Russian Media‎ > ‎

Anton Chivchalov: Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison? [Radio Svoboda]

posted 18 Jun 2018, 13:33 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 18 Jun 2018, 13:37 ]

3 June 2018 

by Anton Chivchalov, journalist and blogger 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: Radio Svoboda

The international human rights website Forum 18 has reported that in Russia seven Jehovah’s Witnesses are already behind bars, on remand, at least one other is under house arrest, and more than a dozen are under travel restrictions. Criminal prosecutions against the believers have been brought under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code for extremism, which provides for up to 10 years in prison, and are taking place in Orel, Perm, Orenburg, Birobidzhan, Murmansk, Vladivostok and Ufa. Riot police in masks and with automatic rifles burst into peaceful people, throw them onto the ground, handcuff them, and seize personal items, documents, photos and money. Why? As the magazine Newsweek recently commented, they neither killed nor robbed anyone. All their “guilt” was just that they had preached a certain religion. In Europe. In the 21st century.

Some might object: they are not being imprisoned for their faith but for setting up prohibited organisations. Believe what you like, but don’t set up prohibited organisations, and you will be fine! This is a logical argument, it seems. But look at the materials of any of these criminal cases: believers are arrested not for setting up organisations, but for reading the Bible with friends. There is a direct link: they read the Bible with friends – therefore arrest! In all such instances, the charges are brought based on the law on extremism. In law enforcement agencies, it seems, they are convinced: they can automatically, without a second thought, arrest any Jehovah’s Witness they like. Only then do the prosecutors ask the question as to whether the believer set up an illegal organisation, or not. Of course, it always turns out that they did create such an organisation.

Some who are a bit more informed will object to me once again: Jehovah’s Witnesses not only read the Bible, but also collect donations, correspond with one another on the internet, etc., and this amounts to setting up a prohibited organisation. Let’s assume that this is so (although legally it’s a big question). Then let’s clarify, why are these organisations in particular banned? If we put this question to a passer-by on the street, he – depending on which TV channel he watches – could say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses destroy families, don’t serve in the army, are opposed to blood transfusions and generally appear to be godless heretics. But the decision of the Supreme Court of 20 April 2017 banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia mentions none of these things. The decision of the court is publicly available.

The whole case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on a single fact – possessing forbidden literature. I emphasise: not just the dissemination, but the simple possession. In a few towns in the premises where the Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered, they found some booklets or other (which were often planted by the FSB as proven by CCTV, but the court was not interested in this). That was the sum total of the charge. On that basis a number of local religious organisations were closed down, and the next stage was the banning of the central religious organisation, and already on that basis they started persecuting thousands of people throughout the country. And all of this merely because they had found a few books somewhere. In not one criminal case was there even a single victim.

Someone is going to say they shouldn’t have printed banned literature. The main question that was heard was this: Why, actually, has this literature been banned? Here is an example of a quotation that resulted in one of the magazines being deemed extremist: “Priests of the Greek Orthodox Church and their supporters attempted to come to the construction site and prevent work, but Jehovah heard our prayer and gave us protection.” The court expert’s conclusion: “A negative image of clergymen is created … All the information about them is negative, which speaks to the presence in the text of intent to create a negative image for all clergymen as a social group.”

You can familiarize yourself with a collection of analogous quotations that resulted in the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses being deemed extremist. (Is it any coincidence that such expert opinions began to appear immediately following the beginning of Kirill’s patriarchate, in 2009?) If this is extremism, then it is purely virtual, expressed in disagreement with other religions on theological issues, which is a matter of faith and cannot be considered in secular courts. After all, the experts recognized as extremist quotations in which evangelical Pharisees — the first Christians’ persecutors — were condemned. One magazine was deemed extremist for a sentence about how the true God is one.

This is the real reason why Anatoly Vilitkevich, Roman Markin, Viktor Trofimov, Valentin Osadchuk, Vladimir Kochnev, Aleksandr Suvorov, and Dennis Kristensen are in prison. This is what 70-year-old Arkady Akopyan has been convicted for in Prokhladnoye, and 80-year-old grandmothers have been tried for in other cases. This is what another 16 people were convicted for in Taganrog. This is why people are being fired from their jobs and their children are being harassed in school, and this is why in one instance a shop refused to allow a woman to buy what it was selling. Even if we allow that they had created certain organizations, their persecution on the basis of a ban on those organizations is tantamount to religious persecution because at the basis of the ban lie purely religious postulates. Almost no one knows about this other than the believers themselves and their lawyers.

One can have various feelings toward Jehovah’s Witnesses and any other religion, but all of us should be seriously concerned that Russia has begun putting people in prison for “creating a negative image of clergymen.” The media are cynically presenting these imprisonments as the fight against extremism. The situation is especially absurd given that, according to a decision by the Supreme Court on 28 June 2011, criticism of other religions cannot be considered extremism. On the other hand, this same Supreme Court has uncovered criticism of other religions and declared it to be extremism. When lawyers drew the court’s attention to its violation of its own ruling, the court simply ignored it. The entire trial last year was a mockery of justice. The result was not only a wave of absurd criminal trials but also the largest nationalization of private property in the history of the Council of Europe: right now property worth tens of millions of euros is systematically being confiscated.

It is very important to understand that the mass persecutions over religion are unfolding in Russia in classic form. Of course, these persecutions have been obscured by the derisive formulation “extremist activity,” in order to disinform the public. The disinformation mission, as always, has been assigned to the media. Journalists cheerfully talk about how brave policemen all over the country are catching the “leaders of extremist cells.” Exactly as in the Soviet era they told stories about how full freedom of speech and confession reigned in the country and people were imprisoned exclusively for “anti-Soviet propaganda.”

Translated by Frances Robson and Marian Schwartz