Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: once rehabilitated, now again persecuted
Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia has taken on new and frightening proportions and can only get worse unless world attention is focused on this totally unacceptable situation now. PLEASE pass this information on to anybody who can raise the issue with political and religious bodies
A number of human rights and civic organizations have addressed an appeal to the Russian Federation Human Rights Ombudsperson, Russia’s Public Chamber and the Council under the President for the Promotion of Institutes of Civic Society and Human Rights. They are calling for an end to State persecution of religious minorities.
They endorse the initiative from the international human rights network in support of conscripts, military servicemen and those doing alternative service, and express concern over the violation of rights of Jehovah’s Witness communities in the Russian Federation.
The authors point out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have always been the most consistent in refusing to do military service and make up a considerable number of those doing alternative service in the countries of the former Soviet Union where there is such a possibility. Where there is no such possibility, or where alternative service is little different from military service, the Jehovah’s Witnesses stay true to their beliefs, even to the point of prosecution and imprisonment.
Major restrictions to freedom of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as a number of other “non-title” religious communities are occurring not only in Russia, but also in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and other countries of the region. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities are banned. Their refusal to do military service is used as one of the grounds for the State waging a battle against them.
We consider it a matter of greatest urgency to draw particular attention to the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia where the situation is moving from the stage of numerous violations of their constitutional rights and freedoms to downright persecution.
To provide the authorities with a semblance of legality, charges of extremist activities have been used as supposed justification. The charges are based solely on the law enforcement agencies deeming Jehovah’s Witness religious literature to be extremist, using dishonest commissioned “expert assessments” to provide justification.
They have labelled as “extremist” the assertion by Jehovah’s Witnesses of the superiority of their religion, criticism by them of other denominations, including of Orthodox and other priests. The typical assertion of exclusiveness found in all Semitic religions is treated by the Prosecutor and court as incitement to religious enmity and hatred, propaganda of religious superiority and insulting the feelings of believers (these coming under extremism in the Law “On countering extremist activities”).
This turns tens of thousands of believers into criminals falling under Articles 280 and 282-2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Such rulings have already been passed by courts and one has come into force. Criminal prosecution for ones faith could at any time become a reality.
On 11 September 2009 the Rostov Regional Court, on an application from the Prosecutor, found the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog to be an extremist organization and banned them. 34 religious publications, taken from the community, were declared extremist. On 8 December 2009 this ruling was affirmed by the Russian Supreme Court and came into force.
Similar cases are being initiated by the Prosecutor throughout the country. On 1 October last year the Supreme Court of the Republic of Altai passed a ruling finding another 18 Jehovah’s Witness publications extremist. This ruling has been appealed and has not therefore come into force. On 23 December 2009 a District Prosecutor’s Office in the city of Adygeisk, Republic of Adygea issued 11 warnings on the inadmissibility of extremist activities, with these all related purely to cases where publications declared extremist by the Rostov Regional Court had been distributed.
On 28 December 2009 a similar warning was issued by the Arkhangelsk Regional Prosecutor’s Office. It once again refers to religious literature legally distributed throughout the entire world.
We consider it necessary to particularly note the accusation in the Taganrog case of inciting members of the organization to refuse to carry out civic duties. Such actions are not considered extremist, but carry with them, according to Article 14 of the Federal Law “On freedom of conscience and religious associations” the liquidation of the religious organization and ban on its activities. The court considered the proof of such incitement to have been the refusal by one believer to do alternative civic service. This is despite the fact that hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have carried out this service, regardless of its hardship and poor pay, every year. There are cases where people refuse but this is due to the failings of the law on alternative civil service which allows for it to be carried out in organizations under the military. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent to military factories, albeit to departments not linked with military production are guided by their own conscience as to whether they can agree to this. They do not refuse to do alternative service but demand real civil service, not its profanation.
As well as court and prosecutor pressure, Jehovah’s Witnesses also experience severe pressure from regional and local executive bodies. In violation of Article 28 of the Constitution, the authorities obstruct believers from spreading the word, holding congresses, coerce those letting properties to break lease agreements with communities, remove land previously allocated for construction, pressurize through endless checks, raids and break up meetings.
The Russian Federation Supreme Court’s upholding of the liquidation of the Taganrog organization has moved the campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses to a new level. Now they can be legally detained, not only in the Rostov region, but throughout the country, for distributing “extremist material”. Reports of such incidents are already coming in. For example, on 8 January 2010 in Pochel, Bryansk region, two believers were detained and taken to the police station for “unlawful preaching” and “circulation of extremist literature”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were victims of criminal State violence in Hitler’s Germnay and in the Soviet Union. Thousands of families were exiled by the Soviet regime to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Huge numbers were arrested and went through the cases for belonging to a “fanatical anti-Soviet sect”. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were rehabilitated in 1991 with the passing of the Law “On the rehabilitation of victims of political repression”. The law declared the judicial and extra-judicial persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an element of the despotism of the totalitarian regime.
This law has not been revoked, yet believers, many of whom have certificates confirming their rehabilitation, are again being dragged through the court. Only the outdated word “anti-Soviet” has been replaced by the modern “extremist”.
The authors call on the President of Russia to use all legal and political means at his disposal to stop the persecution of citizens of Russia and act as guarantor of their religious freedom.
They turn to the Prosecutor General to stop the department under his charge from carrying out a religious inquisition, to recognize the priority of human rights and freedoms and to initiate nadzornye appeals (when a sentence has come into force) over unlawful court rulings in respect to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They call on the Human Rights Ombudsperson, Russia’s Public Chamber and the Council under the President for the Promotion of Institutes of Civic Society and Human Rights to stop State persecution of religious minorities.
The appeal is signed by Oleg Orlov, Head of the Memorial Board, Svetlana Gannushkina from the Civic Assistance Committee, and many other human rights activists from Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
The full appeal together with signatures can be found at: http://www.hro.org/node/7232