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Update on Russian ban

On the 7th June a Russian court sentenced four members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the U.S.-based Christian evangelical movement, to six years in prison for "extremism," investigators said Tuesday.

The four adherents of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who hail from the city of Chita in eastern Siberia, were found guilty of organizing "extremist" activities between 2017 and 2020, the Investigative Committee said. 

They organized meetings, collected donations and distributed religious literature, investigators said in a statement.

The court sentenced two of the defendants to six and a half years in prison, and another to six years in prison. 

The fourth person was given a six-year suspended sentence.

Russia brands the U.S. evangelical Christian movement, which was set up in the late 19th century and preaches non-violence, as a totalitarian sect and in 2017 designated it an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution in the country.

On June 7, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights in the case “Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia” rendered a historic decision that declared the Russian liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the repression of this religious organization in Russia unlawful. The decision concerned twenty different cases about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which were consolidated. “Taganrog LRO” refers to the local branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog, in the Rostov Oblast, whose liquidation was ordered in 2009.

In 2017, the national Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia was also “liquidated” pursuant to a decision by the Supreme Court, as it had previously happened to other local branches. Individual Witnesses were arrested and prosecuted, publications were banned, and access to the international website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was blocked in Russia.

In a detailed decision, the ECHR noted that all these measures are part of “a policy of intolerance by the Russian authorities towards the religious practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses designed to cause Jehovah’s Witnesses to abandon their faith and to prevent others from joining it.” The Court reaffirmed its long-held principle that “respect for religious diversity undoubtedly represents one of the most important challenges to be faced today; for that reason, the authorities must perceive religious diversity not as a threat but as a source of enrichment.”

In Russia, authorities did just the opposite. “The use of an excessively broad wording of the extremism legislation to disband the communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses across Russia, the breaking-up of their religious meetings, the confiscation of their religious publications, searches in their homes and places of worship, surveillance by the security services, and other forms of interference with their religious practices reinforce this conclusion,” the Court said.

The decision is almost two hundred pages long, and examines several topics. However, its center is the notion of “extremism.” Russian law bans as “religious extremists” organizations and publications that do not advocate violence but merely present their beliefs and practices as “superior” to others. In practice, Russian courts interpret “religious extremism” as the claim that a religious path is superior to the one proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Indeed, the decision notes the important role ROC priests and “experts” played in the process leading to the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

The Court, confirming its previous case law, noted procedural problems in identifying “extremism” in Russia. First, “the [Russian] courts simply endorsed conclusions drawn up by experts selected by the prosecutors and the police and made no attempt to conduct their own legal analysis.” Second, “Russian law did not allow affected parties to participate in the proceedings under the Suppression of Extremism Act, which meant that their arguments could not be heard.”


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