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JULY 1, 2014

The European Court of Human Rights Upholds the Right of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia to Meet for Worship

On June 26, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their right to worship without unlawful interference from the Russian authorities. In its unanimous judgment, the Court found that Russia violated Articles 5 (right to liberty and security) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) when police overwhelmed a religious service with an illegal raid on the night of April 12, 2006.

On that night, Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world were gathered together for their annual religious observance commemorating the death of Jesus Christ. Two congregations in Moscow had rented a school auditorium for the special meeting and anticipated an attendance of over 400 worshippers. While the meeting was in progress, riot police arrived at the scene in ten police vehicles and two minibuses, with an armed unit of the Special Police Force (OMON) and dozens of uniformed police officers. They quickly cordoned off the building, and without warrant for their actions, disrupted the religious service. They ordered all in attendance to leave the building, then searched the auditorium, confiscated religious literature, and forcibly took 14 male attendees to the local police station and detained them. An attorney who had been contacted to represent the detained Witnesses arrived at the police station to assist them. The police searched him, threw him to the ground, put a knife to his throat, and threatened that if he filed a complaint, there would be unpleasant consequences for his family. After nearly four hours, the detainees were released and allowed to return home.

Nikolay Krupko, lead applicant in the case

Nikolay Krupko, along with three other Witnesses who were detained, brought suit against the authorities for illegally disrupting the religious meeting and unlawfully detaining them. After the Lyublino District Court and the Moscow City Court rejected their complaint, the men submitted an application to the ECHR in June 2007.

In its June 26 judgment entitled Krupko and Others v. Russia, the ECHR stated: “The Court has consistently held that, even in cases where the authorities had not been properly notified of a public event but where the participants did not represent a danger to the public order, dispersal of a peaceful assembly by the police could not be regarded as having been ‘necessary in a democratic society.’ . . . This finding applies a fortiori in the circumstances of the present case where the assembly in question was not a tumultuous outdoors event but a solemn religious ceremony in an assembly hall which was not shown to create any disturbance or danger to the public order. The intervention of armed riot police in substantial numbers with the aim of disrupting the ceremony, even if the authorities genuinely believed that lack of advance notice rendered it illegal, followed by the applicants’ arrest and three-hour detention, was disproportionate for the protection of public order.”

This is the fourth judgment against Russia for violating the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a 2007 judgment entitled Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia, the ECHR ruled that Russia violated the Convention when local authorities illegally disrupted a meeting of hearing-impaired Witnesses in Chelyabinsk. In 2010, the ECHR ruled against Russia in Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, a case in which the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office unlawfully liquidated and banned the Witnesses’ legal entity in Moscow. In 2013, the ECHR ruled in Avilkina and Others v. Russia that Russia violated fundamental privacy rights when the St. Petersburg City Prosecutor’s Office ordered the disclosure of confidential medical information.

The judgments of the ECHR add further proof that the Russian authorities, in attempting to suppress the worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, have violated the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution of the Russian Federation and the Convention.