin, sent a letter to the then Minister for Regional Policy of the Arkhangelsk province, Alexander Beliaev. In the letter the ombudsman called attention to the following:


"Religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses are recognized by law and they are legally active Russian religious organizations and their adherents are citizens of the Russian federation whose rights cannot be arbitrarily restricted because of their worldview choice and membership in one or another church."


The letter called attention to violations that authorities of Arkhangelsk province had committed with regard to Jehovah's Witnesses, trying to remove various obstacles for them, and it called for removing them. Five years have passed, but the situation has only worsened. Unfortunately, Minister Beliaev passed away in 2012. New authorities of the region have already not simply "arbitrarily restricted" the rights of citizens on the basis of religious identity but have moved into an aggressive illegal attack upon them.


Understanding what is happening in Arkhangelsk today is aided by statements of the acting governor, Igor Orlov. In his interview with the official website of the Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory diocese he stated explicitly that he intends "to delegalize" Jehovah's Witnesses in the province. He said, among other things: "A person may worship Perun or whomever, but he must not cause harm to people around him and force them to commit illegal acts."


Just what illegal acts the Arkhangelsk Witnesses are committing the governor decided not to specify. He cannot but know that Witnesses have never killed anybody and they do not rob them, and that in the prosecutor's offices of the city and province there has not been a single case opened against them for violations of law nor a single lawsuit, not a single victim—nothing, nil. But the governor again and again describes the mythical violations of the Witnesses without providing a single instance.


Whether the governor knows of any secret, especially puzzling, crimes of Jehovah's Witnesses about which the police and the prosecutor do not know, but he is silent about them, is difficult to judge. However his friendship with the new Metropolitan of Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory Daniel of the RPTs is generally known. Neither one is hesitant about this, saying openly in the press that the state should help the church in its struggle with competitors, thereby violating all the secular foundations of the governmental system. In the aforesaid interview the governor said that the state should not combat the Jehovah's Witnesses alone but "together with the church."  This cooperation was manifested in the way Metropolitan Daniil participated extremely actively in judicial proceedings. He sent to them whole delegations of 20 to 25 parishioners who were properly instructed.


People who know Governor Orlov well (such as his former colleagues in the Zvezdochka factory in Severodvinsk) confirm that the metropolitan has great influence on him. So great that the governor came to believe sincerely that problems of the province cannot be overcome without a spiritual revival, and a spiritual revival requires the achievement of two goals: 1) the above mentioned liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses by means of turning them into second class citizens; 2) construction at state expense of a gigantic cathedral of Archangel Michael, God's Commander. Orlov's words about how the cathedral "signifies the revival of the North" are posted on the official website of the cathedral that is under construction.


Everything falls into place when you understand what the current provincial government sees as the priorities of its activity, which is fused with the power of the church to the extent of indistinctness. The revival of the North in Arkhangelsk is mysteriously going hand in hand with the infringement of the constitutional rights of citizens on the basis of religious identity and offense to their religious sentiments (which is now forbidden by law, but who is interested in that?). Of course, the hunt for a handful of believers is both simpler and cheaper than solving the real problems of the region, economic ones in the first place. Commander Archangel Michael definitely would not approve those despicable tactics that are being used for this.


Here is another telling quotation from Mr. Orlov's interview: "Only within the framework of the law can it be shown that one or another community does not comport with the interests of society and the state. This process always is difficult, but the work goes on." Plants of forbidden literature, wire-tapping and blocking telephones, confiscation of personal items without returning them, rejection of complaints against illegal action of the FSB, refusal to conduct expert analyses, and many other similar things are all, it should be suggested, completely "within the framework of the law." Of that law which is aimed at protecting the interests of citizens but which in Arkhangelsk is used for their especially cynical abuse.


Apparently this is also just the way the laws are understood by the Arkhangelsk diocese of the RPTs, which should bring to society Christian values, justice, and mercy. At the end of 2014, Metropolitan Daniil urged residents of Arkhangelsk "to create good deeds, to speak good words, and to refrain from sinful acts." Not a half year had passed when a campaign was begun of fabrication of criminal evidence against law-abiding citizens, with the approval (judging by the many statements of the diocese) of the metropolitan. It should be kept in mind that such attempts to delegalize several congregations arose not only with respect to Jehovah's Witnesses, but also with respect to protestant churches that the authorities and RPTs consider "nontraditional" and "unreliable."


In this regard, the governor's phrase "the work goes on" sounds especially ominous. One would like to believe that he is not talking about the continuation of the work of fabrication of accusations against citizens of Arkhangelsk province in conjunction with police and judicial misconduct. (tr. by PDS, posted 14 March 2016)

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