JUNE 2, 2014
The criminal trial of 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses has continued through May 2014 in the Taganrog City Court. It is the only trial in Russia in which Russian citizens are being pressured to renounce their faith under threat of criminal prosecution. One of the accused commented: “They want me to be like everyone else, they don’t want me to be different. They don’t want me to go out and talk about the Bible. What will happen next, I don’t know.”
Russian authorities are misapplying the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity to the religious worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with increased intensity since 2009. Victor Zhenkov, an attorney for the Witnesses, noted: “I have analyzed the events of recent years concerning the prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and reached the conclusion that law-enforcement agencies have engaged in a constant, targeted fight against Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Local authorities in Taganrog have taken an even more aggressive stance and have treated the Witnesses as though their religious practice is banned in the region, even though Jehovah’s Witnesses have been registered in the Russian Federation since 1992. The intention of the Taganrog authorities is clear. Another accused Witness recounted his experience: “The investigator plainly stated in his office: ‘Sign the paper that you renounce being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and we will close the whole case against you and release you—go where you want.’”
Depending on the court’s decision, the 16 Witnesses may be fined, ordered to perform compulsory labor, or sentenced to prison. If they are convicted, religious freedom throughout Russia is threatened. All Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia will be on notice that they risk similar criminal prosecution for merely practicing their peaceful religious activities. Alyona Borodina, another attorney for the accused, observed: “The Witnesses face constant interference by state authorities. Their literature is added to the list of extremist materials. If court decisions declare a book to be extremist material, it is destroyed on the basis of the court ruling. One writer said: ‘Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ There is a serious threat to religious freedom.”
The judge is expected to render a final judgment sometime in June 2014. Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide and many others interested in religious freedom are concerned about the outcome.