Amid continuing police, FSB and Investigative Committee raids across Russia, 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now facing criminal investigations. Of these, 25 are in detention, 9 under house arrest, and 30 under travel restrictions. Three trials are already underway, including of Dennis Christensen, in detention since May 2017, Forum 18 reports.
A total of 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now the subjects of criminal investigations in 22 regions of Russia, Forum 18 notes. Of these, 25 are currently in pre-trial detention, 9 are under house arrest, and 30 are under travel restrictions. One person is under a specific set of restrictive measures, and only four are thought to be under no restrictions at all as the cases against them proceed. Raids and prosecutions appear to have become particularly intense in Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, with investigations ongoing in seven of its nine regions.
Law enforcement officers have been raiding Jehovah’s Witness homes across Russia, leading to criminal prosecutions and often long stretches in pre-trial detention or under house arrest. Officers of the Investigative Committee and FSB security service carried out the latest raids in Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, Primorye, Kostroma, Kemerovo, Amur, and Penza Regions in July and August and opened criminal cases against another 16 people, six of whom remain in custody (see below).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have largely been charged (or named as suspects) under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1 or Part 2 (“Organisation of” or “Participation in the activities of a banned extremist organisation”). For exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief by meeting for worship, they stand accused of “continuing the activities” of the Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre and its subsidiary local organisations, all of which the Russian Supreme Court ruled extremist and ordered liquidated in April 2017. Investigators have also charged a few individuals under Criminal Code Article 282.3, Part 1 (“financing of extremist activity”), or Article 282.2, Part 1.1 (“Inclination, recruitment or other involvement of a person in an extremist organisation”).
These prosecutions are happening despite the Supreme Court judges’ insistence when they issued the ruling that it “does not amount to prohibition of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses as such”, and despite the fact that the Russian government has twice claimed that the ban “does not contain a restriction or prohibition on individual profession of [Jehovah’s Witness] teachings”. As a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision, arrests and interrogations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and searches of their homes began in January 2018 and show no sign of stopping. So far, criminal investigations are underway in the following regions: Amur, Republic of Bashkortostan, Belgorod, Ivanovo, Jewish Autonomous Region, Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, Kemerovo, Kostroma, Krasnoyarsk, Magadan, Murmansk, Omsk, Orenburg, Penza, Perm, Primorye, Pskov, Republic of Sakha-Yakutiya, Saratov, Republic of Tatarstan, and Tomsk.
Will Human Rights Ombudsperson respond to appeals? Individual Jehovah’s Witnesses have appealed to Tatyana Moskalkova, Human Rights Ombudsperson of the Russian Federation, the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 on 13 September. The Association is unaware, however, that any of them has received any assistance. Forum 18 wrote to the office of Human Rights Ombudsperson Moskalkova on 7 September, asking why law enforcement agencies use armed force in operations against pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses, why so many people are in pre-trial detention, and whether the Ombudsperson’s office is doing anything to help them. Forum 18 has received no response as of the end of the Moscow working day on 13 September.
On 21 June, the Presidential Council on Human Rights asked Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office to examine the legality of the recent prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses and take measures to protect their constitutional rights. “We do not, however, know of any consequences of this request,” the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses commented to Forum 18. In early August, human rights organisation Memorial recognised the 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses then known to be in custody or under house arrest as political prisoners. “We demand an immediate end to all persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their religious affiliation,” Memorial stated on its website on 3 August. They now list 41 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Memorial pointed out that the 2017 Supreme Court ruling “listed no examples of violation of public order by [Jehovah’s Witnesses], manifestations of aggression or violence on their part, [or] evidence that their peaceful religious activities threatened the security of the Russian Federation and required measures to prevent it”.
