RUSSIA: Jehovah’s Witnesses banned, property confiscated

Forum 18 reports that Russia’s Supreme Court in Moscow yesterday declared the Jehovah’s Witness national headquarters in St Petersburg and all 395 local organisations “extremist”, banned all their activity immediately, and ordered their property seized by the state. Judge Yury Ivanenko took just over two minutes to read out his decision after nearly 30 hours of hearings across six days. Jehovah’s Witnesses intend to appeal against the ban.

Judge Ivanenko explicitly stated only that the “halting of activity” is to be enforced immediately. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the other parts of the decision will take effect only after any subsequent unsuccessful appeal.

This is the first time that a court has ruled that a registered national centralised religious organisation is “extremist” and banned.

Russia’s estimated 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses now risk criminal prosecution for “extremist activity” if they continue to meet for prayer or Bible study.

Any attempt by Jehovah’s Witnesses to share their beliefs, even within the restrictions of the July 2016 so-called “missionary amendment” to the Religion Law, will now be illegal, as the amendment prohibits any missionary activity by former members of banned “extremist” organisations.

Three United Nations Special Rapporteurs warned before the Supreme Court hearings began that any ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses would be “a threat not only to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but to individual freedom in general in the Russian Federation”. Russian human rights defenders and members of other religious communities also spoke in their support.

Once the Supreme Court has issued its full decision in writing, the Administrative Centre will have one month to appeal to a three-person panel at the Supreme Court, but Jehovah’s Witnesses say they anticipate serious problems, regardless of any pending appeal.

Jehovah’s Witnesses added that, if necessary, they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In a report of the verdict on the website, Jehovah’s Witnesses described the outcome of the case as “a black day for fundamental human freedoms in Russia”. They noted that “this decision could lead to the saddest consequences for believers of different faiths, as well as for Russia’s image on the world stage”.