By Gbenga Ogundare
In a flagrant breach of Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom as espoused in international human rights treaties, the Supreme Court of Russia has ruled on April 20, 2017 that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization should be closed down and no longer allowed to operate legally in the communist nation.
The ruling affects more than 100,000 Jehovah’s Witness worshippers across Russia.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization said it will appeal the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are now given the heart-rending choice of either abandoning their faith or facing punishment for practicing it.”
The ruling declares the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closes the organization on those grounds, and bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center is the head office for 395 Jehovah’s Witnesses branches throughout Russia.
If the ruling enters into force, people who continue to be involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses organization or their activities in Russia could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines of 300,00 to 600,000 rubles (US$5,343 to $10,687) to a maximum of six to 10 years in prison. People found to be leading such activity would also face a maximum 10 years. The organization’s property will be confiscated. Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be able to congregate for worship at their church or anywhere else.
According to the Justice Ministry, since 2007, local courts have banned at least eight local Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations, and 95 pieces of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature have been banned and placed on the federal registry of banned extremist materials.
In most cases the ban was triggered by claims in the literature of the superiority over other religions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible. Anyone found with large quantities of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ banned materials can be held responsible for the misdemeanor offense of distributing “extremist” materials.
The Justice Ministry case followed an unannounced inspection, started in February 2017, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in St. Petersburg. The inspection found that the Administrative Center had continued to fund branches that had been closed after a court banned them for extremism. It also found the organization had taken no action to change “extremist” literature and had continued to distribute it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have vigorously denied the latter allegation. The Justice Ministry suspended all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities when the ministry filed its lawsuit on March 15.
A member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia is obligated to protect freedom of religion and association. It has previously been found in violation of multiple obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights for actions taken through the courts to dissolve communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, application no. 302/02).
Human rights experts say the April 20 ruling to close the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a direct interference with freedom of religion, effectively denying its followers the right to worship, and cannot be justified as either necessary or proportionate. The closure order, according to experts, directly violates the pluralism of thought and belief that is foundational to a democratic society and as the court has repeatedly affirmed, is “at the very heart of the protection which [the convention] affords.”