SEPTEMBER 15, 2015
The retrial of 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog, Russia, is in its ninth month. Over 20 hearings have been held this summer, with more planned through October. If convicted, the Witnesses face imprisonment and fines merely for attending religious services, reading the Bible, and associating with fellow believers.
Lengthy Proceedings Affect the Defendants
Since the beginning of the retrial earlier this year, the defendants have spent nearly 50 days in court. The defendants have been in court for over two years, including the time spent in the original trial. This makes it the longest-running criminal trial of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
The amount of time consumed by the hearings has taken a toll on the defendants. One of them, Kirill Kravchenko, explains: “We cannot work; we cannot spend enough time with our family or get sufficient rest.” Several of the defendants have been fired or pressured to quit their job because of the time the trial consumes or because they are publicly maligned for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the past two years, the court has prohibited them from leaving Taganrog without first obtaining official permission.
The proceedings have also placed an undue emotional strain on the defendants. “It affects my health,” says Tatyana Kravchenko. “I cannot fall asleep, or I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m always thinking about the trial, mulling it over in my mind, worrying.” Nikolay Trotsyuk, also a defendant, has been hospitalized several times because of the stress of the trial.
Events Leading to the Retrial in Taganrog
In 2011, police conducted a covert criminal investigation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog. Sixteen Witnesses were indicted in 2012, and their initial criminal trial began in May 2013. After 15 months of hearings, the Taganrog City Court convicted seven of them for alleged extremist activity. The judge heavily fined all seven and sentenced four of them to lengthy prison terms, but he immediately waived the fines and suspended the prison sentences. The judge acquitted the other nine Witnesses on technical grounds but nevertheless held that they had engaged in extremist activity.
The 16 Witnesses appealed the decision to the Rostov Regional Court, asking that they be acquitted of all criminal charges. The prosecutor also appealed, arguing that the suspended sentences were too lenient.
On December 12, 2014, the Rostov Regional Court considered the appeals and reversed the decision of the Taganrog City Court. However, instead of acquitting the Witnesses, the Rostov Regional Court granted the prosecutor’s demands and sent the case back to the Taganrog City Court for a full retrial with a different judge. The retrial began on January 22, 2015, and the Witnesses expected a judgment in June 2015. Now that the judge has scheduled hearings through October, it appears that he will decide the case late in 2015.
Should the Extremism Law Restrict Peaceful Worship?
Russia’s Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity was originally intended to fight terrorism, but some Russian officials are misapplying it to restrict peaceful, lawful worship. Authorities throughout the country have disrupted Witness meetings, searched their homes, and banned and confiscated literature, using the extremism law as a pretext to justify these actions. In Taganrog, the authorities misused this law to liquidate the Witnesses’ local legal entity and to confiscate their Kingdom Hall. More recently, authorities in Samara and Abinsk have followed suit by liquidating the Witnesses’ legal entities and confiscating their property.
As a result of the heavy-handed actions of the Russian authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses have submitted 28 applications to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to seek redress. Since 22 of these applications involve similar human rights violations, the ECHR is currently reviewing them together. According to an attorney for the Witnesses, the ECHR may issue its judgment on these cases as early as the end of 2015.
Threat of Growing Religious Intolerance
Russia now stands at a crossroads regarding freedom of religion. If those being prosecuted in Taganrog are convicted, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia expect that their fellow Witnesses could be prosecuted in Samara, Abinsk, and other places. They hope that the Russian government will end this persecution and uphold freedom of religion for all of its citizens.
June 9, 2008
Rostov Regional Prosecutor’s Office files a claim against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog for alleged extremist activity.
September 11, 2009
The Rostov Regional Court declares 34 religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extremist and bans the Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog (LRO).
December 8, 2009
The Russian Federation Supreme Court upholds the September 2009 ruling of the Rostov Regional Court.
March 1, 2010
The Ministry of Justice posts on the Federal List of Extremist Materials the 34 publications declared extremist by the Rostov Regional Court. Authorities confiscate the Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Taganrog.
June 1, 2010
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog file the application Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia with the European Court of Human Rights.
April 30, 2011
Intelligence agencies begin secretly video recording the Witnesses’ religious services in Taganrog.
July 6, 2011
Authorities add the Taganrog LRO to the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.
Local authorities initiate a criminal case against Witnesses in Taganrog and search 19 homes.
May 31, 2012
Investigators issue the first indictments to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog for their religious activity.
The trial of 16 Witnesses on criminal charges of extremism begins in the Taganrog City Court.
July 29-30, 2014
The Taganrog City Court convicts seven of the Witnesses for alleged extremist activity. Later, all 16 defendants as well as the prosecutor appeal the case.
December 12, 2014
On appeal, the Rostov Regional Court rules to remand the case for retrial by a different judge.
January 22, 2015
Retrial of the 16 Witnesses begins in the Taganrog City Court.
^ par. 44 “The Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by the Russian Federation,” Resolution 1896 (2012), Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, paragraph 25.31.
^ par. 45 “Concluding Observations on the Seventh Periodic Report of the Russian Federation,” UN Human Rights Committee, paragraph 20.