THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES’ CASE IN MOSCOW
Galina A. Krylova
Attorney at law, member of Moscow City Bar Association
Presented at the 13th International CESNUR Conference: “Religious and Spiritual Minorities in the 20th Century: Globalization and Localization”
Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, USA, June 2-5, 1999
The trial aimed at elimination of the Moscow community of Jehovah’s Witnesses that started in Moscow on initiative of the attorney represents a first attempt to eliminate a religious organization on the basis of the discriminatory Law on the Freedom of Conscience. Undoubtedly, this precedent will show what will be the judicial practice of its application in future. Although court sessions attract close attention of mass media and human rights activists and even diplomats are present in the courtroom, the court obviously tries to help the attorney to deal with a hard task, i.e. to prove absurd accusations that have been brought by him. They include, inter alia, fomenting of religious strife, since Jehovah’s Witnesses consider their religion as the only genuine one, inducing to suicide that is allegedly manifested in rejection of blood transfusion, “involvement” of minors in religious activities and even refusal to celebrate holidays that allegedly lead to the breakdown of family. The anti-cult committee as a representative of interests of anonymous public is also engaged in the trial on the part of the attorney. As evidences of the danger that this community constitutes published materials of the State Duma, opinions of famous cult fighters A. Dvorkin and O. Stenyaev who are clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church, judgements of theologists and psychiatrists who consider the teaching of Witnesses as a “pseudo-Christian” one and advocate “deprogramming” by parents who do not approve the choice of their children, have been presented.
These accusations, as well as the ways to prove them are not new. They were brought as early as in the time of Stalin’s repressions when Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to labor camps and exile. It is interesting that recent sentences (1980-s) when a standard length of imprisonment for religious creed of Jehovah’s Witnesses was 5 years, also contained accusations similar to those that are made now. The difference is in the proposed sanction—now it is suggested “only” to eliminate the community and to ban its religious activities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in Russia for more than 100 years. They grew in number during World War II when western territories were annexed to the Soviet Union. They were cruelly persecuted in a unitarian ideological state until the end of the 1980’s, and only at the beginning of the 1990’s were Jehovah’s Witnesses exonerated as victims of political persecution. It seemed that there would be no return to the past. In his decree no. 378 of March 14, 1996, entitled “On Measures for Exonerating Religious Ministers and Believers that Became Victims of Unjustified Persecution”, President Yeltsin condemned the “years of terror unleashed by the Bolshevist Soviet party regime against religious ministers and believers of all denominations”. But was this to be the end of religious discrimination?
Since the beginning of the 1990’s, powers for whom freedom of conscience meant primarily freedom for traditional Russian religions began to gain more and more confidence. Calls to battle against so-called non-traditional religions in the media and official documents became more and more insistent. Anti-cult committees were created that initiated attempts to ban religious associations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since they were supported by the state and the Russian Orthodox Church, their work was widely publicized in the media.
It was by their initiative that criminal cases were opened in 1996 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, which found the religious community to free of any crimes. At the same time the Prosecutor General’s office repeatedly insisted on renewing the investigations, acting on the complaints of the anti-cultists. In 1997 an anti-cult committee in St. Petersburg filed suit to liquidate the Administrative Center and requested for itself to be awarded 100 million rubles in damages for harm supposedly inflicted against the mental and physical health of the organization’s believers. In April 1998 the St. Petersburg court came to the conclusion that the committee had no legal right to file suit for liquidation of an organization and demand monetary damages for itself for harm that had supposedly been inflicted on the religion’s believers. This case was a precedent for Russia, since it barred the road to other such lawsuits.
After this a Moscow prosecutor, acting under pressure from the anti-cultists, filed an action in court demanding that the Moscow Congregation be banned. At first the court refused to hear the case, stating that it had no jurisdiction, however, it was later forced to hear the case by order of the Moscow City Court.
There have now been three hearings in the case, each of which has ended in adjournment due to the prosecution’s obvious lack of a case. The hearing in February and March of 1999 received the most keen attention, when the court thoroughly heard the parties to the case, witnesses, experts, and . . . once again used technical grounds to avoid making a decision. The court appointed an expert study of the religious teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which, be all appearances, will delay the trial for an indefinite period of time.
Why is this trial so significant, and why has it drawn such wide attention? Because this is the first major trial in which the government has openly moved against religious freedom in an attempt to use the discriminatory 1997 law. Keeping to the tradition of official unitarian thought, a prosecutor in democratic Russia launched accusations similar to those used by the former Soviet government. Only the state interest was defined differently: communist ideals were replaced by traditional values. If the court had been a theater, one could compare the prosecutor with a director producing a play entitled “The Russian people vs. Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Just as in Soviet times, the “Russian people” had no face, and its interests, as in the past, were expressed by “representatives of the public” and the government.
