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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.

21 September 2015

RUSSIA: Religious literature banned and blocked

Outrage among Muslims followed the August banning by a Sakhalin court of a Koranic commentary as "extremist", apparently basing the decision on statements of monotheism in Koranic verses. Three appeals have now been lodged, one of them by the Prosecutor's Office which requested the original ban. Widespread public protests have been successful following earlier religious literature banning cases in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgorod have failed to overturn both a ban on two more of their publications and an order that they should pay for the court-ordered "expert analysis" used to prove the texts' "extremism". Muslims in Pervouralsk have failed to overturn a decision that the FSB security service will conduct an "expert analysis" of works prosecutors are seeking to have banned as "extremist", again at the expense of the religious community. And Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to overturn a ban on 4,000 of their Bibles and other literature confiscated at the border as "supposedly prohibited from being imported".

17 September 2015

RUSSIA: Have Religion Law amendments rendered unregistered religious activity illegal?

Changes to Russia's Religion Law which came into force in July appear to require all religious communities that do not have legal status to notify the authorities of their existence and activity. This includes names and addresses of all their members and addresses where any meeting takes place. This is "bad news" and "against the Constitution for sure", Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Moscow-based SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis told Forum 18 News Service. Although no punishments yet exist for those who continue to meet for worship without notifying the authorities, unregistered religious communities and human rights defenders fear these may follow. The changes also deny newly-registered religious organisations not affiliated with centralised religious organisations the right to create religious educational organisations, conduct ceremonies in hospitals, prisons and old people's homes, or invite foreigners for the first ten years after their registration. The Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office has yet to respond to Forum 18 as to whether these provisions violate Russia's Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

28 August 2015

RUSSIA: Another enforced liquidation, place of worship to be seized

The 100 or so members of Abinsk's Jehovah's Witness community in Krasnodar Region of southern European Russia will risk criminal prosecution if they continue to meet to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, now that Russia's Supreme Court has upheld the community's enforced liquidation. The state will also seize their place of worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Three Jehovah's Witness communities and one mosque community have now been banned as "extremist". Jehovah's Witnesses believe prosecutors' similar liquidation suit in Cherkessk is an attempt to seize their property for commercial development. The community has faced searches it believes are illegal, seizure of religious publications and a fine, while two of its members have been fined and another was "subjected to beatings and severe psychological pressure" by police. Karachay-Cherkessiya Prosecutor's Office refused to discuss the liquidation suit with Forum 18.

24 August 2015

RUSSIA: Religious festival raided, two-year investigation, criminal trials, one fine

Exactly two years after police raided two Muslim homes in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk during celebrations of the end-of-Ramadan festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, criminal charges of "extremism" have been dropped against Yelena Gerasimova as the two-year statute of limitations for prosecutors and courts to complete cases has expired. The other home-owner, Tatyana Guzenko, was fined three months' average local wages, a fellow Muslim told Forum 18 News Service. Also in Krasnoyarsk, the criminal trial of three other Muslims on similar charges began in July and is due to resume on 8 September. The criminal re-trial of 16 Jehovah's Witnesses for continuing to meet after their community in Taganrog was banned through the courts is due to resume on 7 September.

27 July 2015

RUSSIA: Banning religious texts easy, unbanning them difficult

In mid-July, Russia's Justice Ministry finally deleted from its Federal List of Extremist Materials 50 Islamic texts among 68 banned in a 20-minute hearing in Orenburg back in March 2012. The 50 texts spent at least four months on the Federal List after they should have been removed, because the appeal judge did not explicitly reverse the original "extremism" designation, lawyer Timur Zaripov told Forum 18 News Service. Yet 11 of the 50 works are already banned in different editions. Of ten other religious texts removed from the Federal List after difficult and protracted efforts, seven (Muslim and Falun Gong) were soon re-banned. Three Jehovah's Witness brochures removed from the List in 2014 and 2015 have not been re-banned. Yet over 60 Jehovah's Witness texts remain on the Federal List, and successful appeals against "extremism" designations, whether before or after they come into force, are rare. Those possessing banned religious literature are often fined.

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