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5 August 2014

RUSSIA: European Court repeats calls for Religion Law change

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled against Russia in two freedom of religion or belief cases, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses detained during a police raid on a meeting for worship in Moscow, and a Pentecostal centre in Chuvashia liquidated for alleged violations of educational, fire and sanitary regulations both won their cases. Liquidation and loss of legal status as a registered religious organisation should not legally lead to a complete ban on activity, but will make it difficult to continue to do more than privately meet for worship and to study texts. Despite this, people who belonged to forcibly liquidated Jehovah's Witness communities in Samara and Taganrog have found that they are not allowed to even meet together. The ECtHR also ruled that Russia must bring the Religion Law into line with both the country's international obligations and with the case-law of the Russian Supreme and Constitutional Courts. One ECtHR judge stated that "any additional delay would be unforgivable". Current changes to the Religion Law now in the Duma appear to have stalled. The proposed changes removed the 15-year registration waiting period, but human rights defenders have expressed concern about an apparent attempt to make registration of all religious groups compulsory.

19 June 2014

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims face up to six years' imprisonment

Four of the 16 Jehovah's Witnesses on criminal trial in Taganrog and both the Muslim women whose criminal trial in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk is imminent face up to six years' imprisonment each if convicted. All have been accused of organising an "extremist" religious community banned by Russian courts, Forum 18 News Service notes. The criminal cases against Yelena Gerasimova and Tatyana Guzenko, Muslims who read Said Nursi's works, reached Krasnoyarsk's Soviet District Court on 29 May, but are being transferred to a Magistrate's Court. Meanwhile, several further Muslim women in Naberezhnyye Chelny have been issued warnings for allegedly attending an "underground madrassah", a fellow Muslim in the city told Forum 18. Law enforcement agents "are harassing us on the quiet", one Muslim complained to Forum 18. "We are not left alone."

5 June 2014

RUSSIA: Obstructions to building places of worship

The Regional Court in the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad has upheld a lower court ruling which deemed a nearly completed mosque illegal, despite the fact that the federal law on heritage preservation it allegedly violates did not apply to the site at the time construction began. The community's lawyer Dagir Khasavov described the court to Forum 18 News Service as being "in the worst traditions of the Soviet period of stagnation". He said the community has organised "round-the-clock protection" of the mosque in case of attempts to destroy the building now that the court decision has come into force. The same court also upheld a decision suspending the construction of a synagogue to replace one destroyed by the Nazis. Moscow's Hare Krishna community lost its court case challenging the city Property Department's unilateral termination of its lease on a plot of land on which it had planned to build a temple. The Property Department claimed to Forum 18 it was working on a new possible site.

23 May 2014

RUSSIA: Auction to end Old Believer church restitution hopes?

Despite a verbal promise from the regional governor, Old Believers in Yekaterinburg in the Urals fear that they may never get restitution of their church, seized during the Soviet period. Sverdlovsk Regional Property Fund is due to auction the historical church on 11 June. "Logic, common sense, the Governor's promise, and historical justice compel us to believe that the church building will be handed over to its rightful owners," Maksim Gusev of the Church's Urals Diocese told Forum 18 News Service. "But officials are doing everything to obscure the situation and delay the outcome." Lutherans in Vyborg in north-western Russia have been refused the restitution of their former parish house, which they hope to use as the pastor's accommodation and a Sunday school. A 21 May court decision claims this is not a "religious purpose" as required under the 2010 restitution law. Catholics in Barnaul have been promised the return of their Soviet-confiscated church "no later than 3 February 2018".

1 May 2014

RUSSIA: "They'll punish you .. whether or not you committed a crime"

Russian law enforcement agencies continue to conduct inspections of premises and vehicles owned by Muslims and Jehovah's Witness, often targeting religious literature banned as "extremist", Forum 18 News Service notes. Prosecution often follows on charges of "mass distribution" of "extremist" material – even if only one copy of a text is found. In the 15 known prosecutions so far in 2014 all have led to convictions. In one example, the Mufti of a Mosque in Saransk was tried for possession of one copy of Turkish theologian Said Nursi's "Guidebook for Women". Mosque staff think the book was planted, and Mufti Zyaki Aizatullin stated that the first time he had seen it was during an inspection by the Prosecutor. On appeal on 5 March, the defence pointed out among other things that there were discrepancies in who the prosecution stated had found the book. But the appeal was dismissed. The Mosque spokeswoman commented to Forum 18 that "it turns out the law exists only on paper, and in practice they'll punish you regardless of whether or not you committed a crime. It's enough just to be a Muslim."

