24 November 2020
By Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
24 November 2020, Moscow, 11 am. Interfax reports on the arrest of leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses [an organisation prohibted on the territory of the Russian Federation]. News about the initiation of a criminal prosecution and the start of arrests in Moscow is provided by all the major media outlets. TASS reports that the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard and the FSB are all involved in the operation. The Investigative Committee releases a short video showing people in masks breaking down a door and entering a dark room, then crumpled, unmade beds (still warm, probably – author’s note). Moscow 24 mentions that searches are being conducted in 20 regions of Russia, and more than 80 criminal cases have been opened.
A National Operation is underway between the Investigative Committee, the FSB and the National Guard to neutralise Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What are they accused of? Extremism. By meeting together, spreading their faith and praying in today’s world, they are “organising activities of an extremist organisation” – Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code – which comes with a sentence of up to ten years.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are true pacifists. Their religious beliefs include the requirement not to take up arms under any circumstances. So where is the extremism?
In the Bible, apparently. To begin with, certain Jehovah’s Witness publications that, according to experts, claimed Jehovah’s Witnesses to be the one true religion and all other religions to be false were found to be extremist. I wonder if there is a single religion that does not claim this? Then the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation declared the legal entity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist organisation. After the organisation was liquidated, meetings of believers were viewed as “a continuation of its activities”, despite the fact that collective prayer is a crucial part of their religious tradition.
The pinnacle of the story came in 2017, when a translation of the Bible into Russian was deemed extremist material. The prosecution was unable to say in exactly what way it was extremist, eventually concluding that the Bible is extremist precisely because it is used by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And this is what direct quotes from the convictions look like:
“Criminal conspiracy” to “study and discuss religious material on topics concerning Jehovah”; “Celebrating divine services, introducing people to holy scripture, the teachings of the bible, principles and norms”; “Active participation in a religious group and the execution of related activities including faith, religious rites and ceremonies, religious education and religious instruction”; “After the Supreme Court decided to ban the group’s activities … they did not abandon their religious views”; and the best one yet…. “deliberately discussed their faith with the residents of the city of Chelyabinsk, sang chants, prayed to Jehovah and studied religious literature.”
The accused committed all acts “foreseeing … and expecting the onset of socially dangerous consequences in the form of violation of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of a person and a citizen.”
Who is more dangerous to society? Someone who prays or someone who thinks up accusations like these? This is far from the first time that the security forces have taken on believers in their tireless search for extremism. Remember the episode when the Yuzhno-Sakhalin court ruled that a book with quotes from the Koran was extremist?
“Those who made this decision are national traitors and devils. This is my strong opinion! ” – said then the famous theologian and religious scholar Ramzan Kadyrov. He also promised to “personally hold them to account.” Naturally, the decision of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk court was reversed almost instantly. But Jehovah’s Witnesses [prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation] have no such protector.
But there are others. Jehovah’s Witnesses [banned on the territory of the Russian Federation] operate legally in many countries, both in Europe and in the USA, where their central office is located. Now, after Biden’s victory in the elections, Russia is starting to build relations with the United States in a new way, in particular, by resuming negotiations on the reduction of strategic offensive arms. Russia is negotiating one of the key issues related to reducing global tensions and the risks of a new world war with a country with strong Christian traditions. The United States has always taken religious freedom very seriously, and actively used international legal instruments, including for the protection of Jehovah’s Witnesses [prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation] even during their persecution in the USSR.
Do the leaders of the Investigative Committee and the FSB understand the colossal damage of their attempts to show the necessity of their work once again to the President of Russia? Obviously not. But the Siloviki, apparently have their own strategy. They are systematically following a path towards restoring the “Evil Empire”. They appear to be waiting for a new Reagan who will bring the “Evil Empire” to its knees, not by military means, but economically. It seems that they think that in this position it will be easier for Russia to negotiate.
P.S. For more information about Jehovah’s Witnesses [banned on the territory of the Russian Federation], their ban in Russia and the persecution for religious beliefs – read this article in Novaya Gazeta.