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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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RUSSIA: Dagestan's religious freedom policy changing?

Islamist insurgents from Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have stepped up their attacks in recent months. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that the local state authorities appear to have realised that responding to this with harsh restrictions on the religious freedom of Muslims has proved futile and counter-productive. "The authorities are beginning to understand that they can't keep raiding everywhere and trying to control things in that way, that constant pressure doesn't make people regard them positively," local human rights lawyer Ziyautdin Uvaisov told Forum 18. "Physical elimination doesn't go anywhere," Shamil Shikhaliyev of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed, "we've been destroying them [alleged Islamist militants] for ten years now but there are more and more - like the Hydra, you chop off one head and two more appear." Nevertheless, under current republican law the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan still has a monopoly on all Muslim life in the republic, including on religious literature distribution and education. Many in Dagestan's political and Muslim establishment also remain wary of a change in policy, due to frequent insurgent murders of their colleagues.

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic education

Legal provisions in the Russian North Caucasus republic of Dagestan restricting religious education are a major element in the near monopoly on Muslim public life enjoyed by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Some local Muslims maintain that the restrictions prevent qualified people from teaching. "You might have a very well-educated imam returning from Syria or Egypt who is a classic convinced Shafi'i Muslim in line with Dagestan's tradition," Shamil Shikhaliyev, head of the Oriental Manuscripts Department at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18. "But he won't get a position at a mosque because it is the unwritten law of the Directorate that anyone who studied abroad is Wahhabi and can't become an imam." One local human rights defender, Ziyautdin Uvaisov, has described how those disagreeing with the Directorate's line who have tried to study in its educational institutions usually ended up either leaving or being expelled.

RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic literature

Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan does not formally ban particular items of Islamic literature, but it grants the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan exclusive vetting powers over what is circulated, Forum 18 News Service has found. The restrictions are not always enforced. In practice, Islamic literature which does not display an endorsement from the Directorate is regarded with suspicion. There are limited opportunities to buy or sell such literature, as all mosques and prominent Islamic bookshops come under Directorate control. For Dagestan's many practising Muslims, easy access to information on Islam is thus limited to a relatively narrow range of viewpoints. Possession of "unapproved" books may mean the authorities identify their owner as a "Wahhabi extremist". Directorate bookshops carry many pamphlets condemning so-called Wahhabism in a way similar to Orthodox anti-sectarian brochures, with titles such as "Caution, Wahhabism!" and "Confessions of An English Spy". Only Arabic texts of the Koran are on sale. This starkly contrasts with the stock of a small independent Islamic bookshop visited by Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Dagestan's Sufi monopoly

The authorities in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have imposed a near monopoly on Islam by a narrow strand of Sufism, Forum 18 News Service has found. The monopoly – imposed in an effort to counter the local Islamist insurgency - is not absolute, but it dramatically reduces the public space allowed for Muslims who do not wish to subjugate themselves to the one permitted Spiritual Directorate. By reinforcing the perception that only Muslims with legal status under the Spiritual Directorate are legitimate, it has fuelled persecution of other Muslims by law-enforcement agencies, local Muslims told Forum 18. A series of local provisions combine to give the Directorate legal control over Muslim public life in Dagestan, permitting only one umbrella organisation per confession. Local religious communities require the endorsement of this umbrella organisation – in Islam's case, the Directorate - to register. Religious literature and education are particularly restricted, although to varying degrees in practice. However, there are signs that the authorities are considering loosening the Directorate's control.

RUSSIA: Does Dagestan need its anti-Wahhabi law?

Rasul Gadzhiyev, departmental head of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs, defends the southern Russian republic's 1999 local law banning Wahhabism: "no one's talking about annulling it – no way," he insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Yet he could not state definitively why it was needed in addition to Russia's 2002 Extremism Law. Local scholar of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shamil Shikhaliyev told Forum 18 that many in Dagestan now believe the Law to be a mistake "because in practice it determines the state's priorities in the religious sphere". By outlawing Wahhabism as a religious trend, he explained, the state in effect endorsed other forms of Islam. "But who gave the state the right to judge what is correct and what is incorrect in Islam?"

RUSSIA: Muslim community leader kidnapped by Dagestan authorities?

Sirazhudin Shafiyev, a Muslim who led negotiations on behalf of the Salafi group in a divided mosque community in 2005 in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, was abducted in September 2009 and has not been seen since. Family members told Forum 18 News Service they suspect he was seized and killed by the security services in connection with his religious activity, complaining that those who follow their interpretation of Islam are "persecuted". Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs rejects such allegations of kidnapping and murder, telling Forum 18 "no one is going to pursue you if you haven't committed a crime prosecutable by law." Yet the authorities admit maintaining lists of suspected "Wahhabis". Even Dagestan's state-backed Muslim Spiritual Directorate objects to the lists. Its spokesman complained to Forum 18 that anyone who attends a mosque morning and evening "goes on a police list".

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.