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20 June 2013

RUSSIA: Readers of Islamic theologian under house arrest, travel bans

Seven readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi are known to be under house arrest or other travel bans in different regions of Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. All are accused or suspected of organising or participating in banned "extremist" organisation "Nurdzhular" – charges they reject - and could face up to three years in prison. Gulnaz Valeyeva – one of three female Nursi readers on trial in Chelyabinsk Region - married in 2012. But she is unable to live with her husband, who works over 2,000 km away in Krasnoyarsk, another of the three told Forum 18. Another cannot visit her frail 85-year-old mother. Meanwhile, all 16 Jehovah's Witnesses on criminal trial in Taganrog of belonging to an "extremist" organisation have been under travel bans for over a year, Viktor Zhenkov, one of their lawyers, told Forum 18.

18 June 2013

RUSSIA: Imams' defence rejected "for contradicting prosecution"

Ilhom Merazhov – one of two imams given a one-year suspended prison sentence on 27 May in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk after a three month criminal trial on "extremism" charges – has expressed his astonishment. "Convicted of organising an extremist organisation when we didn't conduct extremist activity - it's nonsense!" he told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor's Office official Sergei Ageyev even admitted in court that "the deed of which they are incriminated does not envisage any kind of extremist activity", according to the transcript. The verdict orders a large quantity of Muslim literature from the imams' personal libraries to be destroyed as "weapons of the crime". "I'm speechless, this is the same as destroying the Koran. It's blasphemy!" Merazhov insisted. In a case on the same criminal charges in the southern Russian town of Taganrog, where the local Jehovah's Witness congregation has been banned as "extremist", the criminal trial of 16 of its members has begun.

29 May 2013

RUSSIA: Government checks on religious organisations seek "extremism"

"Extremism" was a key reason given for Russia's state inspections of some Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities this Spring, Forum 18 News Service notes. Yet no signs of "extremism" were found during the vast majority of government checks. For example, a Pentecostal Church in Russia's Far East was initially accused of "extremism" when a Public Prosecutor inspection found its statutes did not specify that non-citizens could participate in its activity as well as Russian citizens. These accusations were soon dropped. But in Irkutsk Region and Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, administrative cases for "production or distribution of extremist materials" were opened against local Muslim leaders, one resulting in a fine. One of the cases related to possession of a translation of a work by Islamic theologian Said Nursi. Muslims are, like Jehovah's Witnesses, subject to ongoing checks for "extremism". Searches of their communities this Spring were thus not necessarily part of the NGO sweep.

28 May 2013

RUSSIA: Mixed response to sweeping government checks

Representatives of hundreds of religious organisations inspected by state officials this Spring have voiced mixed impressions of the checks to Forum 18 News Service. Following its inspection, a Catholic parish in southern Russia is facing a heavy fine for fire safety violations. But this appears exceptional. Unlike major human rights organisations the checks appeared to target, most religious representatives surveyed by Forum 18 received only minor complaints. Konstantin Andreyev, a Moscow-based lawyer, remarked to Forum 18: "The majority [of Public Prosecutor employees] did this quite formally, understanding that they just need to submit reports saying they checked." Protestant representatives in particular were unconcerned, and sometimes even defended the state's actions. But the Jehovah's Witnesses are worried about the possible consequences of a massive inspection of their Russian headquarters.

22 May 2013

RUSSIA: Why were hundreds of religious organisations checked?

Hundreds of religious communities across Russia are among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) inspected by officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Check-ups ranged from a simple telephone request for documents to multiple, extensive searches. It "wasn't simply the initiative of the Prosecutor", Moscow-based lawyer Konstantin Andreyev told Forum 18. "There's a political subtext." Yet the new regulations on foreign funding for NGOs – including designation of some as "foreign agents" – do not legally apply to religious organisations. In several cases, religious organisations appear to have been inspected due to "foreign" links, such as Catholic charity Caritas and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The General Prosecutor's Office order for the sweep is not public, but Samara Regional Public Prosecutor's Office ordered that inspections should check compliance with laws on "surveillance and criminal procedure" and the Extremism Law by "social and religious associations and other non-commercial organisations".

27 March 2013

RUSSIA: Is "negative evaluation of Christianity" a crime?

