Jehovah's Witnesses case viewed from far south of Russia


Kavkazskii Uzel, 27 March 2017


A possible ban on the activity of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia will lead to widespread violations of rights and criminal prosecutions of citizens, according to experts questioned by Kavkazskii Uzel. Congregations in the south of the country number about 48 thousand actively practicing believers, a representative of the Russian administrative center of Jehovah's Witnesses reported.


As Kavkazskii Uzel reported, the activity of the religious organization "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" was suspended because of "violations of charter goals and purposes and also existing legislation of the Russian federation, including the federal law 'On combating extremist activity,'" the Ministry of Justice reported on 23 March. Representatives of the administrative center reported about a coordinated campaign whose goal is "recognizing the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses to be extremist and prohibiting it throughout the country."


"They take every instance when we say that our faith is correct and they get extremism out of this. But after all every faith says this," a representative of the head of the Russian office, Yaroslav Sivulsky, commented for Kavkazskii Uzel on the precedents of including publications of the religious organization in the list of extremist materials. The United Nations Committee for Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed worry about the application of the law on extremism to Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.


48,000 believers in South Russia are in the risk zone


In all, in Russia there are 396 registered religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses and 2277 religious groups of this confession, numbering 175 thousand believers. In regions of the Southern Federal District and North Caucasus Federal District there reside about 48 thousand "actively practicing adherents of our religion, without counting sympathizers and relatives who are wavering," Ivan Belenko, the press secretary of the headquarters of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


In particular, in Dagestan live 430 believers; in Kabardino-Balkaria, 1,600; in Karachaevo-Chekesia, 350; in Stavropol territory, 8,500; in North Ossetia, 4,300; in Krasnodar territory, 17,500; in Rostov province, 6,500; in Astrakhan province, 900; in Kalmykia, 80; in Volgograd province, 6,000; in Adygei, 1,500 Jehovah's Witnesses. There are no precise data for Chechnya and Ingushetia, Belenko added.


Local religious organizations in the Southern Federal District and North Caucasus Federal District are regularly fined for use of literature, published by Jehovah's Witnesses and subsequently included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials. In addition, eight organizations have been liquidated, including in Taganrog (Rostov province), Abinsk (Krasnodar territory), Chekessk (Karachaevo-Cherkesia), and Elista (Kalmykia).


Ivan Belenko connected the liquidation of eight religious organizations with the lawsuit against the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses.


"On 2 March 2016, the headquarters received a warning from the office of the prosecutor general regarding the impermissibility of extremist activity. The warning pointed out the closing of eight local organizations and the connection between them and the administrative center. In the intervening year, fines have often been levied on local organizations," Belenko said, specifying that the warning spoke about the possibility of filing a lawsuit for liquidation in the event of a repeat of violations of antiextremism legislation.


"In these 12 months, which ended on 2 March 2017, we have had a multitude of plants of literature that has been ruled extremist," Ivan Belenko declared.


"In 2016 alone occurred no fewer that 46 such plants, several of which were recorded by surveillance cameras. Believers sent corresponding declarations to law enforcement agencies. . . . One planted brochure is often sufficient for warning a local religious organization," a press release of 15 February by the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia said. In particular, surveillance cameras recorded an incident occurring on 20 September 2016 in the village of Nezlobnoe of Stavropol territory. The video, posted on the website of the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, contains footage of how people in black masks broke into a house of worship and took literature out from under their clothing and placed in on a table nearby.


Cases will not be opened against 175 thousand persons, but the flywheel will be spinning


The attempt to restrict the activity of a religious organization was called unprecedented in scale by the director of the Sova Center for News and Analysis, Alexander Verkhovsky.


"The only thing of which Jehovah's Witnesses are accused is that they maintain that their religion is the best and all the others have gone astray. On this basis their literature is banned and now it has reached to a general prohibition of the organization," Verkhovsky told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


Verkhovsky noted that the suspension of activity is an interim measure for the period of consideration of the ministry's lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Russia.


"If the court denies the lawsuit of the Ministry of Justice, then the suspension will be over, but if it is approved, the suspension will turn into liquidation. Evidently there will be an appeal, but on the whole in this case everything will happen quite quickly," the expert thinks.


