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11 April 2016

RUSSIA: Eight facing criminal cases, five already under arrest

Komil Odilov was arrested in Novosibirsk and Yevgeny Kim in Blagoveshchensk in December 2015, Ziyavdin Dapayev and Sukhrab Kultuyev in Makhachkala and Andrei Dedkov in Krasnoyarsk in March 2016, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The five – who can be held in pre-trial detention for up to one year - are among eight Sunni Muslims known to be facing FSB-led criminal prosecution on charges of "extremism" for studying the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Many Russian translations of his books have been banned as "extremist" in Russia, along with many Jehovah's Witness publications. The 16 Jehovah's Witnesses convicted of "extremist" activity in Taganrog in November 2015 have failed in their attempt to have their sentences overturned. When they get the written verdicts of the 17 March decision they will decide whether to appeal further, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.

22 March 2016

RUSSIA: Enforced liquidation of communities accelerates

Three Jehovah's Witness communities are trying to challenge lower court orders that they be liquidated as "extremist" and are awaiting Supreme Court decisions. The cases brought to six the number of their communities banned as "extremist". Court moves to liquidate a seventh were launched in May 2015. Since spring 2015 at least seven further Jehovah's Witness communities have received written "extremism" warnings from prosecutors, a frequent prelude to liquidation suits, Forum 18 News Service has found. A Jehovah's Witness community in Arkhangelsk applied to liquidate itself in October 2015, just weeks before Regional Governor Igor Orlov told the local Russian Orthodox Diocese website of "ongoing work to ensure the de-legalisation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Arkhangelsk Region". All these moves mark an intensification of law enforcement efforts to curtail Jehovah's Witness activity, Forum 18 notes. One Muslim community is known to have been similarly liquidated, with a second being issued a warning.

2 March 2016

RUSSIA: Freedom of religion or belief "extremist" text prosecutions increase

From September to December 2015 inclusive at least 35 individuals and three religious organisations exercising freedom of religion or belief were prosecuted in Russia under Administrative Code Article 20.29 ("Production or mass distribution of extremist materials"), Forum 18 News Service notes. Courts imposed fines in 34 of these cases, and one Jehovah's Witness was sentenced to a 10 day jail term later reduced to six days. Two individuals and one Jehovah's Witness community were acquitted. This is an increase on the September to December 2014 figure of 18 such prosecutions. Of the 38 September to December 2015 prosecutions, 19 involved Islamic texts or videos, 17 Jehovah's Witness texts, and two items produced by the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong. Court verdicts indicate that prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses under Article 20.29 increased in the last part of 2015. Their communities in Stariy Oskol and Belgorod city were liquidated in February 2016, and an appeal challenging the liquidation of the Tyumen community is due in Russia's Supreme Court on 24 March.

22 February 2016

RUSSIA: Community service order, 31 initial fines in 46 cases for public religious events over 4 months

In the last four months of 2015, at least 45 individuals and one religious organisation are known to have been brought to court under Administrative Code Article 20.2 ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket") for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief in public space. Most were Jehovah's Witnesses offering religious literature on the streets, but Mormons, Hare Krishna devotees, Baptists and a Muslim were also prosecuted. These prosecutions led to 31 fines and one sentence of community service (before appeals), according to an analysis by Forum 18 News Service, continuing an increasing trend from 2015. Fines were, in some cases, nearly two-thirds the average monthly wage and nearly twice the average monthly pension. These can place a heavy burden on the poor, elderly, and unemployed. Prosecutions at least partly stem from pressure from Russia's federal government to "minimise the public activity of citizens", Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov commented to Forum 18.

21 January 2016

RUSSIA: Raids, charges, detentions and fines of Muslims continue

Two more Muslims who read the works of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi, Komil Odilov and Yevgeny Kim, were arrested in December 2015 and are in pre-trial detention on "extremism" criminal charges, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Odilov has already served a one-year suspended sentence for alleged "extremist" activity and is currently appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. Another long-running case against three Muslim men in Krasnoyarsk ended in December 2015 in convictions and large fines for two of the defendants, and will soon go to appeal. After being convicted on almost the same "extremism" charges, after the longest such trial yet in Russia, 14 male and two female Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed against heavy fines and suspended prison terms for continuing to meet to pray and read the Bible after their Taganrog community was banned. And the criminal trial of an atheist blogger in Stavropol for "insulting religious feelings" is due to begin on 4 February.

