Protestant attorney warns about religious persecution


How do Jehovah's Witnesses and similar confessions upset the state? An interview with Council on Human Rights member Vladimir Riakhovsky

Znak, 25 March 2019


In Russia, the persecution of believers of nontraditional Christian movements is continuing. In particular, members of the banned association of Jehovah's Witnesses. A week ago, a court in Primorye detained for two months two followers of this religious teaching. Last week, F.S.B. personnel terminated the activity of a group of Jehovists in Severodvinsk. Several days ago, security personnel arrested a Jehovist in Crimea, accusing him of arranging the activity of an extremist organization. Meanwhile, last weekend in St. Petersburg, pickets in defense of Jehovah's Witnesses were held. In the opinion of those who gathered, it is for their faith that they are persecuted and the persecution reminds them about what occurred in nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. of Stalin's time. What is happening regarding freedom of religious confession in Russia and why have persecutions begun and will they be ended? Our interlocutor is an executive partner of the advocates' bureau of the Slavic Legal Center and member of the Council on Human Rights under the Russian president Vladimir Riakhovsky.


"The president called it 'incredible nonsense' and promised that he would figure it out"


--Evgeny Senshin for Znak: Vladimir Vasilevich, how would you evaluate the state of freedom of conscience and religious confession in Russia at the present time?


--Vladimir Riakhovsky: A law on freedom of conscience was adopted for the first time back in 1990 after the regulations of 1929, in accordance with which religious organizations operated. In the 1990s, religious organizations felt complete freedom. In 1997, a law on freedom of conscience and religious confession was adopted, which introduced a number of restrictions on the activity of religious organizations. For example, foreign citizens were deprived of the right to create them. In connection with this law, cases of the liquidation of religious organizations began to arise. From about this time, the state took the path of control of their activity. At the same time, this control sometimes bore an unreasonable character.


In 2012, article 239 "Creation of a noncommercial organization infringing the person and rights of citizens" was introduced into the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. After this article, unreasonable charges against religious organization became yet more intense.


In 2016, the infamous package of Yarovaya Laws was adopted. Among other things, it affected the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." In particular, amendments were inserted into the chapter on missionary activity. On one hand, according to our constitution and international law, every person may disseminate his religious views freely. However, on the other hand, rules were introduced that regulated missionary activity. At the same time, their goal was to strengthen the struggle with terrorism. Who could doubt the necessity of combating terrorism? But it is completely unclear what this has to do with missionary activity! From that moment, more than a thousand administrative cases for violation of this article have been opened. I want to ask the initiators of this law: has one terrorist been brought to justice under this article? Although incidents of unreasonably bringing believers to justice abound.


For example, in December of last year, in Omsk, a criminal case was opened against the pastor of the Vozrozhenie [Regeneration] church, Nikolai Kuznetsov. He was charged with having a psychological effect upon his parishioners. According to an expert analysis, under the influence of the sermons of this man, people manifested extreme faith in God. Psychiatrists wrote in their conclusion that his "victims" express obsessive ideas about the salvation of their souls, and so forth. This raises the question for me: are there such ideas in Orthodoxy? Is there nothing about the salvation of souls there?


Yet another means of impacting religious organizations is through real estate. The law "On freedom of conscience" says in point 2 of article 16 that religious rituals and ceremonies may be conducted without hindrance in a residential area. Nevertheless, cases where religious organizations have been held accountable for improper use of a parcel land have become almost widespread. It is said that a parcel of land had been designated for construction of individual residences and not for religious purposes. That is, a residential building had been constructed and officially put to use. The law "On freedom of conscience," I repeat, permits conducting religious events in residential areas without hindrance. So people are held accountable not for improper use of a residence but for improper use of a parcel of land. This is how security forces are doing their best to prevent people from believing in God as they wish.


Therefore, as of today, after a period of real freedom of conscience we have returned to nearly soviet times, when the state committed unjustifiable interference in the activity of religious organizations. Thereby infringement upon the constitutional rights of citizens is happening.


--You are a member of the Council on Human Rights under the president of Russia. Does Vladimir Putin really listen to you and impact the situation?


