RUSSIA: "The main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains"
Following the acquittal in Russia of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov, a Gorno-Altaisk Court spokesperson would not state if and when the full text of the verdict will be released, when Forum 18 News Service asked for this. It is unclear if the Prosecutor will appeal against the verdict. Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center told Forum 18 that "it's difficult to say what the verdict will mean for other cases. I would like this one to set a precedent but it depends a lot on the formal reasons why he was acquitted". Ziyavdin Dapayev, a Muslim from Dagestan also facing "anti-extremism" charges, told Forum 18 that he is not sure how, if at all, the verdict will affect his case and similar cases. He sees intimidation and prejudice at a local level as a more decisive factor than verdicts in "extremism" cases elsewhere. Jehovah's Witnesses spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18 that "the main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains in place. Our publications are still banned and people who have committed no crimes continue to be investigated and prosecuted." In a separate development, the European Court of Human Rights has begun considering the admissibility of a case concerning Russian bans on Islamic texts.
Kalistratov faced the first post-Soviet trial of a Jehovah's Witness, which began on 20 October 2010. He was charged under "anti-extremism" legislation, Article 282, Part 1 of the Criminal Code (Entitled "Incitement of hatred [nenavist] or enmity [vrazhda], as well as the humiliation of human dignity"). Specifically, he was accused of giving away two copies of "What Does God Require of Us?" while knowing it had been banned by Gorno-Altaisk City Court – even though this ruling had not entered into force at the time of the alleged offence (see F18News 30 November 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1515). The long-running trial included 24 hearings and saw 71 witnesses testify (see F18News 11 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1539).
On 14 April, Judge Marina Sokolovskaya read the Gorno-Altaisk City Court verdict, in which it was stated that in neither the pre-trial investigation nor the court hearings was it "proven that Aleksandr Kalistratov distributed the banned material in question". Kalistratov was therefore acquitted on the grounds that a crime had not been committed. A Court spokesperson, who would not give their name and refused to put Forum 18 through to Judge Sokolovskaya, refused on 18 April to comment further on why Kalistratov was found not guilty.
The spokesperson also would not state if and when the full text of the verdict will be released.
"The main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains"
"To be honest, the verdict did surprise me," Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis told Forum 18 on 19 April. "It's difficult to say what the verdict will mean for other cases. I would like this one to set a precedent but it depends a lot on the formal reasons why he was acquitted", he said.
Kalistratov himself, speaking on 14 April after his acquittal, stated that he was "grateful to the judge for finding within herself the courage to take such a decision. I hope that this verdict will be beneficial to my fellow believers, who as before are being persecuted in Russia. It would be sad if other innocent Russian citizens were also exposed to illegal observation just because of religious intolerance."
His Defence Lawyer, Viktor Zhenkov, stated on 14 April that the prosecution "serves as a clear example of the illegal application of the federal law "On Combating Extremist Activity". (See the commentary by Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center on Criminal Code Article 282 and the Extremism Law at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1468).
Ziyavdin Dapayev, a Muslim from Dagestan also facing "anti-extremism" charges, told Forum 18 on 18 April that he is not sure how, if at all, the verdict in the Kalistratov trial will affect his case and similar cases. He sees intimidation and prejudice at a local level as a more decisive factor than verdicts in "extremism" cases elsewhere. Dapayev said that at each hearing in his trial that he has attended so far, members of the FSB security service have observed proceedings, which he believes is having "a psychological impact."
He pointed to the conduct of Moscow's Koptevo Court as further example of this. On 21 May 2007, the Court held a closed trial at which it ruled – in a highly controversial judgment - that the works of Said Nursi are extremist (see F18News 27 June 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=981).
Dapayev is facing charges under Article 282.2, Part 1 ("Organisation of the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity") of the Criminal Code (see F18News 11 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1539).
"Of course it is a big victory for us", Jehovah's Witnesses spokesperson Grigory Martynov, told Forum 18 on 20 April. "But the main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains in place. Our publications are still banned and people who have committed no crimes continue to be investigated and prosecuted."
Will Prosecutor appeal against verdict?
Martynov also commented that "it is hard to say how this verdict will affect other cases. The first issue is whether the not guilty verdict will stand. The prosecutor may appeal."
The Prosecutor has ten days to formally appeal against the decision, and so will have to lodge the appeal by 25 April. A spokesperson at the Prosecutor's Office would not confirm or deny to Forum 18 on 19 April whether an appeal would be made. Gorno-Altaisk City Court told Forum 18 on 20 April that it has not yet received a formal appeal from the Prosecutor.
Dapayev continues to face trial in Makhachkala for allegedly belonging to a banned organization – "Nurdzhular" – which he and other Muslims insist does not exist. The group was banned by the Supreme Court in April 2008. Defenders of state action against Nursi followers routinely claim that his works are banned in Turkey, but this is not so (see F18News 28 January 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1400). Readers of Nursi's works are also being linked in the Russian media with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which claim Muslims vehemently deny (see F18News 13 April 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1562).
Dapayev told Forum 18 on 20 April that his legal team expects a verdict within the next month. "From a legal point of view, we have a good case," Dapayev said (see F18News 11 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1539). "But from a political point of view we are not so confident."
