MARCH 3, 2014
On January 22, 2014, a panel of three judges of the Tver Regional Court reversed the decision of a lower court to ban jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses. * In contrast to other decisions rendered by Russian courts over the last few years, the Regional Court applied the rule of law, and it rejected the prosecutor’s vigorous efforts to ban the website.
The state-sponsored harassment and persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia had taken a sharp turn for the worse on August 7, 2013, when a lower court in Tver (located about 100 miles [160 km] northwest of Moscow) ruled to ban jw.org in a trial lasting only 25 minutes. Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses were not informed of the hearing and had no opportunity to contest the allegations raised by the local prosecutor and to present their defense to the trial court. Jehovah’s Witnesses learned of the banning judgment through media reports just hours before the deadline for filing an appeal expired on September 12, 2013. They immediately lodged an appeal with the Tver Regional Court.
In the appeal hearing on January 22, 2014, the Regional Court recognized that the rights of the owner of the website, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., had been violated and ordered a new trial to hear arguments from both sides. The prosecutor, supported by representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior, asked the court to declare the website “extremist” and ban it throughout Russia. To its credit, the Regional Court rejected her arguments.
Nationwide campaign of harassment begins—extremism law is misapplied to restrict the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Beginning in 2009, Russian authorities used the vague wording of the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity to escalate their harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses from isolated occurrences to a nationwide orchestrated campaign against them. The authorities have used their misapplication of the extremism law to justify:
detainment of more than 1,600 Jehovah’s Witnesses;
banning 70 of their religious publications;
searches of 171 homes and houses of worship; and
disruption or interference in 69 religious services to date.
In the Tver case, the prosecutor moved to ban jw.org because six alleged “extremist” publications were available on the website. The Tsentralniy District Court of Tver used the extremism law as the basis for its August 7, 2013, decision to ban jw.org and add it to the Federal List of Extremist Materials.
This decision was clearly disproportionate to its objective in failing to propose any alternative—for example, the removal of the so-called “extremist” publications from the website. When the Regional Court understood that the owners had already removed all alleged “extremist” publications from jw.org for the population in Russia, it had no difficulty in concluding that there was no legal basis to ban the website. The decision is now final, although the prosecutor has six months to file a cassation appeal. However, the appeal is discretionary, and the court is not obligated to hear it.
Does the decision of the Tver Regional Court indicate better things to come?
There is much yet to remedy. The Tver Regional Court’s objective evaluation and its judgment are in sharp contrast to the repressive measures taken against Jehovah’s Witnesses by other Russian courts. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has on several occasions condemned Russia’s violations restricting the Witnesses’ freedom of religion. Instead of implementing the measures in the judgments of the ECHR, Russia has continued to multiply its human rights violations. In defending their freedom of worship, Jehovah’s Witnesses currently have 23 applications against Russia pending before the ECHR.
Does the decision of the Tver Regional Court indicate better things to come? Jehovah’s Witnesses will be paying close attention to Russia’s response to this judgment and to the upcoming judgments of the ECHR.
^ par. 2 Internet providers in Russia would block access to jw.org if the court banned the website. The ban would also empower the authorities to charge anyone promoting it with a criminal offense.