--On 11 September 2018, a session of the Council on Human Rights under the president of the Russian Federation was held. That is where I specifically raised the issue of the amendments of Deputy Yarovaya. I cited this example for the president. In Nizhny Novgorod, a student of the medical university from Zimbabwe posted on the internet an invitation to a festival of Christian Black music. And on the basis of this posting on the internet, she was brought to administrative accountability. She was accused that this activity did not comport with the purposes of her stay in the country; she was on an academic visa but in fact she engaged in missionary activity. An order was issued imposing on her a fine and her deportation from the territory of the Russian Federation.


Moreover, after this there appeared on the internet a film with her participation where she explained that she believed in God, that he helped her with her studies, and that she loves Russia. And after this film she was again sentenced to a fine and deportation from the territory of the Russian Federation. On appeal, she was given a postponement in the deportation part so that she could finish her studies. When I told the president about this, he called it "incredible nonsense" and promised me that he will figure this out. And you see there are hundreds and hundreds of such examples of the application of the Yarovaya Law.


--Did he figure it out?


--The president instructed the chairman of the Supreme Court to examine the situation and to prepare a report by 1 July of this year about what happened. The law on combating extremist activity speaks about propaganda of religious supremacy and exceptionality. The Supreme Court was supposed to give a definition of what supremacy and exceptionality are. I understand that supremacy and exceptionality bear a discriminatory character. Let's say, a sign "Entrance for whites only," like in the time of segregation in the U.S.A., is supremacy. Or the sign "Entrance for Muslims only" is also supremacy. That's when one may speak about discrimination on the basis of religious identity. But if I say: guys, our faith is the most correct one to save your soul; we should follow only it; then this is not propaganda of exclusivity. It is a characteristic of any religion in general.


I have the hope that perhaps the Supreme Court will somehow bring our law enforcement to its senses regarding what may be considered to be extremism and what may not. I hope that many cases will be reviewed and charges will be dropped for people. Ideally, the Yarovaya amendment about missionary activity needs to be mitigated or rescinded. If nothing is changed, then the repressive machine against religious associations will be strengthened. This will not lead to anything good from the point of view of the psychological atmosphere in society and the reputation of the country.


Irina Yarovaya's laws have made the persecution of believers possible. This was called the "struggle with terrorism."


--In your view, how can such religious movements interfere with the state apparatus? Behind every legal norm there is some kind of ideology or, at least, idea. The entire State Duma and Federation Council voted for the Yarovaya Law; that is, the supreme political class of the country. What notions and values are guiding them in adopting such laws?


--Most likely it is the result of ignorance of religious studies and the law. Shifting the threats to social and political stability onto religious organizations is absolutely incorrect and destructive.


The Yarovaya Law was entitled: "Adoption of additional measure for combating terrorism." There is no doubt that it is necessary to intensify the struggle with terrorism. But in practice, this law has not been used for the struggle with terrorism; it is used for the struggle with dissident thought. I do not know just whom the Jehovah's Witnesses interfere with. At most what they do is walk along the streets and offer their literature. But terrorism: that is taking hostages, attacks, shooting, explosions with a goal of influencing state policy. In order to prevent such activity it is necessary to penetrate the terrorist underground and risk lives, but nothing is needed here. Just go to an apartment, force everybody to the floor face down, and take them to the police department.


--How would you evaluate the work of Russian judges in such cases? How impartial and legally competent is it?


--Judges approach the issuing of sentences in such cases extremely formally. Judges have no training in religious studies in order to evaluate one or another event. And this often leads to absurdity. Here is a clear example. In 2015 in Yuzhno-Sakhalin, a court ruled a Muslim brochure "Prayer to God: its place and meaning in Islam" to be extremist material. It quoted a prayer that a pious Muslim performs five times a day. It says that there is no god but Allah, that it is necessary to worship only him, and it is forbidden to have other gods. The judge ordered expert analysis three times, and the experts came to the conclusion that such phrases speak about exceptionality and supremacy and thereby enflame inter-religious strife. And this material was ruled to be extremist. And who is wrong here? The judge? But the judge approaches it formally: here is the expert analysis, and he issued a decision in accordance with it.


But the case acquired a scandalous character on a federal scale. If you recall, at the time even Ramzan Kadyrov was upset and he called both the judge and the prosecutor devils. Ironically, less than a month later the largest mosque in Europe was opened in Moscow and its opening was attended even by Vladimir Putin himself, and the reader of the Quran recited precisely this prayer and it was streamed on a wide screen. Would anybody in attendance know that it was these words that were considered in Russian to be extremist?


