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19 July 2010

COMMENTARY: RUSSIA: Art curators' verdict not isolated instance – this is a system

The conviction of art curators Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev is the most high-profile symptom of the problems flowing from Russian anti-extremism legislation, notes Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. This legislation has been used to target religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi, suggesting that these uses of anti-extremism law are not isolated instances – this is a system. Only indifference to religion prevents people worried by restrictions on freedom of speech from noticing the growing proportion of anti-extremism cases relating to religion. Particularly disturbing is the precedence given to the catch-all legal concept of 'religioznaya rozn' (religious discord) over the narrower 'religioznaya vrazhda' (religious enmity), as this allows criminalisation of legitimate criticism of others' worldviews. There must be, Verkhovsky argues, a re-examination of anti-extremism legislation, or at least a clear Supreme Court explanation conforming to international human rights standards.

12 July 2010

RUSSIA: Will Jehovah's Witness and Armenian-rite Catholic court victories be respected?

Both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Armenian-rite Catholic parish in Moscow have recently won legal victories in defence of their right to exist, Forum 18 News Service notes. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg rejected allegations that the Jehovah's Witnesses destroy families and infringe the rights and freedoms of citizens and which were used to attempt to ban their community in Moscow. The ECtHR also found that the excessive length of court proceedings against the community violated the right to a fair trial. However the Jehovah's Witnesses have submitted another complaint to the ECtHR, this time against a Supreme Court ruling outlawing 34 Jehovah's Witness titles as extremist and dissolving their community in Taganrog. This paved the way for the current nationwide wave of raids, detentions, literature seizures and other violations of freedom of religion or belief against Jehovah's Witnesses. Separately, Armenian-rite Catholics won a case in Moscow against a city decision not to register their parish. The city Justice Department has appealed in Moscow against the judgment, but no date has yet been set for the appeal hearing.

7 July 2010

RUSSIA: Pre-trial detentions of Muslim and Jehovah's Witnesses

Ilham Islamli, a reader of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi, has been held since 18 June on charges of inciting religious hatred for posting Nursi's works on a website, Forum 18 News Service has learned. It is unknown when the case might reach court. "It will happen this year," is all Investigator Vladimir Chernobrovin would tell Forum 18. Asked who might have suffered from Islamli's posting of some works by Nursi, Investigator Chernobrovin responded: "Asking who suffered or not is not relevant. The investigation is based on the court decisions banning Nursi's works." Meanwhile, two Jehovah's Witness women, Anna Melkonyan and Mariya Zubko, were freed on 1 July after 56 days' pre-trial detention but are still facing prosecution on accusations of theft. The two women, their lawyers and Russia's Jehovah's Witness community insist that the two were not involved in burglaries which took place in the town of Lobnya in Moscow Region. Melkonyan's lawyer, Natalya Medved, told Forum 18 that it is not clear whether the two women's faith led the police to accuse them of the burglaries. "It could be that it's not just because they are Jehovah's Witnesses. The police can't find the real criminals, so they believe that as foreign citizens the two women won't have anyone to defend them."

7 June 2010

RUSSIA: Ghostlike existence for Dagestan's Protestants

The Hosanna Church – the largest Pentecostal Church in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan – had a five-year agreement allowing prison visits abruptly cancelled in early 2010, Pastor Artur Suleimanov told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities have also changed their earlier positive assessment of the church's work with drug addicts. He believes such problems result from the personal initiative of individual officials. Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs insists that the authorities impose no restrictions on churches' social work. "If the Protestants' activity is in line with the law, there are no problems at all," he told Forum 18. Three Pentecostal pastors told Forum 18 that their congregations' lack of freedom was overwhelmingly due to public attitudes, which prevent some church members from attending Sunday worship even at openly functioning churches in urban locations. One village police chief who stopped Protestants meeting pointed to the mosque and told Pastor Suleimanov: "That's my law."

3 June 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's religious freedom policy changing?

Islamist insurgents from Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have stepped up their attacks in recent months. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that the local state authorities appear to have realised that responding to this with harsh restrictions on the religious freedom of Muslims has proved futile and counter-productive. "The authorities are beginning to understand that they can't keep raiding everywhere and trying to control things in that way, that constant pressure doesn't make people regard them positively," local human rights lawyer Ziyautdin Uvaisov told Forum 18. "Physical elimination doesn't go anywhere," Shamil Shikhaliyev of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed, "we've been destroying them [alleged Islamist militants] for ten years now but there are more and more - like the Hydra, you chop off one head and two more appear." Nevertheless, under current republican law the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan still has a monopoly on all Muslim life in the republic, including on religious literature distribution and education. Many in Dagestan's political and Muslim establishment also remain wary of a change in policy, due to frequent insurgent murders of their colleagues.