Four Jehovah's Witness publications have been ruled "extremist" by a Siberian court since the beginning of 2013, with rulings expected soon on a further four, Forum 18 News Service notes. One "expert" analysis used by the court uncovered "propaganda" of the superiority of citizens on religious grounds and incitement of religious discord. It also pointed to the publication's "negative evaluations of Christianity and its religious leaders", but gave no examples from the text itself. The publications are expected to appear soon on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. In April a court in Chelyabinsk is due to consider whether 95 further Jehovah's Witness works are "extremist". Fifteen more works by Islamic theologian Said Nursi and a Russian translation of a biography of him were added to the Federal List on 19 March. Individuals and communities who possess such works deemed "extremist" can be fined or even imprisoned.

21 March 2013

RUSSIA: Familiar twist in anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign

Russian officials are reviving old tactics in their long-running campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A prosecutor in the Siberian city of Tobolsk opened a criminal case against local Jehovah's Witnesses alleging they "called upon citizens to refuse to perform their civic duties" and "motivated citizens to refuse vital medical treatment". The maximum punishment they might face if the case reaches court is four years' imprisonment. The prosecutor refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Police and FSB security service officers raided six Jehovah's Witness homes in Tobolsk and that of another local resident, seizing religious literature and other items. In December 2012 a court in Kemerovo refused a prosecutor's request to ban the local Jehovah's Witness community on similar grounds. Officials have failed to respond to Forum 18's repeated attempts to find out why Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who read Islamic theologian Said Nursi's works are targeted.

5 March 2013

RUSSIA: What's the matter with Said Nursi?

The reasons for Russia's ongoing nationwide campaign against readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi have remained obscure, Forum 18 News Service notes. The state has offered weak or no explanations for banning as "extremist" 39 Nursi works and an alleged associate organisation, "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers deny exists. Much of the state's argumentation is incoherent, with quite different reasons offered for banning Nursi writings and "Nurdzhular" in different contexts. Court materials seen by Forum 18 contain no evidence that either Nursi's writings or Muslims who read them advocate violence, despite claims to the contrary by officials. However, since the anti-Nursi campaign became apparent in 2005, clear patterns are emerging in the types of "evidence" offered. Considered together, these suggest that the campaign's primary cause is state opposition to "foreign" Turkish and American spiritual and cultural influence. Officials and others who support the bans have pointed to this in their public statements. But as this is not a criminal offence, weak allegations of "extremism" are instead offered in a legal context.

28 February 2013

RUSSIA: Contradictions in "extremism" case against imams

Forum 18 News Service has found numerous inconsistencies in the Russian state prosecution's case against Ilhom Merazhov and Komil Odilov, the two imams facing criminal "extremism" charges in Novosibirsk. "The case should be examined in a legal, not political, manner - but many concepts being used aren't legal terms," Ilhom Merazhov, one of the imams, told Forum 18. "We're accused of 'gradual transformation of the personality', forming 'behavioural stereotypes' and 'new life values'. This doesn't make [legal] sense!" Aleksandr Tokarev, an officer in the police Counterextremism Department closely involved in the case, has refused to address the charges' many contradictions when contacted by Forum 18. For example, the charges include the claim that the two imams encouraged participation in "Nurdzhular", an alleged organisation with the claimed aim "to change the form of state government and introduce Muslim religious government on the basis of sharia". But some of the prosecution's evidence strengthens the imams' counterclaims that they reject violence. There are also numerous flaws in an "expert analysis" commissioned by the prosecution.

27 February 2013

RUSSIA: "Extremism" trial of imams resumes

The trial of two imams serving with a major Russian Muslim organisation resumed today (27 February) in Novosibirsk. One of the imams, Komil Odilov, was questioned for the whole four-hour hearing, the other imam, Ilhom Merazhov, told Forum 18 News Service afterwards. Merazhov complained he was not permitted to ask questions about the substance of the case, such as the meaning of allegations that the imams had sought "Islamisation of the region" and formed a "conspiratorial medressah". "We acted within the boundaries of our religion and did not violate Russian laws," Merazhov insisted to Forum 18. "How can they say 'conspiratorial medressah'? It's Odilov's flat, he's the owner, he talks about God in his own flat and it's a crime! This is simply repression." Police officer Aleksandr Tokarev, who has been closely involved with the case, did not provide any specific examples when asked by Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about Merazhov and Odilov's activity. Tokarev referred Forum 18 to the charges against the pair: "It's all laid out there!" He declined to answer any further questions.

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