The trial has already included 16 hearings and 27 witnesses and is set to resume on 31 April, after a break since 18 April. Court spokespeople contacted on 15, 19 and 20 April refused to comment on Dapayev's case. A case is also being prepared against three Nursi readers in Krasnoyarsk and Rashid Abdulov remains in pre-trial detention in Ulyanovsk (see F18News 4 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1536).
Ten cases against Jehovah's Witnesses are currently being investigated. They are primarily investigations into the activity of individuals, although a case in Kemerovo involves a small group of Jehovah's Witnesses. "All these other cases are at the investigation stage – either law enforcement agencies are gathering evidence or the prosecutor is examining the cases," said Martynov (see F18News 13 April 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1562).
European Court of Human Rights appeal
Russia's Nursi readers have taken Russia to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg for banning some Islamic texts. On 4 April the ECtHR began examining the admissibility of two complaints from Russian Muslims (Application number 1413/08) by Ibragim Ibragimov and the Cultural Educational Fund Nuru-Badi, against Russia.
The complaint, which was lodged on 3 December 2007, concerns the banning of 17 Islamic texts in August 2007 by the Buguruslan City Court in Orenburg Region (see F18News 1 February 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1080); and the banning also in 2007 of Russian translations of some of Said Nursi's works by the Koptevo District Court in Moscow (see F18News 27 June 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=981).
Ibragimov on 14 April sent Forum 18 a document in which the ECtHR asked Russia on 4 April to provide copies of the court verdicts and expert analyses used to prove the texts were extremist. Russia has also been asked to answer the following questions:
1. Did the ban on the distribution of books by Said Nursi pronounced in the judgement of the Koptevo District Court of Moscow of 21 May 2007, as upheld on appeal on 18 September 2007, interfere with the applicants' rights under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms?
Was the interference prescribed by law?
Was it "necessary in a democratic society" within the meaning of Article 9 Part 2 of the European Convention?
2. Did the ban on the distribution of above-mentioned books interfere with the applicants' freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 ("Freedom of expression") of the European Convention?
Was the interference prescribed by law?
Was it "necessary in a democratic society" within the meaning of Article 10 Part 2 of the European Convention?
It is not known when the ECtHR will decide on whether the case is admissible. (END)
For more background, see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1196.
Analysis of the background to Russian policy on "religious extremism" is available in two articles: - 'How the battle with "religious extremism" began' (F18News 27 April 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1287 - and - 'The battle with "religious extremism" - a return to past methods?' (F18News 28 April 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1288).
A personal commentary by Irina Budkina, Editor of the http://www.samstar.ru Old Believer website, about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities, is at F18News 26 May 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570.
A personal commentary by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, about the systemic problems of Russian anti-extremism legislation, is at F18News 19 July 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1468.
Reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/mapping/outline-map/?map=Russia.
13 April 2011
Raids by Russian authorities on Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi for alleged "extremism" continued in March, but none are yet known in April, Forum 18 News Service notes. Lawyers defending those charged have also reportedly coming under pressure from the authorities. One Jehovah's Witness facing trial in the southern region of Astrakhan, Gulfira Zakaryaeva, has stated that her employer was visited by law enforcement agents, who recommended that she be told to resign. She claims that she was told to do this of her own free will "to avoid any problems". Astrakhan Police told Forum 18 that "it is unlikely any pressure was applied" to her to resign, and her former employer declined to comment. Both groups of religious believers have been put under state surveillance, and Protestants in the far eastern Russian Republic of Sakha have received an intrusive questionnaire from the local police Centre for Combating Extremism. Police have refused to tell Forum 18 how this information will be used, or whether criminal cases will be opened against those questioned.
24 March 2011
Proposed Russian legal amendments that would ban anyone except registered religious organisations from distributing religious literature have received initial backing from the Duma's Committee on Social and Religious Organisations, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The Committee has set 30 April as the deadline for comments on the amendments, which also impose fines for this "offence", and are an initiative of the Duma of Belgorod Region. In May the Committee will review the draft in the light of comments and either pass it to the full Duma or reject it. Some do not think the draft will be adopted, but it has aroused concern from human rights defenders and some religious communities. Similar proposals have regularly been made, but this is the first time to Forum 18's knowledge that such a proposal has had initial Committee backing. It is unclear how much support this proposal has among senior Russian political figures.
1 March 2011
Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and Armenian Catholics continue to struggle to gain registration – and so legal status – from the authorities of the capital Moscow, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A court has decided not to change a decision to close the Jehovah's Witnesses Moscow branch – despite a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling against this. Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer Artur Leontyev said this "obviously ignored the ruling of the European Court", and said an appeal will be made. ECtHR mandated damages and costs have also not been paid to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Also Moscow's Armenian Catholic congregation continues to be unable to gain registration. A court hearing was postponed until 11 April, when the authorities failed to appear. The Armenian Catholics' lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, told Forum 18 beforehand that a negative ruling "would give us the chance to take the issue to the Constitutional Court and challenge the Religion Law". His colleague Inna Zagrebina told Forum 18 that nationwide illegal state interference in communities' internal life is "an integral part of life for religious organisations".