Overview of the Trial in the Russian Federation Supreme Court
December 8, 2009
Three judges heard the case—Presiding Judge V.V. Gorshkov, Rapporteur Judge A.V. Kharlanov, and Judge Ye. S. Getman. The hearing began at 10 a.m., but the judges stated that the 15 minutes allotted for them to hear the appeal and announce their ruling was not sufficient and therefore they would adjourn until 12:30. This would also give the prosecutor time to review documents that the Rostov Regional Court had refused to accept but had forwarded to the Supreme Court along with the cassation appeal. And they stated that the hearing would most likely be moved to a larger courtroom.
Unusual for hearings in the Supreme Court, there was no representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office at the hearing. There was one prosecutor from the Rostov Region and a representative of the Ministry of Justice of the Rostov Region.
The hearing resumed at 1 p.m. with the parties being given the opportunity to file motions on adding evidence to the case file. When Judge Kharlanov presented the case to the court, he made it clear that he was not in favor of additional evidence being filed by lawyers for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nevertheless, the judges agreed to having one item entered as evidence, Professor Slepushkin’s expert conclusion.
The Supreme Court judges first heard Viktor Zhenkov and Arli Chimirov, representatives from the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses (national headquarters), provide the interlocutory appeal contesting the Rostov Regional Court’s refusal to admit the Administrative Center as a participant in the case. The court heard that the Local Religious Organization (LRO) of Taganrog, located in the Rostov Region, is not the distributor of the literature in question and that even the prosecutor in the lower court hearing had not objected to the Center’s participation. Taking the opposing stance, the prosecutor then argued that the Administrative Center’s rights were not affected by the case. The judges retired to consider their decision and approximately 30 minutes later announced that they were dismissing the interlocutory appeal, denying that the Administrative Center had any direct involvement in the ruling at hand.
If the judges had not ruled this way, then they would have had to return the case to the Rostov Regional Court to be reheard, and from the moment of their dismissal of the interlocutory appeal it was apparent that they had already decided to dismiss the cassation appeal of the LRO of Taganrog as well.
When the judges began hearing the Taganrog LRO’s cassation appeal, the Rapporteur Judge referred primarily to the prosecutor’s original claim and the decision of the Rostov Regional Court, only touching on the arguments in the cassation appeal. Procedural discrepancies involved in the decision reached by the Rostov court, including the statement that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania is incorrectly indicated in the decision as the publishers of the literature, were barely mentioned. The whole idea was dismissed as a “typing error” made by the lower court.
Arli Chimirov and Viktor Shipilov then presented the prepared statement and other printed materials about the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. However, they did not enter them into the case records as evidence.
Judge Kharlanov did not ask any questions whatsoever about such issues as blood transfusions or why the literature had been found unfit because of extremism. The judge also upheld the Rostov court determination that there was no need to question A. N. Gorbatenko in court regarding a related case that specifically addresses the aspect of Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek Alternative Civilian Service.
Judge Getman asked questions about the Rostov decision and the expert study, since that court decision barely mentions the specific text from publications evaluated and does not explain the court’s conclusion that the publications are extremist.
The prosecutor then argued the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a negative view of other religions and religious symbols. The Presiding Judge asked the prosecutor what was her view of atheism, which also rejects all religion and religious practices. To this the prosecutor was silent for a while and Judge Kharlanov tried to persuade the Presiding Judge to drop the question. However, the prosecutor then responded, stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses violate the rights of atheists and others by preaching to them. The prosecutor did admit that there was no evidence that the death of one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, T. V. Salnikova, was caused by her refusal of blood or its primary components. Instead, the prosecutor then alleged that Jehovah’s Witnesses had forced Salnikova’s doctor not to give her blood and that they had given him religious publications.
Judge Getman asked the prosecutor some difficult questions, indicating disagreement with the course being taken by the Rapporteur Judge. The line of questioning indicated that the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses was well-known, had been legally imported into Russia, has been freely distributed there, and had previously been the subject of positive expert studies. The prosecutor’s only response was that the positive expert study in 1999 had involved different publications. Judge Getman then went through the list of publications involved in the Rostov decision, pointing out that some were published before 1999, and asked how the contents of more recent publications differed from the literature in the expert study of 1999. The prosecutor had no answer.
The question of the letters sent to the court by the publishers of the literature was also considered. The prosecutor did not object to adding the letters to the court records as evidence, but the judges rejected them.
The judges then retired to consider their decision, returning ten minutes later to announce their ruling to dismiss the cassation appeal and uphold the decision of the Rostov Regional Court.