Search This Blog

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested in Russia

More than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested in Russia for taking part in a public protest’s-Witnesses-arrested-in-Russia-for-taking-part-in-a-public-protest-17853.html

Some 150,000 volunteers hand out about 12 million leaflets slamming the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, guilty of rejecting to military service and unfriendliness towards other religious groups. For their part, the Witnesses say that history is repeating itself with a return to Soviet-style persecution.

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Between late February and early March, Russian police arrested at least 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses for handing out leaflets that describe how their religious freedom is curtailed. They are especially critical of the way their communities are being persecuted, labelled extremist and criminal for refusing the military draft.

On 26 February, the group’s national body launched a campaign to raise awareness about the violence Jehovah's Witnesses encounter in many republics of the Russian Federation. It brought together almost 150,000 volunteers in the streets of Moscow, Rostov, Sverdlovsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk, Krasnodar, and Volgograd. Protesters handed out leaflets in railway as well as subway stations and at bus stops. Titled ‘Is history repeating itself? A question for Russians’, the four-page flyer quoted extensively from President Dmitry Medvedev’s speeches in which the Russian leader condemns political repression based on religion. Distributed to the tune of 12 million copies, the leaflet noted that the post-Soviet rehabilitation of Jehovah’s Witnesses had “turned to dust.”

Fifteen years ago, many veteran Jehovah's Witnesses received a special "certificate of rehabilitation." Now the same people, certificates in their pocket, are being charged as "extremists," forced to go underground.

According to Lev Levinson, director of the Institute for Human Rights, the current persecution is the by-product of a perverse interpretation of anti-extremism laws.

As a religious group, Jehovah’s Witnesses are accused of being a “sect”, of being unfriendly towards other Churches, of rejecting military service, this despite the fact that Russia’s constitution allows for an alternative civilian service.

In their defence, Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they are being forced to organise their campaign because various courts in Russia have banned their publications and outlawed their activities (see “Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists,” in AsiaNews, 17 September 2009, and “Altai court condemns Jehovah’s Witnesses for “extremism,” in AsiaNews, 5 October 2009)

Before that, they had turned to President Medvedev asking for justice (see “Jehovah’s Witnesses write to Medvedev, tell him they are persecuted like in Soviet times,” in AsiaNews, 13 November 2009), but now must try to move public opinion.

Following the latest incident, Jehovah’s Witnesses were interrogated after their arrest, their leaflets seized. Most of them were eventually released after a few hours.

Jehovah’s Witnesses write to Medvedev, tell him they are persecuted like in Soviet times

The religious community complains about “arbitrary” trials, persecution and a campaign of “demonisation’ by the courts and the press. They ask Russian president to “guarantee their constitutional rights” and protect them “from bureaucratic arbitrariness.”

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The leader of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses has appealed to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to protect his community from a campaign of persecution. V.M. Kalin, chairman of the steering committee of the ‘Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia’ (ACJWR), wrote to the Kremlin leader, complaining about “arbitrary” trials against members of his community (see AsiaNews, 17/09/2009, “Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists,” in AsiaNews, 17 September 2009, and “Altai court condemns Jehovah’s Witnesses for “extremism,” in AsiaNews, 5 October 2009).

In his letter, the ACJWR chairman noted that his community has been in Russia for more than a century, and that only under Soviet rule did it suffer discrimination and persecution. Now, it is subjected to a process of “demonisation" by some courts with the support of the press.

For Kalin, Medvedev’s article “Russia, Forward”, which appeared in, on 10 September of this year, is a source of hope because it refers to the ideals of the separation of state and religion and peaceful coexistence.

Russia’s president, the letter explains, should realise that Jehovah’s Witnesses are present in 236 countries around the world, but that only in 25 is “their freedom of conscience” restricted, nations “famous for the crudest violations of human rights.”

All the community wants is for Medvedev to “guarantee their constitutional rights” and protect them from “bureaucratic arbitrariness”.

