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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.

19 February 2013

RUSSIA: Criminal charges to follow armed Tatarstan raids?

Armed and masked Russian law enforcement agents raided 23 homes of readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Tatarstan, in the early hours of 14 February, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "They took everything," one of those searched, Laura Khapinova, told Forum 18. "Anything where they saw the word 'Islam'." Two of those raided are under arrest on criminal charges of "extremism". Ilnur Khafizov is in police detention and Nakiya Sharifullina under house arrest, Khapinova told Forum 18. A uniformed investigator showed Khapinova and her flatmate a search warrant "for banned literature, drugs and weapons". One question put by interrogators was "Do you read or distribute extremist literature?", she told Forum 18. "They don't like the fact that guests come to our home to pray and read the Koran and other literature," Khapinova remarked. Tatarstan's Interior Ministry was unable to tell Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about the activity of those searched.

3 January 2013

RUSSIA: Reduced state harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses?

Incidents of Russian police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses appear to be declining, Forum 18 News Service notes. However, Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov stated that the apparent reduction in such incidents could be because ordinary Jehovah's Witnesses are now less likely to report them. "At first they're outraged, yes. But the second and third time you get used to it and don't think anything about it, it becomes just 'a chat with the police'", he told Forum 18. Also, followers of faiths the authorities dislike won a victory in the Constitutional Court on 5 December 2012. It ruled that regulations obliging organisers to seek advance state approval for religious events should be loosened. The ruling followed prosecution of two Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgorod Region for meeting for worship without state approval. It should make the religious freedom situation of communities without access to designated houses of worship easier.

2 January 2013

RUSSIA: Is anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign slowing?

Russia's efforts to convict Jehovah's Witnesses for criminal "extremism" appear to be weakening, Forum 18 News Service notes. "But we can't say the authorities have become more relaxed in principle," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov he remarked to Forum 18 in Moscow. "It's not clear how they will react next, what other methods they will seek." Incidents of police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses are also reducing. Martynov's continued concern stems primarily from a criminal case against 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the southern Russian town of Taganrog. Forum 18 notes that local prosecutors have so far found it easier to convict Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works than Jehovah's Witnesses because they are deemed to belong to a banned "extremist" organisation. Even with Nursi readers - although one trial and several other criminal investigations continue - no "extremism" criminal convictions have been handed down since October 2011.

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