OCTOBER 1, 2014
On October 8, 2014, the Russian Federation Supreme Court will hear the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara regarding the liquidation of their Local Religious Organization (LRO). Earlier, a lower-court decision declared the Samara LRO to be extremist. If the Supreme Court does not reverse the ruling, the more than 1,500 Witnesses living in Samara may face serious consequences.
Samara Regional Prosecutor’s Office Employs Aggressive Tactics
Legal proceedings against the LRO began in April 2014, when the Samara Regional Prosecutor’s Office filed an application in the Samara Regional Court to liquidate it for “extremist activity.” Even before the regional court heard the case, the prosecutor’s office suspended the LRO and temporarily seized its property. Following this decision, and before the court trial had even begun, the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice entered the Samara LRO on a list of religious associations whose activity has been suspended for extremist activity. Then on May 29, 2014, Judge Shabayeva decided in favor of the prosecutor and ordered that the LRO be liquidated and its property confiscated.
This is not the first time that the Samara Regional Prosecutor’s Office has filed charges in an attempt to liquidate the Samara LRO. In 2009 the prosecutor’s office filed a claim that went to trial but later withdrew the charges. In the current case, the Samara law-enforcement authorities took a different approach to achieve their goal.
Russian Courts Liquidate LRO on Dubious Grounds
In January 2013 and January 2014, local police searched facilities that the Witnesses rent for worship and “found” religious publications that were posted on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The Samara City Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to the LRO concerning the 2013 search, and after the police discovered religious publications again in January 2014, the prosecutor’s office initiated an administrative case. On March 7, 2014, the Sovetskiy District Court of Samara found the LRO liable and fined it 50,000 rubles ($1,383, U.S.). The Witnesses in Samara are certain that in both searches, the police planted the publications. Furthermore, Jehovah’s Witnesses contest Russian court rulings that have declared their publications extremist, and they have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights.
After the Samara Regional Prosecutor’s Office secured the conviction in the Sovetskiy District Court, it filed its April 2014 application in the Samara Regional Court on the charge of extremism. This was done with the intent to liquidate the LRO. Attorneys for the Witnesses argued before Judge Shabayeva that liquidating the LRO was unwarranted and that there is nothing extremist in the activity or beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses or the LRO. They also argued that the “banned” publications had been planted by the police during the searches. Nevertheless, Judge Shabayeva decided to liquidate the Samara LRO.
Will Russian Authorities Continue to Suppress Freedom of Worship?
The case in Samara is following a similar pattern to the actions orchestrated by Russian law-enforcement authorities against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog, where authorities first misapplied the Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity to their worship. The authorities succeeded in liquidating the Taganrog LRO in 2009, and later they opened a criminal case against individual Witnesses. The criminal case eventually led to the prosecution and conviction of seven local Witnesses for merely attending religious meetings. The potential for a similar outcome concerns Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara.
How far will Russian authorities carry this attack on the worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Since June 2014, fabricated charges have been brought against Witnesses in various parts of Russia for distributing so-called extremist religious literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara hope that the Russian Federation Supreme Court will restore justice in their case.