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Russia uses same methods of persecution against Crimean Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses
The repressive arsenal used by Russia’s FSB in its conveyor belt prosecutions of Ukrainian Muslims in occupied Crimea, as well as in the Russian Federation, is now emerging in the mounting persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not only the gratuitously violent armed operations, the dodgy ‘experts’ and suspect ‘secret witnesses’ that these groups have in common, but also the fact that widescale persecution of men and, less often, women who have committed no obvious crime, merely on the grounds of religious beliefs is receiving disturbingly little attention from the international community.
The two types of prosecution are, ostensibly, quite different. Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russia has not banned Islam. The Muslims targeted are claimed to be members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful pan-Islamist movement which is legal in Ukraine, but which Russia’s Supreme Court decided in 2003, without explanation or chance of appeal, to call ‘terrorist’. The huge sentences received or faced by totally law-abiding members of the community are on spurious charges of ‘terrorism’. A much smaller number of Muslims are charged ‘only’ with involvement in the apolitical and peaceful Tablighi Jamaat movement which Russia banned as ‘extremist’ in 2009. On 20 April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court banned an entire faith – that adhered to by all Jehovah’s Witnesses – as ‘extremist’, and since that ruling was upheld at appeal level and came into force, any Jehovah’s Witness is in danger of arrest and imprisonment.
The differences, in fact, largely pertain to how Russia goes about persecuting people for their faith and it is typical that so many of the FSB’s methods are applied in both cases.
You can’t claim that people are ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’ and then simply knock on their doors to arrest them, though in all cases there is nothing at all to suggest that resistance would have been shown. Instead, there are armed searches, most often by masked men in full military gear, with the suspect hurled to the ground and handcuffed, often in the presence of their distressed and terrified children.
In all cases as far as Crimean Muslims are concerned and after most arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the ‘courts’ obediently remand them in custody, and in general does everything that the prosecution demands.
Since Russia has criminalized people’s beliefs, Muslims in occupied Crimea and Russia face guaranteed persecution merely for espousing Hizb ut-Tahrir views. The FSB has developed a system for concocting supposed ‘evidence’ of involvement, with this most often including ‘secret witnesses’ whose identity is concealed from the defence, and who give testimony from another room, almost certainly receiving prompts as to what to answer or, at very least, being able to check what they said earlier. In the ‘trial’ of four Crimean Tatars from Bakhchysarai, these are clearly fake witnesses who repeat what they are told to say, while quite unable to name, for example, the layout of the rooms where the defendants allegedly tried to ‘recruit’ them. In that case also, it is evident that one of the ‘witnesses’ has coordinated new parts of his story to fit extra charges which the prosecution brought almost a year after the men’s arrest (details here).
Illicit taping is also used, with the person doing the taping often asking provocative questions. The sound quality on such recordings is often so poor that you can scarcely make out what people were saying, with this used by the prosecution to claim that the statements made ‘proved’ support for Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The ‘expert assessments’ obtained are highly contentious and have been known to find ‘evidence’ of involvement in the use of a word which is, in fact, commonly used in Crimean Tatar.
‘Hizb ut-Tahrir prosecutions’ are good business for the FSB. They are conveyor-belt style and therefore require little effort from enforcement bodies, while promising bonuses or promotion for the good statistics ‘on fighting terrorism’ that they provide, especially given the fact that the courts almost never rule against the prosecutor. At least in occupied Crimea, they are also an opportunity to persecute those who help circulate information about human rights abuses or in other ways annoy the occupying regime.
The situation with representatives of this faith is similar, though there are important differences. At present there have been arrests and detention only in Russia with the prosecutions in occupied Crimea on administrative charges alone. That, unfortunately, could change any day.
There are currently at least 50 believers facing persecution, with the majority in custody or under house arrest. All were seized during operations similar to those faced by Crimean Muslims, with women also taken away in a few cases.
The ‘expert assessments’ thus far seen are just as questionable as those in Hizb ut-Tahrir cases. During the court hearing on banning the JW Bible and several religious publications, a ‘comprehensive linguistic and religious forensic assessment was presented. This had been produced with the help of ‘experts’ from the Centre for Socio-Cultural expert assessments’, whose ‘experts’ have also provided ‘assessments’ backing the prosecution in the politically-motivated prosecutions of historian Yuri Dmitriev and Pussy Riot.
Such assessments and the bans on religious publications even prior to the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a faith were based solely on the claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses incite religious enmity and denigrate other religions by virtue of their confidence that their faith is the right one. One of the ‘expert assessments’ used to justify the Supreme Court ban pointed to the conviction that the path taken by the Witnesses makes them the chosen of God. As the Memorial Human Rights Centre has pointed out, this is essentially a feature of all religious faiths.
Virtually all those facing persecution are charged under Article 282.2 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code (with organizing activities of a religious organization which has been banned as ‘extremist’). As reported earlier, the Russian state is also using the ban as a pretext for plundering and appropriating Jehovah’s Witness places of worship.
In occupied Crimea, the case is known of one young believer who had been ordered to provide ‘proof of change of faith’ in order to be eligible for alternative civilian service. This is in addition to Russia’s grave violation of international humanitarian law by conscripting young men on illegally occupied Ukrainian territory.
It is clear that ‘secret witnesses’ are also to be used against Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the ongoing trial of Denis Christiansen, the first believer to be arrested and jailed, there has been one such ‘witness’ so far. The person, whose voice was heavily distorted, spoke of having attended Jehovah’s Witness meetings and generally repeated the prosecution’s line.
A particularly tragic aspect of this persecution in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that it is part of each believer’s duty to spread news about their faith to others. That is now a very dangerous thing to do, since you could be sharing your beliefs with FSB infiltrators, quite likely armed with tape recorders.
‘Hizb ut-Tahrir cases’
April 18, 2016 Arsen Dzhepparov and Refat Alimov
May 10, 2018 Enver Seytosmanov