14 December 2015

RUSSIA: Customs block literature "with no reason, no legal right and no court ruling"

Prosecutors are seeking through the courts to have at least some of the items of Jehovah's Witness literature impounded by Russian customs at the Finnish border declared "extremist", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Leningrad-Finland Transport Prosecutor's Office refused to respond to Forum 18's questions as to why more than ten million Jehovah's Witness books and brochures - including 4,000 Bibles in Russian and Ossetian – remain impounded simply because they might or might not contain "extremist" content. None of the impounded literature has been declared "extremist" in Russia. All attempted Jehovah's Witness literature imports have been blocked since March "with no reason, no legal right and no court ruling", Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Ivan Belenko complained to Forum 18. Forum 18 is not aware of religious literature of other faiths that has been blocked from import into Russia, apart from works which have been banned as "extremist" seized from individual travellers.

3 December 2015

RUSSIA: Criminal convictions for "extremist" prayer and Bible-reading meetings

After more than 60 hearings over 10 months, a Judge in Taganrog in southern European Russia found 14 men and two women guilty of "extremism" on 30 November for continuing to meet to pray and read the Bible after their community was banned. He handed down heavy fines (which he waived) and suspended prison terms. All 16 Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against what they describe as "a dangerous precedent for religious freedom in Russia", as soon as they have the written verdict. Pensioner Aleksei Koptev, one of those on five years' probation, told Forum 18 News Service he would appeal "because I did not commit any crime". He is in poor health and has suffered a heart attack, he added. Prosecutors in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk are seeking custodial sentences for at least two of the three Muslims whose criminal trial for meeting to study their faith and the works of theologian Said Nursi is expected to end soon. Contrastingly, the trial of 16 alleged members of Tabligh Jamaat in Novosibirsk ended without sentences, as it was not completed within the required two years.

30 November 2015

RUSSIA: Some but not all sacred texts exempted from banning

A new Russian legal amendment bans some sacred texts - "the Bible, the Koran, the Tanakh and the Kanjur, their contents, and quotations from them" - from being banned as "extremist". But about 4,000 Jehovah's Witness Bibles are among millions of their publications still held up at Russian customs as they may contain "extremism", Forum 18 News Service notes. The amendments aim to protect only books of those faiths considered as so-called "traditional". Muslim scholar Ilhom Merazhov thinks that it "does not solve the problem", as "religious books – commentaries on holy books – may still be prohibited". Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18 that "if these differences ['traditional' and 'non-traditional'] are used to justify division into 'us' and 'them', then this is extremism in a pure and dangerous form, which is so damaging to our multinational and multi-confessional state". Concerns also persist that the amendment leaves so-called "non-traditional" faiths open to discrimination, such as Theravada Buddhism.

4 November 2015

RUSSIA: Two prison terms, 25 initial fines in 37 cases for public religious events over 4 months

Over four months between May and August, 37 cases were brought to punish individuals and religious communities across Russia for exercising freedom of religion or belief in public spaces under Administrative Code Article 20.2, Forum 18 News Service has found. One community was fined after members offered religious literature near a bus stop. In Magadan, two Hare Krishna devotees were sentenced to six days' imprisonment each for performing religious chants and handing out literature in the street. "Six days of administrative arrest is a nasty thing, especially for a Hindu vegetarian," Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18. "A vegetarian diet is generally not provided by law while serving administrative detention, so for the first three days, neither ate." While court decisions in such cases are inconsistent, fines handed down can present "serious financial difficulties" for pensioners and the poor, Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Ivan Belenko told Forum 18.

14 October 2015

RUSSIA: 23 known prosecutions for religious literature in four months

Among the 23 known prosecutions across Russia between May and August for religious literature which does not appear to incite violence, hatred or other crime, a mosque in Tomsk Region of Siberia was fined in July. This was the first known fine on an organisation for religious literature the government deems "extremist" since fines under Administrative Code Article 20.29 ("Production or mass distribution of extremist materials") were increased for organisations in May, Forum 18 News Service notes. Among the 22 individuals punished, two were given short-term jail terms and the rest were fined. Russia's Justice Ministry has not yet responded to Forum 18's question of whether it is right that people should be prosecuted for distribution of texts which do not advocate violence, hatred, or the violation of human rights in other ways.

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