Muslim readers of works by theologian Said Nursi are also prosecuted under “anti-extremism” legislation and have frequently been imprisoned or fined. Typically, such Muslims meet in private homes to study Islam, with one or more expounding on Nursi’s works. They also pray, eat, and drink tea together, and do not seek state permission to meet. Four people have been convicted so far in 2018 of “continuing the activities” of banned “extremist” organisation “Nurdzhular” (which Muslims in Russia deny even exists). Two have begun serving their custodial sentences (one of them of eight years), one received a suspended sentence, and one received a fine. Two others are still on trial.
The latest searches followed a now-familiar pattern. Law enforcement operatives from a variety of agencies, including armed men in masks and body armour, arrive at Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes usually late at night or early in the morning. The occupants are sometimes made to lie on the floor or face the wall while the officers search their flats and houses. Officers then confiscate a similar range of possessions – electronic devices, bank cards, personal photographs, and books – and take the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including children and the elderly, to a police station or Investigative Committee office for questioning. Interrogations can last several hours, after which most people are released (some under travel restrictions). Others are kept in temporary detention until investigators decide whether to apply to a court for longer-term restrictive measures – they must do this within 48 hours of the initial detention.
A judge must then decide whether to grant an investigator’s request to place an individual in detention or under house arrest. An initial period of detention/house arrest lasts for two months from the date the criminal case was opened (usually on or shortly before the date of the raid). Towards the end of this period, investigators must return to court if they wish to seek an extension. Detainees may appeal to a higher court to have these restrictive measures lifted or reduced – on occasion, such appeals may be successful. None of the cases initiated in 2018 has yet come to court. The trials of three Jehovah’s Witnesses charged with “extremism” offences not directly related to the 2017 nationwide ban are, however, already underway.
Dennis Ole Christensen – who has been in detention since May 2017 – has appeared 38 times so far at Oryol’s Railway District Court. He is on trial under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1 with “continuing the activities” of the Oryol Jehovah’s Witness community, which was ruled “extremist” and liquidated by Oryol Regional Court in 2016 . His next hearing is due on 25 September. On 30 July, the judge extended Christensen’s detention until 1 November. Arkadya Akopovich Akopyan has undergone 20 hearings (the latest on 5 September) at Prokhladny District Court in Kabardino-Balkariya. He is charged under Criminal Code Article 282, Part 1 (“Actions directed at the incitement of hatred [nenavist] or enmity [vrazhda], as well as the humiliation of an individual or group of persons on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, attitude to religion, or social group”).
Prosecutors accuse Akopyan of giving sermons which “degraded the dignity” of Orthodox and Muslim clergy, condoning Pussy Riot’s demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, and giving banned “extremist” literature to his community.
Former Jehovah’s Witness elder Yury Viktorovich Zalipayev has made three appearances so far at Maysky District Court (also in Kabardino-Balkariya) on charges under Criminal Cose Article 280, Part 1 (“Public calls for extremist activity”) and Article 282, Part 1 (“Actions directed at the incitement of hatred [nenavist] or enmity [vrazhda], as well as the humiliation of an individual or group of persons on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, attitude to religion, or social group”). His next hearing is due to take place on 17 September. Zalipayev is accused of “inciting hatred towards Christian clergy” by allegedly giving his parishioners copies of a banned Jehovah’s Witness magazine.
Twelve Jehovah’s Witnesses appear on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) “List of Terrorists and Extremists”, whose assets banks are obliged to freeze (apart from small transactions). Ten of these are among those arrested in 2018 as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2017 liquidation ruling. Conditions for those in pre-trial custody are “no different from those of other detainees”, Jehovah’s Witness spokesman Yaroslav Sivulsky commented to Forum 18 in July. Russian prisons and detention centres are notoriously harsh, however, and Sivulsky added on 11 September that lawyers had observed a number of problems: detainees are allowed to shower only once a week and to go for only short walks; they must sleep, eat, go to the toilet, and wash their clothes in their cells, which have nowhere to dry laundry; the health of some detainees is deteriorating because of the damp and lack of fresh air, and some prisons do not offer proper medical care.
Although in most prisons the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been permitted to read the Bible, lawyers claim that in certain others they have not, in violation of the law on prisoners’ right to freedom of religion and belief.