Russian Citizens Face Criminal Prosecution for Their Faith
In the first case of its kind in modern Russia, 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog are being criminally prosecuted merely because they meet for peaceful worship and practice their faith. If found guilty, they could face fines of up to 300,000 rubles (10,000 USD) or imprisonment for up to eight years in some cases. The 16 Witnesses have been ordered not to leave Taganrog until the court reaches a decision.
The repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog began in June 2008 when the Rostov Regional Prosecutor filed a claim to liquidate and ban the Taganrog Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also alleged that religious literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses contains extremist language. The trial court granted the prosecutor’s request, and the Russian Federation Supreme Court upheld the ruling on December 8, 2009.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the local authorities confiscated the Kingdom Hall (house of worship) of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog, forcing the Witnesses to meet for worship in private homes. The court also ordered the authorities to add 34 publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Jehovah’s Witnesses contest these rulings and are seeking justice from the European Court of Human Rights.
The Taganrog authorities have used these developments as a license to harass and terrorize the Witnesses. In 2011, law enforcement officers entered 19 homes of the Witnesses as early as 6:00 a.m., waking families, including the elderly and children, to conduct 8-to-11-hour searches for alleged extremist literature. The officers indiscriminately confiscated all religious publications and took personal items. Local authorities secretly videotaped religious services and individuals in attendance in an attempt to incriminate them. The events in Taganrog began a state-sponsored campaign of harassment and mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are an internationally recognized religion. The Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee freedom of religion. High courts around the world have confirmed this right for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, government officials in Taganrog behave as if the Witnesses do not deserve this right.
The criminal trial is continuing, with a decision expected in May after the court hears closing arguments. If the court decides to convict the 16 Witnesses, this would threaten the freedom of the over 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog. It could also serve as a precedent for pending criminal cases against Witnesses in other regions of Russia.
Grigory Martynov, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, stated: “This interference with religious freedom is unwarranted. Jehovah’s Witnesses pose no threat to the integrity and security of the Russian Federation. This harassment and prejudicial treatment is occurring simply because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”