Suspension of activity effectively means blocking the functioning of the religious organization, and in the long term its adherents are threatened with criminal prosecution, Verkhovsky supposes.


"The suspension extends to the whole structure of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses. The decision contains a list of organizations whose activity must be suspended. This means that for any activity, including religious activity like prayer meetings, an administrative fine is threatened. If the Supreme Court prohibits the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, and its decision takes effect, then an attempt to meet will entail a criminal penalty on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of RF, for continuation of the activity of an extremist organization. Jehovah's Witnesses have already had such cases on the basis of bans of local organizations. It is clear that criminal cases will not be opened against 175 thousand persons, but they will be opened against somebody and gradually the flywheel will only go spinning," Verkhovsky said.


The liquidation of the Taganrog congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in 2009 led to the judicial prosecution of its members. According to the investigation, after the ban of the group of believers, it continued to conduct worship services and study of literature that had been ruled extremist. The defendants did not acknowledge their guilt, thinking that they were being persecuted for religious convictions. On 30 November 2015, four of them were sentenced to suspended terms and another 12 to fines on the basis of the charge of extremism. In March 2016 the Rostov provincial court considered that this verdict was justified.


A ban of the activity of the organization may lead to the confiscation of all property belonging to it, Verkhovsky noted. "The ban has been done to a great extent so that they were not able to transfer this property to other legal entities," Verkhovsky said.


The justice ministry's lawsuit fits into the logic of antiextremist legislation, the expert thinks.


"It is said that so much literature and so many organizations have been banned, but the activity has continued, so it is time to prohibit on the whole. Technically for representatives of the organization it will be difficult to defend their position in the Supreme Court. In order to stop the process it will be necessary to reconsider the bans of publications themselves. For this the prosecutor general's office must display good will; but it is this agency that beginning in 2009 was the chief engine of pressure. Or there must be intervention on the level of the president," Verkhovsky concluded.


There has never been such a widespread ban in Russia


The suspension of the activity of the Administrative Center of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses is blocking the charter activity of the religious organization, considers the chairman of the committee Civic Cooperation, Svetlana Gannushkina.


"After the ban of the activity they do not have the right either to assemble or to conduct mass events or to register or to open an account, that is, to conduct a normal form of life  typical of a public structure," the rights advocate said in commentary for Kavkazskii Uzel.


She thinks that the persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses is explained by the relationships of the state with the official church.


"Persecution of the Witnesses has been going on for a long time, although there are no bases for it. This is not an extremist sect but serious Christians who are in no way worse than our Orthodox believers. Everything is explained by the fact that they constitute competition for our official church. Unfortunately, the leadership of the church conducts itself in this regard extremely tactlessly and not politically correct," Svetlana Gannushkina concluded.


The threat of prosecution of believing adherents with the help of antiextremism legislation is not ruled out also by the director of the Institute of Human Rights, Valentin Gefter.


"Prosecution will not begin right away, but its likelihood cannot be ruled out. One gets the impression that the sum of decisions of regional courts (liquidating local religious organizations—KU note) and the Ministry of Justice will lead to a [complete] cessation of the activity of the religious organization. Such a massive ban of an organization with such a great number of regional representations and members has not been in Russia," Gefter said in commenting for a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.


At the same time, formally the decision of the Ministry of Justice for suspension of activity of the headquarters of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses does not affect the personal interests of believers, attorney Anton Bogdanov explained.


"The order of the Ministry of Justice was issued only with respect to the legal entity 'Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia' and does not apply to or affect the personal confessional activity of individual citizens," a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent was told by the lawyer, who has had occasion to represent the interests of adherents of religious groups.


"The campaign of persecution of Witnesses for statements typical of all religious texts represents a flagrant violation of the constitutional principle of freedom of conscience and the equality of religious associations before the law," the official website of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses quotes an expert of the Institute of Human Rights, Lev Levinson.


In the "Information" section in Kavkazskii Uzel is published the Russia-wide list of materials found by a court to be extremist. In accordance with article 13 of the federal law "On combating extremist activity," this list "is subject to periodic publication in news media." (tr. by PDS, posted 1 April 2017)

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