For Immediate Release
June 24, 1999
Higher court to hear appeal in Moscow religious freedom case Monday
On June 28, 1999, the Moscow City Court will hear an appeal by Jehovah’s Witnesses that argues that a court cannot decide on the legitimacy of religious beliefs and calls for the dismissal of a case that attempts to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow. The appeal, which will be heard at 10 a.m., is the result of a March 12, 1999, decision by the Golovinskiy People’s Court. After a five-week hearing, the trial judge continued the proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered an “expert study” to evaluate their religious beliefs and render an opinion to the court on their legitimacy.
“The international community is watching this case,” said John Burns, a Canadian attorney assisting the defense. “The question now is, Will the Moscow City Court show itself independent and adhere to the rule of law? Will the city of Moscow do likewise?”
This appeal goes to the central issue of this case—that a courtroom is not the place to argue theology, said defense attorney Galina Krylova.
“From the outset, the prosecutor has attacked the religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, often arguing that because these beliefs differ from those of the Russian Orthodox Church, they are unacceptable in Russia,” she said. “The court endorsed this theological inquiry by ordering experts to undertake a comparative evaluation of religious beliefs and to give their ‘expert’ opinion as to the legitimacy of these beliefs. This is no longer a secular court; it is a religious inquisition.”
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1996 that a state cannot decide on the legitimacy of religious beliefs without undermining religious freedom. “We will ask the appellate court to dismiss the prosecution’s case and declare this heresy trial a violation of the European Convention and the Russian Constitution,” Krylova said.
The defense will present an oral argument of about 30 minutes; an immediate decision by the three-judge panel is expected. If this appeal is denied, the defense will pursue further appeals within Russia and will consider an application to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
On April 29, 1999, federal officials reregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses under the 1997 law on religion, thus recognizing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion with more than a 50-year history in Russia. However, Moscow officials continue to harass Jehovah’s Witnesses. Directors of some public buildings have refused to rent to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in one case canceling a contract for the use of the Baykal Cinema. At least 10 congregations in Moscow have similarly lost their meeting places.
Background information on the trial and on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia can be found at www.jw-media.org. For more information on Jehovah’s Witnesses, visit www.watchtower.org.
Contact: J.R. Brown (718) 560-5600