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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

RUSSIA: Who initiated anti-Jehovah's Witness and anti-Nursi campaigns?

Despite many enquiries, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to establish which Russian government agency or individual initiated the campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and why. An Interior Ministry official – who did not give his name – told Forum 18 that "the police don't decide these things for themselves. Someone else has to give the order, perhaps a prosecutor. The police just carry out the order." The official insisted that the moves against Jehovah's Witnesses are "centralised", but declined to speculate on which agency or agencies were involved. The official ended the call before Forum 18 could ask about the campaign against Nursi readers. Contrary to this, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev of the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations rejected any suggestion of a "centralised" campaign. Jehovah's Witnesses have documented increasing numbers of short-term police detentions of their members.

RUSSIA: Lutheran extremists?

After initially denying it, Officer Senichev (who refused to give his first name) of Kaluga Police in central Russia admitted to Forum 18 News Service that eleven armed officers with dogs had interrupted the 28 February Sunday morning service of St George's Lutheran congregation. "We had a call on the hotline that extremist literature was there. We're obliged by law to investigate all such calls." He was unable to specify which Russian law requires the police to respond to anonymous calls. Senichev was also unable to say why, if extremist literature was believed to be present, police officers conducting a search needed to be armed and accompanied by dogs. Nor was he able to explain why the search was conducted during the church's Sunday worship service. The preacher at the service, Pastor Igor Knyazev, later wrote an article entitled "How to behave during raids". Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that an administrative fine on two members in Krasnodar Region was accompanied by the first official order in post-Soviet Russia to destroy their confiscated literature.

RUSSIA: Raids, literature confiscations and criminal case in Tambov

Russia has raided three flats of Jehovah's Witnesses in Tambov in the first such reported home raids against them since the Soviet era, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raids follow previous raids on the homes of Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi. The police protocol of one search gives its aim as confiscation of "items of literature and electronic devices propagandising religious hatred, as well as other documentation recording activity by the religious group 'Jehovah's Witnesses'". Search warrants referred to the opening of a case under Criminal Code Article 282 ("incitement of ethnic, racial or religious hatred"). Forum 18 was unable to find out why the house searches were ordered, nor why copies of the search warrants were not given to the victims. Tambov Regional Police claimed that "these were not raids but searches". Distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of distribution of Jehovah's Witness literature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials could result in a five-year prison term.

RUSSIA: Illegal religious literature seizures

Religious literature is often seized from Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi in an illegal fashion, Forum 18 News Service notes. No formal record of seizure is given in many cases, and no investigation or court case to rule on whether or not an individual's ownership of the literature is illegal. Two lawyers working on religious freedom cases – Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice and Sergei Sychev of Sychevs and Advocates – separately told Forum 18 that this is unlawful. To continue to hold the literature, the authorities must conduct an investigation which either results in criminal or administrative proceedings, or the literature must be handed back. In law, such literature is only definitively "confiscated" by a court ruling. The comments come as all 34 of the Jehovah's Witness publications recently ruled "extremist" were added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Distribution, preparation or storage with the aim of distribution of these items could result in a four-year prison term. Forum 18 has been unable to find out what happens to literature on the Federal List once it is seized, whether or not with the support of a court verdict.

RUSSIA: Criminal charges against readers of religious literature

For the first time in Russia to Forum 18 News Service's knowledge, formal criminal charges have been brought against four readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The four – Aleksei Gerasimov, Fizuli Askarov, Yevgeny Petry and Andrei Dedkov – are accused of violating Article 282.2 Part 1 of the Criminal Code ("organising activity by a banned religious or other association"), which carries a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment. The association concerned is "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers insist does not exist. Two Nursi readers in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, Ziyavdin Dapayev and Ruslan Bulatov, are being investigated under Article 282.2, Part 2 of the Criminal Code ("participation in a banned religious extremist organisation"). Many Russian translations of Nursi's works feature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, making their distribution a criminal offence.

RUSSIA: Back to the future for Jehovah's Witnesses?

Just weeks after Russia's Supreme Court outlawed their literature as extremist, Jehovah's Witnesses are encountering at least ten times the level of state harassment across the country as before the ban, their press secretary has estimated to Forum 18 News Service. Since 8 December, they have catalogued over 30 incidents, including searches, threats and brief detentions. So alarmed are the Jehovah's Witnesses by the growing similarity of their predicament with their repression during the Soviet period that their entire 160,000-strong Russian membership will today (26 February) begin distributing 12 million copies of "Is History Repeating Itself?", a leaflet refuting the religious extremism allegations against them. In December, Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman informed President Dmitry Medvedev of an upsurge in citizens' complaints about religious freedom violations, but his only response was to check if they came from "non-traditional" confessions. Mikhail Odintsov of the Ombudsman's Office declined to answer Forum 18's questions. Readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi – whose works are also banned - similarly note increased state scrutiny, with raids by the police and FSB security service on dozens of homes in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan and Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in the past two months.

