APRIL 27, 2016
Russian authorities have taken another bold step in an aggressive, government-sponsored campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Prosecutor General’s Office is threatening to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia for alleged “extremist activity.” In a warning letter dated March 2, 2016, Deputy Prosecutor General V. Ya. Grin demanded that the Center eliminate all “violations” within two months.
The warning greatly escalates Russia’s campaign to marginalize the Witnesses and restrict their religious freedom. If liquidated, the Administrative Center will be closed, it will be added to the federal list of extremist organizations, and its property will be turned over to the State. Because of their affiliation with the Center, all religious associations of Jehovah’s Witnesses—406 local religious organizations (legal entities) and over 2,500 congregations—may also face liquidation. As a result, Witnesses throughout Russia could lose their Kingdom Halls (houses of worship). Ultimately, liquidation of the Administrative Center could deprive the Witnesses of their right to practice their religious beliefs.
Russia’s systematic attack against Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on fabricated evidence and a deliberate misapplication of the Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern “about numerous reports indicating that the law [on Extremist Activity] is increasingly used to curtail freedom of expression . . . and freedom of religion, targeting, inter alia, Jehovah’s Witnesses.” *
Jehovah’s Witnesses are an established, international religion. They enjoy religious freedom in democratic countries around the world and in all member states of the European Union. Russia is an exception. Its campaign targeting the peaceful worship of the Witnesses has progressed incrementally through a series of steps that began in the mid-1990’s. These efforts dramatically accelerated after Russia adopted legislation on extremism and misused it as a tool of repression.
Vague Definition of Extremist Activity—The Groundwork for Abuse
In 2002, Russia adopted the Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity in response to concerns about terrorism. From its inception, however, the law’s vague definition of extremist activity raised concerns that Russian officials could misapply it as a tool of repression. In 2003, the UN Human Rights Committee encouraged Russia to amend the law and define extremist activity more precisely, in order to “exclude any possibility of arbitrary application.” *
Instead of clarifying the law, later revisions expanded its application. In 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe observed: “In the original law, extremism was partly defined as ‘incitement to social, racial, national or religious discord, associated with violence or calls to violence.’ The 2006 amendment removed the phrase ‘associated with violence or calls to violence.’ . . . This ambiguous definition of ‘extremism’ allows for arbitrary action by the law enforcement agencies.”
Fears that the law would be abused proved valid. In 2007, the Prosecutor General’s Office seized upon the law’s wording to initiate investigations against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Deputy Prosecutor General V. Ya. Grin—who also signed the recent warning given to the Administrative Center—issued an official letter ordering prosecutors to open investigations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This letter was the first indication that the campaign against the Witnesses would be nationwide and centrally organized.
Although the Witnesses do not engage in any criminal activity, prosecutors across Russia cast a wide dragnet and have opened over 500 investigations against Witnesses since 2007. The same report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted: “The Federal Law ‘on counteracting extremist activities’ (Extremism Law), adopted in 2002, has been misused as a tool against the activities of certain religions, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, a large community of 162,000 people in Russia. This misuse has dramatically increased since the introduction of amendments to the law in 2006.” *
“The Federal Law ‘on counteracting extremist activities’ . . . has been misused as a tool against the activities of certain religions, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Banning Religious Literature—A Foundation for Further Repression
Before taking aim at the Administrative Center, located near St. Petersburg, law-enforcement authorities focused their attention on the Witnesses’ religious publications. Prosecutors in Taganrog and Gorno-Altaysk filed claims in court, demanding that numerous Witness publications be declared “extremist” and placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials (FLEM).
Relying on so-called expert studies, courts in both Taganrog and Gorno-Altaysk ruled in favor of the prosecutors in 2009 and 2010. Since then, these two decisions, which banned a total of 52 religious publications, have formed the basis for the majority of accusations lodged against the Witnesses. Authorities in other regions of the country have followed the same pattern established in the Taganrog and Gorno-Altaysk cases. To date, courts have ruled to place 87 Witness publications on the FLEM.
The Witnesses contest the Taganrog and Gorno-Altaysk decisions and all other Russian court decisions that have declared their publications to be extremist. They have filed 28 applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to address accusations of extremism and related abuses. The ECHR is expected to rule on 22 of these cases soon. While defending its position before the ECHR, the Russian government has admitted that numerous Witness publications on the FLEM do not “contain direct calls for violence or incitement to violence.”
Freedom of Expression Under Assault
Once Russian authorities succeeded in having literature declared “extremist” by the courts, they had the “legal” means to launch attacks against the Witnesses and further restrict their right to freedom of expression.
In 2010, authorities revoked the Witnesses’ permit to import and distribute The Watchtower and Awake! in Russia. The Watchtower has been in print since 1879. Both publications are the most widely circulated magazines in the world.
Since March 2015, officials have refused to allow any shipments of religious literature from Jehovah’s Witnesses to enter the country.
Since July 2015 the Witnesses’ official website, jw.org, has been banned in Russia, making it difficult for anyone within Russia to obtain Witness publications electronically. Promoting the website is a criminal offense.