I note that the decision of this court was reversed and amendments were introduced into the law combating extremism according to which neither the Bible, nor the Quran, nor the Tanakh may be ruled to be extremist. But this does not mean that the wordings of the law became more specific. They are just as vague as before and they permit the experts to interpret texts as they please. Or as the investigators who open the criminal cases ask them to.


"It is easy to raise the crime detection rates at the expense of Jehovists"


--Today, the main victims of this repressive machine, of which you speak, are Jehovah's Witnesses. Why do they annoy the authorities so much? After all, there also are Mormons, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, and many others, but it is Jehovists that have been targeted.


--In 2017 the Supreme Court made the decision about the liquidation of the administrative center of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses, along with 395 structural organizations of Jehovists. They were ruled to be an extremist organization and liquidated. Moreover, these decisions were issued on the basis of only one indicator provided by the law on extremist activity. That is again the propaganda of exceptionality and supremacy of citizens based on religious identity. That is, they are accused of considering that their faith is the only true faith.


The question immediately arises: tell me, and do not representatives of other confessions and religious movements say the very same thing? Any followers of one or another religion maintains that it is his faith that is the only true one and therefore he has adopted it.


That is, they were liquidated only for the reason whereby it is possible to liquidate any other religion in accordance with Russian legislation.


Some people wrongly think that they were liquidated because they do not recognize blood transfusion and they predict the imminent end of the world and scare citizens. But that is not so.


After this there followed the opening of a number of criminal cases based on part 2 of article 282 of the RF, which provides a penalty for participation in the activity of a religious organization with respect to which a decision has been issued ruling it to be extremist. In February one of the leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who also is a subject of Denmark, was sentenced to six years incarceration. For what? For the fact that after the court's decision liquidating the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses he and his fellow believers continued to gather together in residences and to conduct their meetings. You see, it is for this now in Russia that they give six years incarceration. Probably in the near future there will be more jailings, since as of today more than 100 such cases have been opened. Approximately 30 persons are in custody awaiting trial.


What does this mean? Does it mean the government is actively working on combating extremism and terrorism? Of course not. How can a Jehovist be considered a terrorist when he, on pain of death, has never touched any weapon? If somebody does not know—Jehovah's Witnesses do not even acknowledge military service.


Further, one wonders why this is necessary. Do they somehow affect state policy or create competition for other, larger religious organizations? Indeed, nothing of the sort! I consider that such a fierce struggle with the Jehovah's Witnesses is exclusively in order to show how active the security forces are and that they are not sitting idle but are serving society and finding extremists. Today there are 450 extremist organizations listed in the register of which 404 are organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses. Of course, it is difficult to catch real terrorists after all. And it is easy to raise the indicators of crime detection at the expense of the Jehovists. They are not hiding from anybody, everything is in full view: arrive, arrest, open cases, swell the statistics, get new ranks and stars on the epaulets. You see, it's a vicious practice.


This is a very alarming situation. When the law on rehabilitation of victims of political repressions was adopted in 1991 and article 227 of the CC of the RSFSR was replaced, then everybody who had been convicted on it was rehabilitated without checking the legitimacy of the conviction. Among them were believers of various confessions, both Orthodox, and protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. They all were recognized as victims of political repression and they even received corresponding certification and benefits. Not even 30 years have passed since the rehabilitation and Russia has again returned to the practice of the stalinist era.


--Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers have filed an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. In your view, what are their chances?


--I am sure that the E.C.H.R. will issue a decision in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses: to recognize the decisions on liquidation of their organization as illegal and to pay material compensation to all victims. The international convention guaranteeing the right to freedom of conscience has been violated with regard to them.


By the way, the government has already given its reply to the E.C.H.R. on the appeal of the Jehovists. At the same time I think it is crafty. It says that only the religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses have been liquidated, but their faith is not forbidden. That is, Jehovah's Witnesses may independently continue their activity, but apart from an organization. But actually we see that the opposite is happening. Not only were the organizations liquidated, but the property was also seized.


--How do you assess the stories of Jehovah's Witnesses about tortures in Surgut? Could this be a ruse in order to denigrate the work of law enforcement agencies? In particular, the Ministry of Justice declared that an expert analysis did not find traces of torture on one of the detained Jehovists.


