SUPREME COURT DEALS WITH MISSIONARY AFFAIRS
Strict law enforcement practice will not undergo substantive changes
by Ekaterina Trifonova
Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 9 July 2019
The Russian Supreme Court analyzed the practice with regard to anti-evangelism cases. Rights advocates have long criticized the contradictory definition of missionary activity introduced by the notorious "Yarovaya package," and the harshness of established accountability. It was assumed that the Supreme Court would direct lower-standing courts to more just approaches to the application of the law, although many norms of the law remained unclear.
The Supreme Court's survey concerned a review of cases based on article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law, "Violation of legislation on freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession and on religious associations." The document was prepared at the direction of the president after his meeting with the Council on Human Rights in December. At the time, rights advocates complained about the unlawful prosecution of believers in accordance with the anti-evangelism amendments from the Yarovaya package.
However the Supreme Court considered the already established law enforcement practice rather positively: they said the courts usually consider such cases in accordance with constitutional and international norms, and they involve experts in the area of religious relations "for the examination of images, texts, and other materials."
At the same time, the Supreme Court explained that ordinary information about religious teaching and the activity of a religious association cannot be considered evangelism, including posting of links on the internet. Meanwhile it is for this that people already have often been found to be guilty of illegal activity.
The court also indicated that missionary activity can be carried out without hindrance not only in liturgical premises and locations but also beyond their borders "with compliance with the requirements of article 24.2 of this law." However the survey introduces a number of additional restrictions. For example, distribution of religious materials is considered to be not only their delivery to someone by hand personally but also simply their being on the premises of a religious organization. Say, some outsider may drop in there and casually see some booklets; this is all the same as distribution.
And finally, the Supreme Court, appealing however to the decision of the Constitutional Court, officially approved the use of the term "sect," which still has not been applied in legislation of the Russian Federation. But now the lower-standing courts may fully refer to this instruction of the Supreme Court in making their decisions, which has already evoked concern of rights advocates.
According to the head of the Sova Center for News and Analysis, Alexander Verkhovsky, "the legislature has invented a very bad standard, and subsequent additions to it in later years still need more improvement." In his opinion, the Supreme Court could introduce common sense into the application of the law, but for some reason it did not choose to do this. For example, the court did not introduce clarity into the application of the article regarding desecration of religious objects. NG's interlocutor emphasized that this concept is subjective, and that means there remain broad possibilities for abuse.
As is known, special permission is required for the performance of missionary activity by someone who is not a priest. This standard, Sova maintains, is applied all over the map, although the Supreme Court did not give it any attention. Verkhovsky himself insists on a complete rejection of licensing of missionary activity, because "it is absurd for a believing person to have a special paper for natural religious conduct." Although he agreed that it is practically impossible to distinguish ordinary conversations about religion from luring citizens into one's religious organization.
On the whole, Verkhovsky emphasized that cases based on anti-evangelism articles are being opened rather frequently and many of them are far-fetched, but astronomical fines are assessed as punishment. Possibly the whole point is that, in his words "excessive regulation" was written into the anti-terrorism package, while "it seems that nothing had to do with the struggle with extremists and terrorists." (tr. by PDS, posted 10 July 2019)
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