JULY 27, 2015
Seven months after the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation declared www.jw.org to be extremist, Russian authorities banned the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The ban became effective on July 21, 2015, when the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice added jw.org to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Internet providers throughout Russia have blocked access to the website, and it is now a criminal offense to promote it from within the country. Russia is the only country in the world to ban jw.org.
Events Leading to the Ban on JW.ORG
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia were unaware that authorities in the city of Tver had begun clandestine legal proceedings in 2013 to target the website. The Tver City Prosecutor had filed a complaint with the Tsentralniy District Court demanding that jw.org be banned because it contained a few religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses that had been declared extremist by earlier Russian court decisions. * On August 7, 2013, the district court granted the prosecutor’s demand without notifying Jehovah’s Witnesses and declared jw.org to be extremist.
Once the Witnesses learned of the decision through the local media a month later, they appealed and voluntarily removed the publications in question for users in Russia. On January 22, 2014, the Tver Regional Court reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling that the court had no legal basis to ban jw.org and that it should have invited the website’s copyright holder to participate in the trial.
Not satisfied with the regional court ruling, S. G. Kekhlerov, the Deputy Prosecutor General, appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The Witnesses were not properly notified of the hearing. Yet, on December 2, 2014, the Supreme Court heard the prosecutor’s cassation appeal in the absence of the defense.
The Supreme Court confirmed that the Witnesses had removed the publications shortly after the August 2013 trial court decision but held, without justification, that those publications could potentially reappear on the site. Therefore, the Court ruled to reverse the regional court ruling and reinstate the trial court decision declaring jw.org to be extremist. * Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a supervisory appeal with the Supreme Court contesting the decision, but the Court rejected it. They also filed an appeal with the Chairman of the Supreme Court, who rejected their appeal on July 8, 2015.
Decision Threatens Religious Freedom
Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that the Supreme Court’s decision is arbitrary and groundless because no religious publications declared to be extremist have been accessible on jw.org in Russia since the autumn of 2013. As a result of the decision, Russian authorities have directed Internet providers to block jw.org within Russia. This has denied readers access to the Bible in over 130 languages and Bible-based publications in over 700 languages, including Russian and Russian Sign Language. Anyone in Russia who promotes or encourages others to access the website is now subject to administrative or criminal prosecution for so-called extremist activity. With this ban, over 170,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses have lost access to a resource that is vital for their spiritual edification and daily worship.
The decision of the Supreme Court provides another means for some Russian officials to repress the peaceful religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As long as some officials persist in misapplying Russia’s Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, religious freedom in Russia will be restricted and further threatened. Jehovah’s Witnesses sincerely hope that fair-minded officials will defend the basic human right to freedom of worship and fair trial, as guaranteed by Russia’s international agreements and its constitution.
^ As of June 1, 2015, Russian courts have declared 78 publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extremist. The Witnesses are contesting these decisions, both in domestic courts and in the European Court of Human Rights.
^ Specifically, the deputy prosecutor filed a cassation appeal, and the Judicial Chamber for Civil Cases of the Supreme Court ruled on the case.