--I do not believe that it is a ruse. I have talked with Jehovah's Witnesses and these people will never resort to telling a lie in order to discredit somebody. For them a lie is one of the greatest sins. And then, is it really a wonder that torture is used in law enforcement agencies?


--Then how would you comment on the position of the European Court of Human Rights regarding the situation of the Jehovah's Witnesses? According to news media reports, citing the Ministry of Justice, the E.C.H.R. refused to apply urgent provisional measures on the enquiry of that Jehovist who complained of torture.


--This does not mean that the issue of the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia has been removed from the agenda of the E.C.H.R. The court simply revoked urgent provisional measures imposed in the event of a threat to the life of the applicant. It considered that there is no threat. However this still does not mean that the E.C.H.R. found that torture was unproven. It is continuing to consider the appeal of the Jehovists of Surgut about use of torture on them. It is possible that the Ministry of Justice gave some information that journalists interpreted incorrectly. But actually it is nothing of the kind. The E.C.H.R. still has not put an end to this case.


"Such statements of an Orthodox priest fall under extremism"


--Christianity is a missionary religion. It exists so long as its members proclaim as Jesus, the apostle Paul, and all other founders of this religion commanded them. So what is the case for them when it is forbidden to disseminate their belief?


--A truly believing person will never be silent; he will always talk about his views. Therefore in this sense it is impossible to force those Jehovah's Witneses to be silent. As they conducted their worship services, they will conduct them. Their whole history testifies to this.


They were unique among all religious confessions that did not support the Third Reich. They were the first whom the Nazis persecuted in the 1930s in Germany. There were similar persecutions of Jehovists also in the Soviet Union under Stalin.


But as we see, their religion has survived to our days. On the contrary, suffering strengthens the believing person, and he cannot be forced to be silent. Moreover, in Russia there are 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses. What do the siloviki intend to do with all of them? Imprison them for the fact that they continue to believe in God as their teaching instructs them to do?


--What role do preachers from the Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religions, as well as conservative patriotic forces, play in the persecution of protestants and other religious movements? In particular, the very well known statement of Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, who without hesitation urged: "Gather the people, crush the filthy sects."


--I think that it is just such expressions by Orthodox priests that fall under extremism, and not the preaching of Jehovah's Witnesses. What should Orthodoxy bring? Peace, love, spirituality, forbearance, forgiveness. But when calls to hate resound, to throw stones, to imprison, and the like, then I consider that it is here that real extremism lies.


--Then why does nobody take them to court?


--Unfortunately, in Russia there is a selective approach in the sphere of extremism. There are those who are immune and there are those for whom it is possible to find evidence of the crime of extremist offenses.


--That is, if one writes a declaration for the police against a RPTs priest for his extremist statements, it will be useless?


--There have been complaints about harsh statements by Orthodox persons, but the cases did not make it to court; they were refused on the grounds that they are simply critical and value judgments, but not inflaming inter-religious strife. However, for similar statements by representatives of other religions, cases are opened.


--Who may be next in the sights of law enforcement agencies?


--If prudence does not prevail, then the situation is unpredictable. On the very same grounds on which Jehovah's Witnesses are now prosecuted, it is possible to prosecute any believers. In the first place, those who are not accounted as traditional religions and are somehow linked with western countries, for example, Mormons, Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists. For all of them it is possible to steamroller, if one wishes.


--How would you advise members of such organizations and their loved ones and relatives? Perhaps to sit quietly and do not push your religious views?


--I cannot give such advice. The Bible says: go and teach all nations the truth. The sincere believer cannot not proclaim. Rather I advise law enforcement to delve more into the situation and do some self-educating. Talk with those people who know the history of religion and know how the persecution of believers ends. It really even amazes me that among the siloviki there are no literate lawyers who will be able to predict the outcome of events and put a stop to the wheels of the repressive machine. At the same time such activity causes harm to the reputation of the very law enforcement agencies for whom trust is declining.


For everybody else, even nonbelievers, I want to say: you should be uneasy that Jehovah's Witnesses are persecuted. Because today they are coming for them, but tomorrow they will come for you under some pretense, but perhaps there will be nobody to defend you, as one German pastor said about the repression of the time of the Third Reich. (tr. by PDS, posted 26 March 2019)

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