15 April 2014

RUSSIA: European Court request enough to protect Uzbek asylum seeker?

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has told the Russian government that Uzbek asylum seeker Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov "should not be expelled or otherwise involuntarily removed from Russia to Uzbekistan or another country" while his case there is considered, according to court documents seen by Forum 18 News Service. The Uzbek government has been seeking his return since 2010 to face criminal charges for participating in an unregistered Muslim community. Although he succeeded in having an extradition order overturned in 2011, his status as a temporary refugee in Russia was not extended in 2013. His challenge failed in a Moscow court in March 2014. "The European Court measures should be enough to protect Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov, as Russia usually abides by such measures," his lawyer Eleonora Davidyan told Forum 18. However, she points to cases when security service officers have abducted asylum seekers in Russia. Irina Blazheyeva of Novosibirsk Region Federal Migration Service dismisses such concerns. "This is in the realm of fantasy," she told Forum 18.

10 April 2014

RUSSIA: "Tired of the unjust treatment of the books, ourselves, and our loved ones"

Amid a crackdown on readers of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Naberezhnyye Chelny in Tatarstan, two more were fined for involvement in an "extremist" organisation, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Nakiya Sharifullina and Laura Khapinova are now appealing against their criminal convictions. Naberezhnyye Chelny Court is also hearing a Prosecutor's Office suit to have 17 more of Nursi's books – plus a biography of him – seized during police raids banned as "extremist". The Prosecutor's Office refused to discuss the suit with Forum 18. On 21 March, the Russian government defended its 2010 ban on another Nursi publication in a case brought to the European Court of Human Rights by Krasnoyarsk Spiritual Administration of Muslims. The government response – seen by Forum 18 - insists that the ruling was "necessary". However, Jehovah's Witnesses have finally succeeded in having two of their brochures removed from the Federal List of Extremist Materials.

26 March 2014

RUSSIA: St Petersburg church liquidated, Rostov and Chelyabinsk drug and alcohol rehabilitation targeted

A St Petersburg Pentecostal church has been liquidated this month for alleged illegal educational activity. Protestant-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres in Rostov and Chelyabinsk regions of Russia are also been targeted for closure by the authorities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Harvest Church lawyer Sergei Chugunov of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice stated that the St Petersburg Prosecutor "could simply have demanded an end to the activities they deemed illegal, and taken action in the event of disobedience". But, he told Forum 18, "it was decided to resort immediately to the most extreme measure – liquidation. We pointed out this disparity in court, but the court decided otherwise." The Church continues to meet for worship and intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The three Rostov cases and single Chelyabinsk case have so far followed the same pattern – claims of illegal detention of addicts, an inspection by law enforcement agents, and the removal of residents.

12 March 2014

RUSSIA: Two fines, two more sentences imminent, court-ordered book destructions

Two readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi - Ilnur Khafizov and Fidail Salimzyanov – have appealed against fines handed down in Tatarstan in February for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The verdict – seen by Forum 18 News Service – also orders religious books confiscated from them to be destroyed. Sentences in the criminal trial of two female Nursi readers are expected on 19 March. Although a criminal trial in Kaliningrad ended without a verdict after the two-year deadline, the court ordered Nursi reader Amir Abuev's books destroyed, a decision he described to Forum 18 as "a gross violation".

4 March 2014

RUSSIA: Still no mosque for Sochi, Protestants struggle to keep church

Acquiring and retaining places of worship in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi is difficult for some local residents, Forum 18 News Service notes. Sochi's Muslims are still without a mosque, despite repeated attempts to obtain land and permission to build since 1996. Despite repeated official promises of action, no concrete steps have yet been taken to enable a mosque to be built. In contrast, Krasnodar Region allocated more than 525 million Roubles for the construction of the vast Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Image of Christ at the Olympic Park, which was consecrated on 2 February 2014. Meanwhile, House of the Gospel Church is struggling to retain its Church building against city attempts to sell it off. In 2011 the Church asked for full ownership of the building it has used since 1993 (having had lesser ownership since 2007), as Russian law allows, but Sochi administration repeatedly failed to respond or give reasons for its lack of response. Two court hearings have failed to secure the Church's rights to the property, and it is now preparing a third appeal. The hearing date will be set on 25 March.

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