MARCH 30, 2016
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—The year 2016 marks 125 years since czarist authorities banished Semyon Kozlitskiy, one of the first Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, for preaching the Bible’s message. In 1891, without a trial, Mr. Kozlitskiy was shackled in chains and exiled to Siberia, where he lived until his death in 1935.
Over the past century, Russia’s feelings toward Jehovah’s Witnesses have remained largely the same. As noted in the latest reporting cycle of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, numerous sources indicate that Russia continues “to curtail freedom of expression, . . . and freedom of religion, targeting, inter alia, Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The Human Rights Committee has been mandated to monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Russia is a state party. “The drafters of the ICCPR,” says Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, “recognized the essential character of freedom of religion or belief by making it, in its internal sphere, non-derogable [cannot be taken away or compromised] even in times of emergency (Article 4.2). Being non-derogable is a status that few other categories of human rights enjoy.” Following its 113th session (see top image), the Committee issued its latest periodic report of the Russian Federation, concluding that while Russia ostensibly protects freedom of religion by being party to the Covenant, courts throughout the federation have been arbitrarily wielding anti-extremist legislation against the Witnesses.
Russia’s Federal Law “On Combating Extremist Activity” (No. 114-FZ), was adopted in 2002, partly to address concerns about terrorism. However, Russia amended the law in 2006, 2007, and 2008 so that it extends “far beyond any fears of extremism linked to terrorism,” according to the article “Russia’s Extremism Law Violates Human Rights,” published in The Moscow Times. Now the law “simply seizes upon the ‘terrorist’ vocabulary that has become commonplace internationally since the 9/11 assault on the Twin Towers in [New York City], and uses it to describe unwelcome religious groups across Russia,” explains Derek H. Davis, formerly the director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Hence, “the ‘extreme’ label,” says Mr. Davis, “has been unfairly and disproportionately used against Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The Human Rights Committee detects that the heart of the problem lies in the law’s vague definition of extremist activity. Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia—Religious Policy After Communism, explained to The Washington Post that the law’s open-ended language makes it very easy for local courts “to rustle up a few so-called experts who may not particularly like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and get them to write a report that their literature is extremist.”
Such was the case at the start of this year, when negative testimony by an expert linguist resulted in a Vyborg City Court judge declaring two of the Witnesses’ magazines extremist. The same prosecutor also filed a claim to declare as extremist the New World Translation, the Bible produced by the Witnesses. Hearings began on March 15, 2016.
The Witnesses’ legal difficulty in 2016 was presaged by alarming developments in 2015. As Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for Religion and Society Studies at the Institute of Europe Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, points out, “not only did persecution become more severe in 2015 but it also significantly increased.” In March, Russian authorities blocked all imports of the Witnesses’ religious literature, even literature that Russian courts had previously examined and declared free of any signs of extremism. In July, Russian customs officials began blocking the importation of Russian-language Bibles published by the Witnesses. Also in July, the Russian Federation became the only country in the world to ban the Witnesses’ official website, jw.org. In November, Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied import of a shipment of Russian Synodal Bibles commonly used by other Christian communities in Russia—including the Russian Orthodox Church. The year ended with what The Washington Post described as “one of Russia’s largest anti-extremism trials in recent memory,” when a judge in the port city of Taganrog convicted 16 of Jehovah’s Witnesses on criminal charges for organizing and attending peaceful religious meetings.
In the Taganrog case, as well as others like it, there is great irony. “The older generation of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are being prosecuted already hold certificates as victims of repression,” recalls Mr. Lunkin. During the Soviet era, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned. In 1990, Russia released the last of the Witnesses. These former prisoners had their reputation officially cleared, each receiving Certificates of Rehabilitation, which stated they were not “enemies of the nation,” but innocent victims. Thus, reasons Mr. Lunkin, “Russian authorities are now, by means of the anti-extremist legislation, in effect, revoking that rehabilitation.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia did, however, win a rare legal victory on May 27, 2015, when the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice restored the registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a Local Religious Organization (LRO) in Moscow, a status the Witnesses lost when their legal entity in Moscow was liquidated on March 26, 2004. The Witnesses appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and on June 10, 2010, the ECHR ordered Russia to reinstate the Witnesses’ registration in Moscow as well as pay moral damages.
“I agree with the ECHR’s finding,” states the UN Special Rapporteur. “Banning Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to organize themselves according to their religion was ‘drastic’ and ‘disproportionate,’ and violated freedom of religion.” Per the ECHR ruling, the Russian government paid the fine; but they waited to restore the Witnesses’ legal entity until last May—nearly five years after the ECHR order.
A spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, Yaroslav Sivulskiy, states: “Moscow is home to over 9,600 Jehovah’s Witnesses, with an estimated 175,000 Witnesses living throughout the federation. All Witnesses in Russia, as well as our global brotherhood of over 8 million worshippers, remain hopeful that the registration issued from Russia’s capital proves to be a harbinger of genuine religious freedom throughout the federation.” However, experts such as Mr. Davis suggest Russia’s move to restore Jehovah’s Witnesses as an LRO, “while integral to its facial obligations to practice religious freedom, should be viewed principally as a political move to appease the world community.”
In 2015 the Human Rights Committee reiterated its recommendations from 2003 and 2009, that Russia should “revise without undue delay the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity,” clarifying the definition of “extremist activity,” ensuring that it requires an element of violence or hatred and clearly outlines how materials may be classified as extremist. Additionally, the Committee has implored Russia to “take all measures necessary to prevent the arbitrary use of the law and revise the Federal List of Extremist Materials.”
“The discrimination against communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses constitutes religious persecution in the truest sense,” states Mr. Lunkin, “while other recognized religions can engage in the same religious activity as Jehovah’s Witnesses and remain unpunished.” Yet, after all of the legal accusations, often accompanied by aggressive media campaigns against them, Mr. Lunkin concludes, “Jehovah’s Witnesses remain a nationwide organization, and the number of their followers has steadily grown.”
International: David A. Semonian, Office of Public Information, tel. +1 718 560 5000
Russia: Yaroslav Sivulskiy, tel. +7 812 702 2691