8 November 2021
Pictured: Lev Levinson, member of the Public Committee on Freedom of Conscience (The Yakunin Committee), expert at the Institute of Human Rights, head of the Library of Human Rights Literature, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for expert and scientific work in the field of human rights
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group
Statement in defence of Jehovah’s Witnesses
They are not extremists!
Jehovah’s Witnesses are remarkable for their resilience in the face of persecution. Among them, there are almost no cases of rejecting their faith. They are persecuted in states with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. How the members of this religion are treated is a litmus test of democracy.
On 20 April 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation liquidated the Administrative Centre of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and closed 395 of their local religious organisations, declaring them to be extremist organisations. The reason given for this liquidation was the distribution of religious literature that was classified as extremist. Over the course of several previous years, dozens of magazines and books, including a translation of the Bible, had been declared extremist by various Russian district courts, mostly located in regions far from major cities, on the basis of unjust and biased judicial assessments. Almost all the hearings were held without the presence of representatives of the religious organization itself and even without notifying the communities themselves. Almost all the judgments were based on the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses consider their teachings to be the only true ones, and that all others are false. This means, according to the courts, that Jehovah’s Witnesses assert the superiority of their religious teachings over others, which was judged an expression of religious extremism. Believers tried not to use the banned publications, even though there was no extremism in them. But evidence was falsified, and believers recorded numerous cases of banned literature being planted in their meeting rooms.
The decision of the Supreme Court of 20 April 2017 did not outlaw either the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion itself, or religious groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses that do not have a legal entity, of which there were about 2,500.
There are more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. They are not, and cannot be, deprived of the constitutional right to profess their faith both as individuals and together with others (Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation).
Therefore, despite the persecution to which they are subjected, the communities continue to function. And, which is especially important, they do not violate the decision of the Supreme Court. Why therefore are they being victimised?
Law enforcement agencies proceed from a misunderstanding of the Supreme Court decision of 29 April 2017. They interpret the ban on the organization as a ban on the collective practice of their religion by believers. Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned because they jointly participate in religious meetings, thereby allegedly continuing the activities of religious organizations recognized in 2017 as extremist and banned.
As a result, since April 2017, more than 170,000 law-abiding citizens of the Russian Federation have been outlawed, risking becoming accused of extremist activity. As of 7 November 2021, Jehovah’s Witnesses had undergone 1,600 searches; criminal cases were opened against 570 people under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code (organizing the activities of an extremist organization); 49 people were given terms in prison, 87 received suspended sentences, and 15 believers were fined. And these figures are growing practically every day.
Recently, particularly harsh sentences have been handed down. On 25 October 2021, the Trusovsky district court in Astrakhan sentenced Rustam Diarov, Sergei Klikunov and Evgeny Ivanov to eight years in a prison colony, and Olga Ivanova, Evgeny Ivanov’s wife, to 3.5 years.
“Eight years – in Russia a criminal can get even less time for murder or rape. Harmless talk about the Bible is put on a par with terrible crimes,” commented Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Previously, only one believer, Aleksei Berchuk, was sentenced to eight years in prison for his faith. When it comes to sentences handed down to women, the current verdict against Olga Ivanova is a record. The longest sentence for a woman before her was that of two years handed down to 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya, who barely survived those events.”
The specific features of Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine require them to observe neutrality and do not allow believers to take part in the system of government or in social protests. They do not participate in political life (they do not vote in elections, join political parties, take part in strikes, rallies or demonstrations). In no country in the world do they sing the national anthem, salute the national flag, celebrate national holidays, or serve in the army.
Yet Jehovah’s Witnesses respect state authority, obey the laws of their country, and conscientiously pay taxes as prescribed by the Bible (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 13:1-7). Instead of military service, they perform alternative civilian service, working mainly as hospital attendants.
But when the authorities demand that they renounce their faith, stop preaching, or break biblical commandments, Jehovah’s Witnesses are guided by the principle established in the Bible: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts of the Apostles, 5:29).
The activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently banned or severely restricted in 33 countries (including China, Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, and some Islamic countries), where there are more than 222,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses still actively preaching.
The rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia must be fully restored.
The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has taken the first step. By Resolution No. 32 dated 28 October 2021, the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation made substantial changes to its Resolution No.11 “On judicial practices in cases involving extremist offences” dated 28 June 2011.
The most important clarification contained in the updated resolution addresses the establishment of responsibility for continuing the activities of banned extremist religious organisations. The Supreme Court points out that recognising a religious organisation as extremist does not prohibit its followers from exercising their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including through the individual or joint practice of religion, worship, or other religious rites and ceremonies.
As stated in the Plenum’s clarification: “In criminal proceedings for a crime under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code, the courts must establish what specific actions the perpetrator committed that were dangerous to the public, their significance for the continuation or resumption of activities of an organisation that has been closed down or had its activities banned by decision of a court on the grounds of extremism, and the motives for committing these actions. If a religious association has been recognised as an extremist organisation and closed down or its activities banned, the actions of persons who have no connection with the continuation or resumption of the activities of that extremist organisation and consist solely in the exercising of their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including through the individual or joint practice of religion, worship, or other religious rites and ceremonies, shall not in themselves constitute an offence under Article 282.2, Part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code.”
The decision of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of Russia must be implemented in judicial practice. The state must acknowledge its mistake, and the law enforcement agencies and the courts must stop their persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The state must apologise to believers, as Russian President Boris Yeltsin did when, “guided by a sense of repentance”, he condemned “the many years of terror unleashed by the Bolshevik party and the Soviet regime on the clergy and believers of all faiths” (Decree No.378 of the President of the Russian Federation dated 14 March 1996: “On measures for the rehabilitation of the clergy and believers who have suffered unjustified repressions”).
The truth of the faith, the fidelity of translation and interpretation of the Bible, as well as the rootedness of the confession in a Russian tradition – all this should not be of interest to the state, which should exercise neutrality in questions of religion.
For state policy regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses to return to the realm of legality it is necessary:
- to end all criminal prosecutions, release and rehabilitate Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted for their beliefs, compensating for the harm they suffered;
- to resume registration of religious communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation;
- to register a centralized religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses;
- to restore the property of Jehovah’s Witnesses, taken into ownership by the Russian Federation as authorized by the 20 April 2017 decision of the Supreme Court.
In order to prevent wrongful restrictions and criminal reprisals against innocent people, the legislator should clarify the current extremely broad definition of extremism in the Federal Law ‘On Countering Extremist Activities.’ Today, extremism is understood to include both terrorist acts and theological disputes – that is, both a pogrom with violence and murder, and a magazine article stating that after death, a believer of one religion will be saved, and that another will perish. The definition of extremism under the law should be articulated in such a way that only actions presenting a real danger to society – violence, propaganda of violence, incitement to violence – would fall under it.
Article 29 of the Constitution prohibits propaganda of religious superiority. But the overwhelming majority of religious organizations believe their doctrine alone to be absolutely true, and all others false. If this is enough to declare any ‘false’ religion extremist and ban it, this means it is necessary to repeal the illegitimate law, correct mistakes and change approaches. Any limitation of rights permitted by the Constitution is contingent upon the principle of nondiscrimination (Article 19 of the Constitution) and the rule of ‘economy of repression’ – limitation of rights is admissible only in so far as necessary, and not so far as possible (Article 55 of the Constitution). The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is more specific, stating ‘limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic.’ Under such conditions, prohibition of propaganda of religious superiority will be aimed at protection from its most dangerous form – state propaganda directed at increasing the scope of rights for followers of one religion and discrimination against others.
Signed by members of the Yakunin Committee:
Lev Ponomarev, rights advocate
Valery Borshchev, rights advocate
Grigoriy Mikhov-Vaytenko, clergyman
Elena Volkova, cultural scholar
Sergei Ivanenko, religious scholar
Lev Levinson, rights advocate
Aleksandr Soldatov, journalist, religious scholar
Dmitry Dubrovsky, sociologist
Elena Sannikova, rights advocate
Maria Ryabikova, journalist, religious scholar