2 June 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic education

Legal provisions in the Russian North Caucasus republic of Dagestan restricting religious education are a major element in the near monopoly on Muslim public life enjoyed by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Some local Muslims maintain that the restrictions prevent qualified people from teaching. "You might have a very well-educated imam returning from Syria or Egypt who is a classic convinced Shafi'i Muslim in line with Dagestan's tradition," Shamil Shikhaliyev, head of the Oriental Manuscripts Department at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18. "But he won't get a position at a mosque because it is the unwritten law of the Directorate that anyone who studied abroad is Wahhabi and can't become an imam." One local human rights defender, Ziyautdin Uvaisov, has described how those disagreeing with the Directorate's line who have tried to study in its educational institutions usually ended up either leaving or being expelled.

26 May 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic literature

Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan does not formally ban particular items of Islamic literature, but it grants the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan exclusive vetting powers over what is circulated, Forum 18 News Service has found. The restrictions are not always enforced. In practice, Islamic literature which does not display an endorsement from the Directorate is regarded with suspicion. There are limited opportunities to buy or sell such literature, as all mosques and prominent Islamic bookshops come under Directorate control. For Dagestan's many practising Muslims, easy access to information on Islam is thus limited to a relatively narrow range of viewpoints. Possession of "unapproved" books may mean the authorities identify their owner as a "Wahhabi extremist". Directorate bookshops carry many pamphlets condemning so-called Wahhabism in a way similar to Orthodox anti-sectarian brochures, with titles such as "Caution, Wahhabism!" and "Confessions of An English Spy". Only Arabic texts of the Koran are on sale. This starkly contrasts with the stock of a small independent Islamic bookshop visited by Forum 18.

25 May 2010

RUSSIA: Dagestan's Sufi monopoly

The authorities in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have imposed a near monopoly on Islam by a narrow strand of Sufism, Forum 18 News Service has found. The monopoly – imposed in an effort to counter the local Islamist insurgency - is not absolute, but it dramatically reduces the public space allowed for Muslims who do not wish to subjugate themselves to the one permitted Spiritual Directorate. By reinforcing the perception that only Muslims with legal status under the Spiritual Directorate are legitimate, it has fuelled persecution of other Muslims by law-enforcement agencies, local Muslims told Forum 18. A series of local provisions combine to give the Directorate legal control over Muslim public life in Dagestan, permitting only one umbrella organisation per confession. Local religious communities require the endorsement of this umbrella organisation – in Islam's case, the Directorate - to register. Religious literature and education are particularly restricted, although to varying degrees in practice. However, there are signs that the authorities are considering loosening the Directorate's control.

5 May 2010

RUSSIA: Does Dagestan need its anti-Wahhabi law?

Rasul Gadzhiyev, departmental head of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs, defends the southern Russian republic's 1999 local law banning Wahhabism: "no one's talking about annulling it – no way," he insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Yet he could not state definitively why it was needed in addition to Russia's 2002 Extremism Law. Local scholar of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shamil Shikhaliyev told Forum 18 that many in Dagestan now believe the Law to be a mistake "because in practice it determines the state's priorities in the religious sphere". By outlawing Wahhabism as a religious trend, he explained, the state in effect endorsed other forms of Islam. "But who gave the state the right to judge what is correct and what is incorrect in Islam?"

4 May 2010

RUSSIA: Muslim community leader kidnapped by Dagestan authorities?

Sirazhudin Shafiyev, a Muslim who led negotiations on behalf of the Salafi group in a divided mosque community in 2005 in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, was abducted in September 2009 and has not been seen since. Family members told Forum 18 News Service they suspect he was seized and killed by the security services in connection with his religious activity, complaining that those who follow their interpretation of Islam are "persecuted". Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs rejects such allegations of kidnapping and murder, telling Forum 18 "no one is going to pursue you if you haven't committed a crime prosecutable by law." Yet the authorities admit maintaining lists of suspected "Wahhabis". Even Dagestan's state-backed Muslim Spiritual Directorate objects to the lists. Its spokesman complained to Forum 18 that anyone who attends a mosque morning and evening "goes on a police list".

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