Protestant attorney speaks up for Jehovah's Witnesses


by Vladimir Riakhovsky

Religiia i Pravo, 21 March 2017


Back in 2009 Russian authorities began a wide-spread persecution of congregations of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Since then, 15 congregations have been liquidated and ruled to be "extremist" and Jehovah's Witnesses' magazines and brochures have been ruled to be "extremist" on completely absurd bases, and people have acted as experts who do not have the appropriate academic level. Along with numerous accusations, believers have been accused of quoting Leo Tolstoy, where he presented his understanding of the "evangelical faith." In 2016, in Vyborg, an attempt was made to prevent the import of Bibles in the Jehovah's Witnesses' translation. It would seem that it is not possible to become more absurd, but the absurd has been turned into tragedy.


On 15 March 2017 the Ministry of Justice of the RF sent to the Supreme Court of the RF a lawsuit for the liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and a ban on the activity of the religious organization for extremism. The Jehovah's Witnesses said that they expected this a year ago. That was when the Administrative Center, which is located outside St. Petersburg in the village of Solnechnoe, received a warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity. It was issued by the office of the prosecutor general on 2 March 2016 (over the signature of deputy prosecutor V.Ya. Grin), and then after a year there continued a careful monitoring of the documentation of the organization (completed on 27 February 2017). On 16 January 2017 the city court of Moscow recognized the warning of the prosecutor general's office to be legal. The Russian prosecutor general's office maintained that "the structural subdivisions of the organization engaged, as before, in extremist activity," that is, it was already completely clear that it was necessary to prove the "criminality" of the Jehovah's Witnesses.


It should be noted that the problem of the absence of evidence has not prevented law enforcement agencies and courts from making decisions with regard to the prohibition of whole religious congregations. A rather primitive scheme was used for prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, which was effective only with regard to legally existing and law abiding organizations. The Jehovah's Witnesses' strict submission to law and, at the same time, their independence angered both Stalin and Hitler.


In the first place, several issues of the magazine Watchtower were banned, which was widely distributed throughout the world and in every congregation.


Second, on far-fetched bases, searches were conducted in Kingdom Halls, places where believers congregated, where law enforcement agents suddenly found "forbidden magazines." There now are several video tapes of these searches, taken by Jehovah's Witnesses, where it is obvious that police and security personnel brought "extremist" literature and placed it in the most surprising places (under shelves, in cloak rooms, so that believers would not find them).


Third, the distribution and storage of such "extremist" literature automatically makes congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses "dangerous."  Depending on the region, believers were fined or congregations were banned. The tragedy is that several dozen searches and hundreds of inspections of believers were conducted by people who are supposed to legally observe the constitution and the law on freedom of conscience, but who strive to make their own fellow citizens "extremists."


Already in 2016 in Taganrog they began condemning whole families of believers—16 persons were sentenced to various penalties for participation in the activity of a forbidden organization (by the efforts of the prosecutor's office and the Orthodox deanery the organization in this city was ruled extremist, but the Jehovah's Witnesses assembled for reading the Bible). In particular, 4 persons received suspended sentences. In 2016 five local congregations were also liquidated in various cities.


And so, a ban on the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, if the Supreme Court of the RF makes such a decision, will outlaw about 180 thousand Russian citizens, members of congregations and groups, and it will launch a process of automatic liquidation of 400 organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses. The activity of small religious groups (about 2,000 of them) will be prosecuted. Russian citizens who read the Bible and believe in their own way in the God Jehovah will be subject to the harshest criminal prosecution.


The SOVA center, headed by Alexander Verkhovsky, a member of the Council for Human Rights under the Russian president, has already published its opinion about the consequences of such a decision: "Russia risks taking the path of totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, which persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses in criminal proceedings all the way to lengthy prison terms in the USSR and dispatch to extermination camps in nazi Germany."


Prosecution of peaceful believers on the basis of anti-extremism legislation is based on outright falsifications, the unprofessionalism of individual "experts," and as a result on judicial mistakes. But that is not the only issue. For Russia, prosecution of believers, including Jehovah's Witnesses, is the continuation of historical tragedy—the persecutions of the 20th century. From 1949 to 1952, tens of thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses were exiled to Siberia (the most famous was operation "North" with the resettlement of more than 8,000 believers). The head of the Governing Body of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Vasily Kalin, said: "For more than 100 years now the authorities in Russia have violated their own legislation which guarantees us this right. In stalinist times, when I was still a boy, our whole family was exiled to Siberia simply because we were Jehovah's Witnesses. It is a shame and sad that my children and grandchildren will have to confront something similar."


The Jehovah's Witnesses sent a letter to the head of the Russian presidential Council for Development of Institutions of Civil Society and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotova:  "Under the guise of operational search activity, officials have infringed upon the personal inviolability of believers (use of force, removal to police stations, personal search, coercion of photographing), on the inviolability of privacy (collection of information about persons professing the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses and about their property), and on the inviolability of residence. . . . Put a stop to insanity while it still can be stopped!"


It is possible to treat Jehovah's Witnesses in different ways and not agree with them on theological matters, but they have the right to believe as they wish. Moreover, they are being convicted for what they, I am deeply convinced, did not do. They will defend their rights in the European Court for Human Rights, and Russia will again appear in the international arena as a state that does not take into account the fundamental rights of its citizens. Following the fines on the basis of the anti-evangelism Yarovaya Law (for "religious propaganda" as in soviet times), in the near future believers in our country may appear in prisons also.


Jehovah's Witnesses will not hide in the underground (as it was also both in Germany in the 1930s and in the USSR); special services find it almost impossible to inject their agents into their ranks (even in soviet times this was accomplished with difficulty). This organization has become a living example of how unceremoniously authorities can treat believers in a time when the surrounding society remains silent.


Vladimir Vasilievich Riakhovsky is an attorney and member of the Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the president of the RF.

(tr. by PDS, posted 27 March 2017)

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