Lawyer critiques criminalizing Jehovah's Witnesses


by Elena Ovchinnikova, 13 June 2019


A criminal case for "organizing a religious association that is prohibited on Russian territory" has been opened against six citizens of Kirov.


A group of people, aged from 25 to 70 years, is charged with participation in a local religious organization, "Jehovah's Witnesses in Kirov," (whose activity is forbidden on the territory of the RF) as a structural subdivision of the "Administrative Center in Russia" of the same name. The Center has been ruled to be extremist on the basis of the establishment of instances of information that arouses religious strife, of propaganda of exceptionality and superiority, and also of the inferiority of citizens on the basis of their attitude toward religion; it was banned by the Russian Supreme Court back in April 2017.


As attorney Yan Chebotarev, who is counsel for the accused, explained, today in many cities people are being held criminally liable under a severe article that provides for punishment of from 6 to 10 years imprisonment. In reality, he said, they are guilty only of believing in Jehovah, which Wikipedia interprets as the "personal name of God" or "the Lord."


"One should understand that the Supreme Court banned the Jehovah's Witnesses as an organization, as a legal entity, to which the local religious organization 'Jehovah's Witnesses in Kirov' belongs. But at the same time it did not issue any decision with respect to the ordinary person who in prayer calls his God Jehovah, and not Christ, Buddha, or Muhammed. And also it did not rule to be criminal the reading of the Bible, rituals, and services, or warn individual persons against incurring criminal liability. And that would be strange, since the constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees freedom of religious confession."


As indicated in the order to open the criminal case, in the period from August 2017 to September 2018 the suspects, "acting illegally and deliberately, with the intention of drawing new members into the organization, frequently conducted mass events. In them they "sang biblical songs together, improved their skills in missionary activity, and studied Sacred Scripture that is included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials."


"Strictly speaking, it is intended to charge people for activity that is not forbidden by law, accusing them of participating in a forbidden organization that has not been resurrected. People who are not forbidden to follow the religious confession they have chosen. For good reason now a multitude of lawyers are saying that it is necessary to introduce changes into existing law. For example, to indicate that extremism involves forcible (under threats, intimidation, or deceit) involvement in faith, which violates the principles of the constitution and the integrity of the Russian Federation," Yan Evgenievich explains. "For example, only four sacred scriptures of four religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism—are recognized as legal. Consequently, the Bible, Quran, Tanakh, and Kangyur. And only they may not be taken as extremism. And after all this is too selective and a Damocles sword hangs over the others. And if you recall, with what difficulty Christianity entered the world: preachers crucified on crosses, burned, handed over to be torn apart by predatory animals because they were considered enemies of the true faith, then you think willy-nilly of today's attitude toward other religions."


Also, in the opinion of the lawyer, to consider the convictions of believers, that their religion is above others, to be extremist is extremely dubious. After all, every religion typically maintains that its confession is the only true one. Both nowadays and in the distant and not so distant past there are and have been people who went to any tortures and death for their own god. And the majority of the companions are especially venerated by believers. (tr. by PDS, posted 18 June 2019)

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