DECEMBER 2, 2015
After a retrial spanning 11 months, the Taganrog City Court convicted 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses on criminal charges for organizing and attending peaceful religious meetings. The court based its decision on a criminal law that punishes individuals who organize and participate in extremist activity. This prosecution was possible because of the regional court’s earlier misapplication, in 2009, of Russia’s legislation on extremism. *
On November 30, 2015, Judge A. V. Vasyutchenko sentenced four of the Witnesses to over five years in prison for organizing religious services and fined each of them 100,000 rubles ($1,511 U.S.). The judge fined the other 12 defendants from 20,000 to 70,000 rubles ($300 to $1,050 U.S.) each. However, the judge immediately suspended the sentences and waived the fines. It is not yet clear how these suspended sentences will affect those convicted. Nonetheless, the ruling criminalizes the defendants.
Faced With a Difficult Choice
Over 800 Witnesses living in Taganrog are concerned about the consequences for meeting together peacefully to discuss the Bible and pray. All of the defendants clearly testified during the trial that they will continue to worship as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, the verdict against them may put their resolve to the test. “The court effectively told us, ‘Renounce your faith or face punishment as repeat offenders,’” said Aleksandr Skvortsov, one of those convicted.
Witnesses elsewhere in Russia are apprehensive after the Taganrog verdict. Following the pattern in Taganrog, authorities in Samara and Abinsk have misapplied the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity to the Witnesses’ peaceful worship and have liquidated the local Witnesses’ legal entities. As long as Russian officials employ this strategy, Jehovah’s Witnesses expect challenges to their freedom of worship in Russia to continue.
The Battle for Religious Freedom Continues
This decision reflects the ever greater pressure that Russian authorities are exerting to suppress the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the past year, Russian officials have declared two local legal entities of the Witnesses to be extremist. Since March 2015, authorities have refused to allow the Witnesses to import any religious literature—even Bibles. In July, Russia earned the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to ban the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, jw.org. The Witnesses are contesting these negative decisions in domestic courts and have submitted 28 applications to the European Court of Human Rights, seeking remedy for human rights violations in Russia.
The 16 Witnesses in Taganrog will appeal this decision, starting yet another chapter in their long legal battle. “They have been on trial for over two and a half years,” notes Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative from the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. “It’s unfortunate that they will find themselves in court yet again, simply trying to defend their basic right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the constitution.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not extremists. Their religious services are devoted to teaching love of God and love of neighbor. Witnesses in Taganrog discuss the same material at their weekly meetings as do their fellow believers worldwide. Despite more than 1,700 documented cases of abuse by Russian authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses have not retaliated with a single act of civil disobedience.
Jehovah’s Witnesses hope that Russian authorities will recognize the peaceful nature of the Witnesses’ religious activity and stop prosecuting them in Taganrog and elsewhere. The authorities should extend to Jehovah’s Witnesses the same fundamental right to religious freedom that they accord other well-established, recognized religions.
Retrial Time Line *
January 22, 2015
Retrial of the 16 Witnesses begins in the Taganrog City Court.
The judge postpones hearings, delaying the decision until autumn.
November 13, 2015
Judge adjourns the court to deliberate.
November 30, 2015
The Taganrog City Court convicts all 16 Witnesses. All are fined, and four are sentenced to over five years in prison. The judge suspends the sentences.
^ par. 12 For a time line of events in the initial trial, see “Decision in Retrial Postponed for 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog.”