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26 August 2010

RUSSIA: First criminal charges against Jehovah's Witnesses, Nursi reader sentenced

Ilham Islamli has become the first reader of the works of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi – some of which are banned in Russia - to be convicted under the Criminal Code and punished under extremism-related charges, Forum 18 News Service notes. After two months' pre-trial detention, Islamli was given a suspended sentence on 18 August by a court in Nizhny Novgorod for publishing Nursi's works in Russian on a website he ran. A criminal case against another Nursi reader continues in Dagestan, though the case against a third has been dropped. For the first time, extremism-related criminal cases have now also been opened against three named individual Jehovah's Witnesses. Launched after mass raids on his congregation, the case against Jehovah's Witness Maksim Kalinin is said to have involved FSB security service surveillance using a secret video camera in his home, as well as their tapping of telephone calls made by seven other Jehovah's Witnesses. In Altai Republic, extremism charges have already been brought against local Jehovah's Witness leader Aleksandr Kalistratov, who faces possible imprisonment of up to three years if convicted.

12 August 2010

RUSSIA: "A plan of organisational and operational search measures"

Russian state officials have repeatedly refused to explain why and by whom moves against Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi were initiated. Forum 18 News Service notes that internal government documents, from a wide geographic spread of regions, reveal that the campaign is co-ordinated at a high level. Both Jehovah's Witnesses and Nursi readers have been targeted in ways that suggest that their believers and communities are closely watched by the police and FSB security service – both within and outside their communities. One police document cites "a plan of organisational and operational search measures to expose, warn and stop the illegal activity of representatives of the religious organisation the Jehovah's Witnesses". Another document refers to an Interior Ministry directive "with the aims of securing law and order, anti-terrorist protection and security at especially important and government sites, and aggression in countering the intrusion of xenophobia, and racial and religious extremism". A further document reveals that police shared "operational information" about a named Jehovah's Witness with a Russian Orthodox Church diocese. Private employers and public libraries have also been ordered to co-operate in the campaign.

4 August 2010

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness war veteran prosecuted for extremism

An 85-year-old veteran of the Second World War is the first Russian Jehovah's Witness known to have been prosecuted for "production and distribution of extremist materials", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The prosecution is the latest turn in the ongoing nationwide state campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses. Aleksei Fedorin, the veteran, denied the charges, explaining that police gathered various Jehovah's Witness titles he distributed for several years before they were banned, and that he was ill on the recent days he is alleged to have distributed them. Fedorin was also interrogated for eight and a half hours continuously, although he suffers from dizziness and faints. The judge in the case refused to comment on her decision to Forum 18. Earlier prosecutions for producing and distributing religious literature have involved controversially banned Islamic titles. Previous cases against Jehovah's Witnesses have rested on little-used provisions of some regional Administrative Codes. In at least one case, an attempt appears to have been made to recruit a Jehovah's Witness as an FSB informer.

2 August 2010

RUSSIA: Baptist and Jehovah's Witness worship services raided

Worship services of Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered recent raids by Russian law enforcement agencies, many involving the FSB security service, Forum 18 News Service has learned. After the latest, 9 July raid on Jehovah's Witness worship, officials - including an FSB officer and two Prosecutor's Office investigators – found nothing illegal but still held back all who had taken part in the service, writing down their names, addresses and telephone numbers. From 12 July, investigators interrogated more than 20 congregation members, proving most interested in the structure of the community, its aims and goals, members' religious convictions and the distribution of religious literature. A Baptist congregation similarly treated was given as authority a poorly photocopied court decision justifying the raid "in view of the fact that meetings of an unregistered religious organisation" were held in the raided building. Russian law does not require religious communities to register or seek state permission for home worship. Officials have been unwilling to discuss their actions with Forum 18.

27 July 2010

RUSSIA: Traffic Police start searches for religious literature

Russia continues to stop and search Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works for literature banned under anti-extremism legislation. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that a new development is the use of the Traffic Police - which is not part of the ordinary police, but is also under the Federal Interior Ministry - to conduct such searches. In another new development, police officers seized a Nursi title which is not one of the banned titles on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. They justified this by claiming that the text is identical to a banned title. A legal case following the seizure is pending. Police refused to tell Forum 18 how they knew that three minibuses they stopped and searched contained Jehovah's Witnesses, or how they knew that a person detained on arrival at Novosibirsk railway station would be carrying translations of works by Said Nursi. In another development, imports of every print edition of two Jehovah's Witness magazines - "The Watchtower" and "Awake!" - and not just editions on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, have been banned in Russia. An official denied to Forum 18 that this is censorship.

26 July 2010

RUSSIA: Outdoor activity harassed, banned and violently attacked

Outdoor public religious activity by Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees and Protestants has resulted in harassment by the police, repeated bans, and in one case a refusal to defend a Protestant meeting against violent attack involving stun grenades, Forum 18 News Service notes. The categories of activity targeted subdivide into very small groups of people sharing their beliefs with others in conversation in the street - normally Jehovah's Witnesses or occasionally Protestants - and outdoor public meetings or worship. By far the most common form of harassment takes place against pairs of Jehovah's Witnesses, and can involve unduly severe treatment of elderly or infirm people. Hare Krishna devotees in both Smolensk and Stavropol regions have experienced repeated banning of outdoor meetings, on grounds such as that they "inconvenience tourists on the way to the drinking fountains". Baptists in Rostov Region have experienced an attempted ban on a street library. Baptists in Tambov Region were banned from holding evangelistic concerts in a village, and when they were attacked with stun grenades by unknown people police did nothing to defend them.

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."

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