Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine face illegal seizure of property
LVIV, Ukraine—The Religious Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine faces the illegal seizure of a portion of its property through a landgrab scam commonly known in Ukraine as a property raid. Such scams involve the illegal sale of a property to a third party without the knowledge of the legitimate owners. The sale is then validated by the court and any appeals by the legitimate owners are dismissed by Ukraine’s Supreme Economic Court.
In the present case, the nearly 19-acre complex located in Briukhovychi (Lviv region) was legally purchased by Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1998 from OJSC Kinescope and was then largely reconstructed. Nine years later, in 2007, the liquidator of OJSC Kinescope unexpectedly filed a claim with the court, falsely asserting ownership rights to a portion of the property. Before the claim was even considered by a court, Kinescope sold the disputed property in July 2008 to a third party, the Sport Development Center LLC (SDC), without the knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The unlawful transaction by OJSC Kinescope and the assumed right of ownership by the SDC were subsequently confirmed by the Lviv Regional Commercial Court on September 4, 2008, and again on July 21, 2009. These decisions were made without notifying Jehovah’s Witnesses that ownership of their property had been disputed. On three occasions, the Supreme Economic Court denied Jehovah’s Witnesses a right of appeal, claiming that no violation had occurred since the lower courts did not mention the name of the Religious Center in their decisions or in the July 2008 sale contract to the SDC. Decisions of the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine are not subject to appeal.
Lower courts, including the Court of Appeal, declared that the actions of Kinescope as well as the July 2008 contract of sale were both illegal. Yet, the Supreme Economic Court refuses to recognize such actions as unlawful. The final maneuver of the landgrab scam is to seize the land and property by forcing the local municipality to change the ownership on the land registry. This process has already commenced.
The attempt to illegally seize the property owned by Jehovah's Witnesses jeopardizes their ability to operate their national headquarters and threatens the freedom of worship of more than 270, 000 citizens of Ukraine. Jehovah’s Witnesses have sought to protect their property rights by appealing to law enforcement authorities as well as the courts to intervene. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, the Prosecutor General, and the Governor of the Lviv region have all been made aware of the issues.