Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: ‘They haven’t done anything illegal, but they are persecuted anyway’
The Supreme Court of the Russian federation has turned down the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal against its winding up resolution. From now on, this organization is recognized in Russia as an extremist group, with its activity banned by court. The trial was held on 17 July. The Caucasian Knot describes the proceedings and what the Jehovah’s Witnesses hope for now.
All 200 seats in the courtroom were occupied during the trial. Believers from over 20 countries came to the court session. There were many journalists, with representatives of foreign diplomatic missions also attending the trial. Lawyers say many of those who wished to enter the courtroom had to stay outside.
“The court reluctantly heard the arguments that testified to the falsification of evidence against the believers. Nevertheless, the determination set forth by the court was similar to the previous one. It could be said that the believers have once again proved that they are victims of political persecution,” Anton Omelchenko, the lawyer defending the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interests, told the Caucasian Knot reporter.
“They haven’t done anything illegal, but they are persecuted anyway,” he added.
Victor Zhenkov, another lawyer, believes that the court’s ruling on liquidation of the organization is unsubstantiated:
“The judges heard the evidence produced by us, but they turned down our petition for examination of witnesses and experts in religious studies and linguistics. Finally, the judges upheld the ruling of the court of the first instance.”
The defense is going to challenge the court ruling.
“Even in Russia, there are certain instances for rescission of judgment, like, for example, the Supreme Court presidium,” said the lawyer.
Victor Zhenkov believes that challenging the ruling in the Supreme Court presidium is inefficient.
“The lawyers, as a rule, don’t pin much hope on this instance, since appeals are sent there after the ruling takes its effect.”
The lawyer shared his plans to challenge the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The lawyers have three months to file an appeal both with the Supreme Court Presidium and the ECHR.
“Although it has been declared that Russian legislation has priority over international law, Russia doesn’t renounce its international commitments. It’s quite possible that if the ECHR rules in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then the ruling will be executed,” Zhenkov told the Caucasian Knot.
Lev Levinson, an expert at the Institute for Human Rights and head of the Russian Human Rights Literature Library, termed the court ruling on the liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization as ‘absolutely illicit’.
“This decision has been prompted by solely political interests and they don’t reflect well on any court that demonstrates its full controllability and disregard for the norms of international law, the European Court’s resolutions with regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses both in Russia as well as in other countries that are facing legal problems, though lesser in scale, than in Russia,” Lev Levinson told the Caucasian Knot.
He also shared his assessment of the so-called anti-extremist legislation in Russia:
“I think that even without it, the criminal code offered enough opportunities to punish those who encroach, violate the rights of other people and commit violent acts. Now however, extremism has broader interpretation and this term is applied selectively to those who are ‘unfavorable’ to the authorities, as is the case with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Levinson also suggested how the ‘extremism test’ could be done:
“For example, the literature of a certain organization or a movement is subjected to examination, which is conducted by some ‘pocket’, unscrupulous experts. They find texts that are regarded as extremist, and, based on that, the organization’s activity is banned. As for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it turns out that the believers claim that their doctrine is exclusive and they don’t accept others. But that’s actually the essence of all ‘salvation religions’, be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam. All of them regard their faith as the true one and consider the position of others as false. Should all of them be declared as extremists?”
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it has been registered as an organization and it is carrying out its activity in 240 countries across the globe. The total number of followers worldwide is 8.3 million people, of which about 170 000 are in Russia.