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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.

8 June 2015

RUSSIA: Bans demanded for "religious superiority", "religious hatred"

A judge in the Urals has ordered new analyses of two Muslim books prosecutors are trying to have banned as "extremist", Forum 18 News Service has learned. The first analyses by an FSB security service specialist claimed that a Russian-language collection of hadith (sayings of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed) and an Islamic examination of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity promote "religious superiority" of one faith over others and incite "religious hatred". Similar arguments have been used to ban Jehovah's Witness works as "extremist". The right to believe in the inherent truth and superiority of one's own faith is part of the right to freedom of religion and belief. And, as Ilhom Merazhov – an Islamic scholar defending the two works against the prosecutors' suit - argues, "cannot by itself be regarded as an act aimed at inciting hatred or enmity". Religious publications, websites, webpages and apps continue to be banned as "extremist" elsewhere in Russia.

27 May 2015

RUSSIA: Trials of Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses continue

After two appeal hearings on 6 and 13 May, Judge Maksim Maksimov of Russia's Ulyanovsk Regional Court upheld a February ruling that Bagir Kazikhanov, Stepan Kudryashov and Aleksandr Melentyev met regularly in "conspiratorial gatherings". Kazikhanov was alleged to have come to Ulyanovsk to set up a "cell" on the orders of "Nurdzhular", an organisation Russian Muslims deny exists. He has now begun his three and a half year jail term. Also, in the criminal trial in Krasnoyarsk of Yelena Gerasimova and Tatyana Guzenko, accused of running a "Nurdzhular women's cell", Gerasimova was placed on the Interior Ministry's federal "Wanted Database" because of her frequent absences at hearings. Separate proceedings were opened against her, but she was absent because she was pregnant, a Muslim told Forum 18 News Service, and she has now been removed from the Wanted Database. And after multiple delays, the re-trial of 16 Taganrog Jehovah's Witnesses charged with "continuing the activities of an extremist organisation" continues.

15 May 2015

RUSSIA: Increased fines for "extremist" texts, one jailing so far in 2015

Organisations in Russia - including religious communities - charged with distributing banned "extremist" texts face sharply increased fines after May changes to Article 20.29 of the Administrative Code. Confiscations of religious texts from both Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses, mostly during raids or detentions, frequently result in prosecutions of people, Forum 18 News Service notes. Convictions have led to liquidation, or threats of liquidation, against Jehovah's Witness or Muslim communities they belong to. This has most recently happened in April, after a Jehovah's Witness was convicted of distributing texts on the street. Tikhoretsk Inter-District Prosecutor's Office warned the local Jehovah's Witness congregation about the "inadmissibility of extremist activity" and stated that if it is not heeded "the question of liquidating the above organisation may be considered". In March a Perm Region resident was jailed for five days for posting a banned video on the VKontakte social network, entitled "The Wonders of the Koran". Other recent convictions have taken place after the Islamic texts concerned have been ordered to be taken off the Federal List.

1 May 2015

RUSSIA: Jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief in public

Baptist pastor Pavel Pilipchuk was imprisoned for five days in Orel in mid-April for refusing to pay a fine for allegedly organising an open-air meeting for worship without informing the city administration beforehand, church members told Forum 18 News Service. "Christian songs and conversations with people cannot be classified as rallies, pickets, marches and demonstrations," they insist. Religious communities whose beliefs require them to share their beliefs in public, beyond the confines of a place of worship, are particularly vulnerable to prosecution in Russia. Public processions with chanting constitute "one of the main forms of expression of the right of believers to act in accordance with their beliefs and the right to disseminate them", Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov explained to Forum 18. Nine Jehovah's Witnesses and four Muslims are known to have been fined since the beginning of 2015 for holding public religious events.

31 March 2015

RUSSIA: 65 known "extremist" religious literature cases in 2014

A total of 65 individuals and religious communities are known to have been prosecuted in 2014 across Russia for possession of allegedly "extremist" banned religious literature which does not appear to incite violence or hatred, Forum 18 News Service notes. Of these, 56 ended up with punishments. The cases were brought under Administrative Code Article 20.29 ("Production and distribution of extremist materials"), and all the cases related to the alleged possession of Muslim or Jehovah's Witness literature by individuals, religious communities, shopkeepers or stall holders. Courts continue in 2015 to rule Muslim and Jehovah's Witness literature "extremist", opening the way for more prosecutions. In 16 of the 65 known 2014 cases, courts ordered the religious literature to be destroyed. Prosecutors may use Article 20.29 convictions to seek to have a religious community forcibly dissolved. These 65 literature-related "extremism" cases are part of a wider pattern of investigations and prosecutions of people exercising their freedom of religion or belief.

20 March 2015

RUSSIA: More literature, website and video bans, but one partially overturned

A Russian court's 2012 ban of 65 Islamic books, one issue of the Muslim journal Novie Grani (New Boundaries), and two short articles as allegedly "extremist" has been partially overturned, Forum 18 News Service notes. However, 18 of the 68 texts in the original ruling remain banned. Appeals are being prepared against these bans. However, courts continue to rule literature "extremist", opening the way for more prosecutions for their possession or "mass distribution". These include the Google Translate Russian version of a collection of sayings of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, and a video commenting on the attempted seizure by bailiffs of saints' relics from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church. Also banned as "extremist" have been two Jehovah's Witness texts, with the community being forced to pay for the state's "expert analysis" which contributed to the ban. Analyses and testimony by Jehovah's Witnesses themselves were refused. Despite the term "mass distribution", prosecutors have often brought charges even if only one copy of a text is discovered. No state agency has answered Forum 18's questions on whether it is right that people should be punished for their possession and whether such prosecutions are a sensible use of police and prosecutors' time.

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