Legal Case of the Week: Jehovah's Witnesses

posted 24 Apr 2017, 07:27 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Apr 2017, 08:11 ]
On 20 April 2017 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation designated Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist organization. The
BBC reported that the Supreme Court had "accepted the government's request to designate Jehovah's Witnesses as an outlawed religious group, deeming it to be an extremist organisation." According to the report, the justice ministry had argued that Jehovah's Witnesses had distributed pamphlets which incited hatred against other groups in society. 

The Jehovah's Witnesses, which has about 8 million adherents worldwide, has about 175,000 members in Russia. The religious group said it would lodge an appeal against the ruling, which effectively criminalizes its activities. 

The BBC quoted a spokesperson for the group, Yaroslav Sivulsky, as telling AFP he was shocked by the ruling: ""I didn't expect that this could be possible in modern Russia, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice." 

The Jehovah's Witnesses group, which was founded in the USA in the 19th century, take a literal view of the Bible. Adherents of the faith were persecuted both under Hitler and Stalin. During the Stalin era the religion was outlawed and adherents were deported to Siberia. The ban on Jehovah's Witnesses was revoked in 1991. 

Over the years since legalization in 1991, Jehovah's Witnesses have encountered increasing difficulties in conducting their affairs in Russia. For example, on 24 January 2017 the chair of the Jehovah’s Witnesses branch in Dzerzhinsk was fined 4,000 roubles for ‘extremist’ literature. According to RAPSI, the Nizhny Novgorod Region Court announced on its website that day that the fine was imposed for 'for keeping and distributing extremist literature banned in Russia.' RAPSI reported that the materials in question consisted of two booklets, which were seized by the court.  RAPSI reports that among the many legal problems the Jehovah's Witnesses have face in Russia are the following:

'On October 12, a court in the Jewish Autonomous Region ruled to ban a branch of “The Jehovah’s Witnesses” in Birobidzhan because of distributing extremist literature by the organization. On June 16, Russia’s Supreme Court declared “The Jehovah’s Witnesses of Stary Oskol” in the Belgorod Region an extremist organization and ruled to liquidate it. On June 9, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Belgorod was banned as extremist organization. In March 2015, a court in Tyumen fined the organization 50,000 rubles ($792) and seized prohibited literature. In January 2014, a court in Kurgan ruled to ban the organization’s booklets as extremist. The books talk about how to have a happy life, what you can hope for, how to develop good relations with God and what you should know about God and its meaning. In late December 2013, the leader of the sect’s group in Tobolsk, Siberia was charged with extremism and the prevention of a blood transfusion that nearly led to the death of a female member of the group. In 2004, a court in Moscow dissolved and banned a Jehovah’s Witnesses group on charges of recruiting children, encouraging believers to break from their families, inciting suicide and preventing believers from accepting medical assistance.'

In its report, the BBC notes that the human rights group Sova "has argued that an 'official repressive campaign' has been conducted against the movement for years and many of their members have been physically attacked." In its report, 'Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2017,' Sova Centre wrote:

On March 15, 2017, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation filed a claim in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation demanding liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia as extremist, the ban against the activities of this religious organization, as well as 395 of its units, that is, local religious communities, and confiscation of their property in favor of the state. At the same time, the Ministry issued an order to suspend the activities of the Administrative Center and the local religious organizations that are part of its structure, pending the consideration of the claim. The claim followed the audit of the organization that ended on February 27, 2017. The report of the Ministry of Justice on the results of the audit says that, despite the warning about the impermissibility of extremist activity, issued by the Prosecutor General's Office on March 2, 2016, the structural units of the organization are still involved in extremist activities that violate human rights and freedoms and harm citizens, public order and safety. From our point of view, the liquidation of Jehovah's Witnesses organizations for extremism (five local communities in different cities were banned in 2016) has no legal grounds and is a clear case of religious discrimination. In the event that the central organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is banned, every person from among over one hundred thousand believers will be under threat of criminal prosecution for their faith.

In late March, Jehovah's Witnesses appealed to the Supreme Court with a counterclaim against the Justice Ministry. The Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses demanded that the Supreme Council recognize the actions of the Ministry of Justice against Jehovah's Witnesses as political repressions and deny the claim for the liquidation of the religious organization. As pointed out by the Administrative Center, “repressions include politically motivated actions of the authorities to limit the rights and freedoms of citizens regarded as dangerous for the state, including on religious grounds,” and the actions of the Ministry of Justice in this case limit the rights of citizens in this manner “on the basis of following the teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses” in violation of a number of articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Administrative Center also filed an appeal against the Ministry of Justice's order to suspend the activities of all 396 organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses registered in Russia. In addition, 395 local communities, which the Ministry of Justice pointed out in their lawsuit as structural subdivisions of the Administrative Center, appealed to the Supreme Court to recognize them as co-defendants in the case, so that each of them could exercise its right to a fair trial.

Photo of international headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses in Warwick, New York: Wikipedia

'Russia court outlaws "extremist" Jehovah's Witnesses,' BBC, 20 April 2017
'Misuse of Anti-Extremism in March 2017,' Sova Centre, 13 April 2017
'Chair of Jehovah’s Witnesses branch fined for distributing extremist literature,' RAPSI, 25 January 2017