In early 2016, a prosecutor in Vyborg filed a claim to have the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a Bible published by the Witnesses, declared “extremist.”
In addition to restricting freedom of expression, the authorities have used the publications posted on the FLEM as a pretext to open investigations against the Witnesses’ local legal entities and to prosecute individual Witnesses for their religious activities.
A Pattern of Inspections and Convictions
When a publication is posted on the FLEM, it is banned for mass distribution, production, or storage with the intent to distribute. Local authorities have taken advantage of this provision in the law to obtain court orders to search hundreds of homes of individual Witnesses and their Kingdom Halls for any banned religious literature.
Often the searches are aggressive and authorities confiscate far more than the law allows, seizing personal items and all religious literature regardless of whether it is posted on the FLEM.
In August 2010, in Yoshkar-Ola, a group of approximately 30 officers from the police, Federal Security Service (FSB), and armed special forces interrupted a religious service. The officers grabbed some of the Witnesses and held them in a stranglehold and armlock position. The officers searched the premises and seized personal items, documents, and literature.
In July 2012, in the Republic of Karelia, FSB officers armed with automatic weapons and wearing ski masks assaulted a Witness in public, pushing him facedown on the hood of his car and twisting his arms behind his back. The officers searched the homes of several Witnesses and seized personal items and religious literature regardless of whether the literature was posted on the FLEM.
In March 2016, in the Republic of Tatarstan, police raided a Kingdom Hall and several homes of the Witnesses. They seized computer equipment, personal electronic tablets, and religious literature.
Law-enforcement authorities have secretly video recorded Witnesses in their private homes and at their Kingdom Halls. They have tapped the Witnesses’ phones, monitored e-mail, and resorted to other unlawful means to collect information. Intent on justifying their claims of extremism, some police have even resorted to planting the Witnesses’ banned literature in Kingdom Halls in attempts to fabricate evidence against them. As a result of these actions, many Witnesses have been criminally or administratively charged.
Liquidation of Legal Entities Leads to Criminal Charges
In addition to filing charges against individual Witnesses, law-enforcement officials have used the banned literature they planted in Kingdom Halls as “evidence” for grounds to liquidate the Witnesses’ local religious organizations (LROs). * Once an LRO is liquidated as “extremist,” the State seizes its assets. As a result, local Witnesses lose their houses of worship. This has already happened in Taganrog and Samara. Authorities in other cities are following this same pattern.
Once authorities liquidated the Taganrog LRO, they took the unlawful step of equating meeting for prayer and worship with “continuing the unlawful activity of a banned organization.” Applying this tactic, authorities in Taganrog have criminally convicted 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses merely for meeting together peacefully for worship. These are the same religious services that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold throughout the world. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is now a criminal offense in Taganrog to worship as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Warning Against the Administrative Center Signals a Dangerous Escalation
If officials liquidate the Center, they will close it and ban its activity throughout Russia. Like their fellow believers in Taganrog, Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide will be vulnerable to criminal prosecution merely for attending Christian meetings and speaking about their faith to others. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could find themselves in a scenario in which they are free to believe as they wish but not free to practice their religion with others. *
Philip Brumley, General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “For Jehovah’s Witnesses to be lumped together with extremist groups and for their literature to be listed with works of violent terrorists is an affront to decency and justice. Russian authorities have misapplied a law that contravenes international norms, the Council of Europe’s standards, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and Russia’s own constitution. They are using it as a tool to repress peaceful worship and to attack the heart of the Witnesses’ activity in Russia.”
Vasiliy Kalin, a representative from the Administrative Center, observed: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have worshipped in Russia since the 19th century and endured severe persecution under Soviet times. Afterward, the State acknowledged us as victims of repression. We want to continue worshipping peaceably in Russia. The slanderous accusations of ‘extremism’ against us are simply being used to mask the true religious intolerance of those who disagree with our beliefs. We are not extremists.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses hope that Russia will protect their freedom of religion as many other countries have. They also ask that the Prosecutor General’s Office stop its assault on the Administrative Center and that Russia uphold human rights for religious minorities. The question is, Will Russia do so? Or will it regress by oppressing Jehovah’s Witnesses as it did during the Soviet era?
^ par. 4 “Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of the Russian Federation,” United Nations Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7, 28 April 2015, paragraph 20.
^ par. 7 “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 40 of the Covenant, Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee, Russian Federation,” UN Human Rights Committee, CCPR/CO/79/RUS, December 1, 2003, paragraph 20.
^ par. 10 “The honouring of obligations and commitments by the Russian Federation,” Doc. 13018, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, dated 14 September 2012, paragraph 497.
^ par. 30 In Russia, religious groups that meet the legal criteria may form legal entities called “local religious organizations.” These legal entities are not responsible for nationwide religious activities but are formed by local congregants in a small area, like a city or town. Having a legal entity enables local worshippers to rent or buy property, among other things.
^ par. 33 This is a violation of Article 28 of the RF Constitution, which states: “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with others any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.”
^ par. 40 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit corporation used primarily for international efforts to support the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. It is the copyright holder for the Witnesses’ publications.