Putin's advisors point out flaws in treatment of religion


The president will be presented a package of amendments for correcting legislation in the religious sphere

by Natalia Bashlykova

Izvestiia, 14 October 2019


The Council on Human Rights (C.H.R.) under the president is calling for a substantial correction of antiextremism legislation. Rights advocates have prepared a number of amendments for clarifying the rules in the religious sphere. At present they are being interpreted too broadly by law enforcement agencies: the list of forbidden texts has already exceeded 4,400 items. As the C.H.R. believes, the reason for this is the so-called "Yarovaya-Ozerov Package," which stiffens the punishment for terrorism and extremism. At a press conference of the deputy speaker of the State Duma it was assured that Irina Yarovaya does not have anything to do with this and Deputy Igor Zotov, who introduced amendments associated with religious legislation, does not oppose their revision. The recommendations for reform will be placed on the president's desk.


Scope for restrictions


The issues memo, which was prepared by rights advocates, will be presented on 16 October to a joint session of the commissions of the Council on Human Rights and Council for Relations with Religious Associations under the president. Izvestiia has the document in its possession.


The C.H.R. considers that it is necessary to give a clear definition of the concept "extremist activity" and to determine a clear interpretation of the rules concerning evangelism. The cause of the necessity of improving the legislation was the so-called "Yarovaya-Ozerov Package." In 2016, the deputy speaker of the State Duma, Irina Yarovaya, and also a number of deputies and senators, introduced amendments into laws, stiffening the penalty for terrorism and extremism. They included rules affecting the regulation of religious activity.


"These rules open a substantial space for extreme, unreasonable, and often explicitly unconstitutional restrictions of the rights and liberties of citizens, including restrictions of freedom of conscience," the document prepared for the session of the councils says.


The authors think that because of this, the exercise of fundamental human rights, including the right of the nondiscriminatory treatment of religion, is regularly subjected to threat. The issue is the federal law "On combating extremist activity," where its definition, the C.H.R. thinks, is insufficiently specific. "With regard to freedom of conscience, this vagueness is especially striking," the document emphasizes.


The C.H.R. also thinks that law enforcers interpret too broadly such terms of article 282 of the Criminal Code as "demeaning human dignity" and "inciting hatred and hostility" on the basis of the attitude of citizens toward religion.


"The campaign of prohibitions has already engendered an absolutely dysfunctional federal list of extremist materials that exceeds 4,400 items. It includes many religious texts, including items forbidden without a necessary basis, among which are even medieval Muslim treatises," the C.H.R. underscores.


The rights advocates' memo notes that now persons are involved in the expert analysis of texts who are by no means specialists in scientific religious studies, for example the mathematics teacher Natalia Kriukova. To fix this problem, in the opinion of the authors of the amendments, a self-regulating organization could be created, which would certify religious studies experts on the basis of education, length of work experience, academic degrees, and publications.


Fine for evangelism


The C.H.R. also suggests revising the rule on missionary activity in the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." Law enforcers perceive its existence in practically any religious activity of citizens, who are being widely held administratively accountable.


As an example, the council cites the case of a student from Zimbabwe, Kudzai Niamarebva, who was fined and deported from the RF for reposting on social networks a gospel concert. She was supposedly thereby engaging in missionary activity in the religious organization "Embassy of Jesus" of the Association of Churches of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Nizhny Novgorod oblast.


The C.H.R. also thinks it necessary to correct a number of other norms of the law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." In particular, to clarify the procedure for the full name of a religious organization, which is not currently prescribed. Also it is necessary to clarify whether religious organizations may conduct worship services in residential premises. They currently are being held liable for use of a parcel of land for other than the prescribed purpose.


Reflect the times


A member of the C.H.R., attorney Vladimir Riakhovsky, who is responsible for preparing the joint session of the presidential councils, told Izvestiia that back on 11 December of last year he described for Vladimir Putin the injustice of the application of the laws. At that time, more than 600 administrative cases concerning representatives of various religious confessions had been brought to the courts.


"As regards your first case concerning that African student, of course you must see some kind of rubbish. Simply some kind of nonsense. And it is of course necessary to do what you suggest—to conduct an analysis of law enforcement practice. And if it is required, to introduce some corrections," the president said to Vladimir Riakhovsky at the time.


As the rights advocate stated, at present the problems of law enforcement practice remain acute and they demand revision of the legislative standards. He said that after this session recommendations will be worked out which will be placed on the president's desk.


The head of the C.H.R., Mikhail Fedotov, told Izvestiia that the legislation "On freedom of conscience and religious associations" should be more harmonious. "Because other spheres of our legislation have developed but the standards about freedom of conscience are clearly lagging. They need to be improved so that citizens are assured the constitutional right of freedom of conscience," the rights advocate stressed.


As the deputy speaker of the State Duma, Irina Yarovaya, explained to Izvestiia at the press service, the deputy really did introduce the package of amendments into the antiextremism legislation, but she was only one of its authors.


"Irina Anatolievna has nothing to do with the religious portion of them. All amendments connected with religious legislation were introduced by Igor Zotov (a State Duma deputy of the sixth convocation)," the press service explained.


Igor Zotov himself acknowledged in conversation with Izvestiia that he participated in developing the antiextremism package, but he has nothing against its reconsideration. He said that he respects human rights. And if there exists some overreaching, "then it can be removed very easily by means of introducing corrective amendments, which should reflect the times," the author of the amendments noted.


In order to prevent overreaching, the C.H.R. recommends creating a consultative council under the Ministry of Science and Higher Education for issues of ecclesiastical educational organizations. It would not be excessive, in the opinion of rights advocates, if Rosobrnadzor [Federal Service of Oversight of Education] began involving representatives of relevant religious confessions in the conduct of inspections. (tr. by PDS, posted 14 October 2019)

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