Ultimately, “basic rights, for which Jehovah's Witnesses are fighting today, are vitally necessary for the maintenance in Russia of democratic liberties and the construction of civil society”.

Altai court condemns Jehovah’s Witnesses for “extremism”

Some of the group’s publications are blamed for inciting religious confrontation. Jehovah’s Witnesses respond saying the texts in question are distributed in 200 countries around the world. The Altai court ruling is like one handed down in Rostov in mid-September. Similar trials are underway before other Russian courts.

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A city court in the city of Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, found the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of religious extremism. The sentence follows a similar decision handed down against the religious group in mid-September by a court in Rostov, which ruled that the group’s publications contain “extremist material” (see “Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists,” AsiaNews, 17 September 2009). Altogether the court in the Siberian Republic banned 18 publications by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after they were submitted to expert analysis, which concluded they included incitement to religious confrontation.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Centre in Moscow, which is recognised by Russian authorities, has already appealed the decision by the court in Gorno-Altaisk. However, the situation for the religious group is very delicate. The latest ruling comes in the wake of that in Rostov and before others expected in other regions of the Russian Federation, where legal proceedings are currently underway. The charge is the same: incitement of religious extremism.

The material in question is the same as those the group publishes and distributes across Europe and in about 200 countries around the world, in 176 different languages.

For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the latest case represents another attack by the legal system of Russia’s republics. “Such a decision may lead to the legalisation of illegal actions against peaceful citizens who wish to worship God in accordance with their own conscience and the principles of the sacred scriptures, the Bible," the Jehovah’s Witnesses centre said.

The Christian group is among the most harassed religious minorities in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Numbered at around 200,000, Jehovah’s Witnesses are accused across the Russian Federation of sectarianism, “religious extremism,” “incitement to social isolation,” and behaviours that undermine the civil life of the country.

Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists

The court disbands the organisation, seizes its assets and bands all of its activities in the cities of Taganrog, Neklinov and Matveevo-Kurgan. The religious movement accuses the judges of violating religious freedom, and is set to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A provincial court in Rostov ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Taganrog are religious extremists and that they must be banned from the province (oblast). The court disbanded the organisation, seized its assets and banned it from carrying out any activities in Taganrog, Neklinov and Matveevo-Kurgan. The court’s decision, which was made public last Friday, found that 34 different publications taken together constituted “extremist material”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim a membership of about 200,000 people in Russia. Over the decades, they have been accused of being sectarian and hostile to the Russian Federation.

Certain motives have been used in order to criticise or take legal action against the religious group. In Russia since the start the 20th century, Jehovah’s Witnesses are in favour of conscientious objection against the military, reject the use of weapons, are opposed to blood transfusions and demand their members to be totally devoted to the community.

According to the court in Rostov, the publications entered as evidence urge members to live according to “religious extremist” principles. The Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation described these principles earlier this year as an incitement to social isolation and behaviours that raise negative attitudes in the population and against Russia’s traditional religions.

The court ruling will come into effect on 21 September, ending a case that began on 11 July of last year. It is not however the only one in which Jehovah’s Witnesses have to defend themselves against charges of handing out extremist literature.

In fact, cases have been filed against the religious group in other parts of the Russian Federation. Trials that could lead to a ban are currently under way in Salsk (Rostov Oblast), Gorno-Altaisk (Altai Republic), Krasnodar (Krasnodar Oblast), Samara (Samara Oblast), Vladikavkaz (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania) and Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk Oblast).

Jehovah’s Witnesses have responded to the accusations and legal proceedings brought against them by saying that local and federal authorities are pursuing a policy of discrimination that violates the basic principles of religious freedom.

In order to defend themselves and avoid dissolution in various provinces, they plan to appeal to the European Court of Human rights, as they have done in the past.

They argue that such charges have no legal basis under EU law and that they contradict the principles on which Russian cooperation with countries like the United States and Germany against religious extremism is based.