RUSSIA: Three more readers of Muslim theologian detained

Following simultaneous raids on 20 homes in Krasnoyarsk on the night of 16-17 February by Russia's FSB security service, three readers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi were detained for some 36 hours, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They and a fourth Nursi reader could now face religious extremism charges carrying a maximum three-year jail term. "These accusations of extremism are incomprehensible and ridiculous," Aleksei Gerasimov, one of those detained, told Forum 18 after his detention. "On the contrary, the Islam we're studying teaches deeper knowledge of the Most High, honesty, sincerity, how to help people and become a better person." Akhmad Kolobayev, the detained Muslims' lawyer, told Forum 18 that no formal charges have yet been brought, and he thought that court proceedings might not begin for some time. The Krasnoyarsk events follow similar raids and detentions in Dagestan in December 2009. Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are also reporting a significant increase in brief police detentions since December.

RUSSIA: Muslims raided, more Jehovah's Witness literature banned

Following an 11 December raid on a Makhachkala flat by "a whole busload" of armed and masked rapid reaction police led by a Dagestani FSB security service investigator, some 30 readers of the works of the late Turkish Islamic theologian Said Nursi were taken for questioning. Six homes of other Nursi readers in Dagestan were raided. Ziyavdin Dapayev, one of two of those held who could face criminal charges of participating in a banned religious extremist organisation, lamented to Forum 18 News Service that Nursi readers are becoming "victims to the incompetence of some employees of the law enforcement agencies". Dagestan FSB told Forum 18 no one could answer questions about the investigation. Nursi's works have been banned in Russia, despite a 2007 Turkish government statement that they "contain no statements whatsoever aimed at inciting religious hatred". Moscow Public Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that it had issued an extremism warning to Ravil Gainutdin, chair of the Russia-wide Council of Muftis, for inviting a Turkish Nursi follower to a Moscow conference. Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses have lost their latest appeal against an extremism ban on more of their publications.

RUSSIA: Supreme Court ban on Jehovah's Witnesses begins to bite

Although 34 Jehovah's Witness publications described as extremist have not yet been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, public prosecutors in several Russian regions have begun issuing extremism warnings to Jehovah's Witness communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Also, in what is thought to be the first instance in post-Soviet Russia of extended detention in connection with sharing beliefs, two Jehovah's Witnesses informally accused of distributing extremist literature in Bryansk Region were detained for six days for "petty hooliganism". Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman told Forum 18 – in what he stressed was his personal view – that there was a realistic chance Jehovah's Witnesses could appeal successfully to President Dmitry Medvedev to defend their rights, if complaints were formulated in purely legal terms. He characterised the overall situation as "threatening", maintaining that "reverse Sovietisation" was taking place. "We are returning to the ideological roots of state dislike of certain religious organisations," he remarked. "These people [Jehovah's Witnesses] have no defence. What defence do they have when a court is negatively predisposed towards them, pro-Orthodox, believes that one religion should be protected from another?"

RUSSIA: 34 Jehovah's Witness publications and one congregation banned

Russia's Supreme Court has today (8 December) upheld a Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruling finding 34 Jehovah's Witness publications "extremist", ensuring that their distribution will be banned nationwide. The Supreme Court also upheld, as part of the ruling, the liquidation of the Taganrog Jehovah's Witness congregation as extremist. The congregation's property will now be confiscated, and it will be banned from meeting as a community. Asked why the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision, the secretary for the Supreme Court's Civil Cases Division, who would not give her name, told Forum 18 News Service: "The Jehovah's Witnesses are extremist." Asked if they have for example killed anyone, she responded: "To a certain extent, yes." The court ruling opens the way for the distribution of all Jehovah's Witness literature in Russia to be banned in future. Grigory Martynov of the Jehovah's Witnesses expressed disappointment, telling Forum 18 that "the decision was taken very quickly and they gave no explanation as to why they upheld the Rostov decision." He also stated that they will consider whether to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

RUSSIA: Proposed missionary restrictions - a paper tiger?

Justice Ministry proposed amendments to the 1997 Religion Law and the Administrative Violations Code imposing draconian controls on religious activity have provoked protest from religious communities and have now been removed from the Ministry's website. Andrei Sebentsov, secretary of the government's Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, told Forum 18 News Service that the parliamentary Religion Committee has refused to consider the proposals, leading the Ministry to approach the parliamentary Security Committee. He says the proposed draft is "so clearly against the demands of the Constitution that the presidential administration would hardly support it." Yet Muslims, Old Believers, Protestants and some Russian Orthodox remain concerned. The draft echoes proposals the Ministry made unsuccessfully in 2006, but Vitali Vlasenko of the Baptist Union believes the threat of their adoption is now greater, since "society is scared by religious extremism".

RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses to be banned?

Following more than 500 check-ups on Jehovah's Witness communities across Russia, prosecutors in several regions are going to court to have various of their publications declared extremist. This would see their distribution banned in Russia and cripple the organisation, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witnesses believe state agencies want a total ban. Rostov-on-Don Regional Court ruled 34 texts extremist on 11 September, the first court to do so. The court ruling, seen by Forum 18, claims that the sentence "true Christians do not celebrate Christmas or other festivals based on false religious ideas" represents incitement to religious hatred, while another publication which quoted Tolstoy – described as "an opponent of Orthodoxy" - created "a negative attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church". The court also declared a local congregation extremist and ordered it liquidated. The Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to Russia's Supreme Court. Customs continue to seize their books. The public prosecutor who raided a meeting in St Petersburg alleging "extremist activity" was going on refused to talk to Forum 18: "You could be some kind of spy."