Let’s take a look at the forces that were arrayed against Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the prosecutor’s side was the anti-cult committee, in effect the initiator of the trial, and the Justice Department. It is interesting to note that when the court granted the motion of the congregation’s lawyers to remove the committee from the parties to the case due to its obvious interest and bias, the anti-cultists lawyer tried to participate in the trial as the Justice Department’s representative. This demonstrated the unified position of the state agency that had registered the congregation with the authority to monitor its activity, and the anti-cult committee. When the court denied her participation as a result of the sharp protest of the lawyers for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the anti-cultists in essence directed the prosecutor and the Justice Department’s representative during the trial and fed them with doctrinal literature that, in their opinion, exposed the congregation to be guilty as accused.
The trial visibly demonstrated the forces in opposition to Jehovah’s Witnesses. When the court hearing was heard in the larger hall, Cossacks and neo-Nazis, known for their extreme nationalism, stood guard threateningly. State Duma MP V. N. Lysenko attempted to participate in the case. Members of Zhirinovsky’s party or the communists, who are distinguished by their extreme religious intolerance and efforts to legislate unitarian thought, would have been quite at home next to the prosecutor. But a respectable member of parliament from a Moscow district who declares his commitment to democratic values and simultaneously comes to court to support the demands of his voters to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses is a significant matter. His appearance served as a reminder that only six members of the entire State Duma voted against the discriminatory 1997 law. A year later, one of the democrats that did not oppose its passage came to personally support religious persecution. And there was another noteworthy matter. The Duma deputy could not answer the question as to which of his voters had turned to him with a request to take measures to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The voice of the people” remained anonymous. The media, which had eagerly publicized the beginning of the trial—when opponents of religious freedom anticipated victory—immediately lost interest once the absurdity of the accusations ruined their hopes.
Having seen the huge interest in the September and November 1998 hearings, in February the judge moved the trial from a large hall with a capacity for 200 people into a tiny one that holds only about 15. The press and the public’s access to the courtroom was limited. The defense’s motion to ensure an open trial by moving it into the larger hall was denied.
This was no coincidence. The prosecutor’s position was so absurd that it need to be hidden behind tightly closed doors, so that as few people as possible would be able to see that a medieval trial was taken place on the precepts of the notorious authors of “Witch Hunt”, Heinrich Insistoris and Jacob Sprenger.
Let’s take a brief look at the accusations. For example, incitement of religious hatred by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was supposedly manifest in their distribution of literature in which their teachings are accepted as the only true ones. In support of her argument the prosecutor presented Watchtower and Awake! magazines to the court. In Soviet times one could be sent to prison for possessing these magazines. The prosecutor was undeterred by the fact that incitement of religious discord is a criminal act, which, according to the report of the prosecutor’s own investigator, Jehovah’s Witnesses had not committed. The prosecutor’s confidence was not shaken by the law either, according to which denominational preferences and religious differences are resolved outside the courtroom.
The prosecutor initiated disputes about the divine nature of Christ and the essence of the Holy Trinity, and rebuked Jehovah’s Witnesses for their false interpretation of the Bible. When asked who has the true interpretation of the Bible, she answered: the Russian Orthodox Church. Only when the defense lawyers sarcastically asked, “Where did you received your information as to who among Christians are true Christians? Did God himself tell you?”, she admitted that according to the law the prosecutor’s office has neither the right nor the obligation to interpret the Bible, and that she herself was incompetent in religious matters. The Bible itself was practically put on trial, and all parties in the case engaged in a collective Bible study. In this atmosphere the prosecutor appeared so ridiculous and illiterate, that even the judge demanded that the prosecutor answer how the words of the Apostle Paul “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” should be translated. Was the Apostle Paul inciting religious discord? Was not the author of Revelation heightening mass psychosis, making believers await Judgment Day in fear? When the prosecutor referred to traditional Russian religion, i.e. the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses were forced to quote publications of the Moscow Patriarchy that contained far more harsh and insulting condemnations of other religions. All the participants in the trial engaged in a comparison of Bible texts with the doctrinal literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses and listen to the prosecutor’s ignorant comments. At times, stumped by words of Jesus Christ or texts from Revelation that she had heard for the first time, she was forced to admit that she is not a specialist in Biblical studies. But that did not moderate her aggression, nor did she back down from her ridiculous accusations, confident that she was defending the interests of “society and State”. When the court insisted on following procedural rules by refusing to cooperate with the prosecutor’s demand that it dismiss the questions of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyers, the prosecutor three times demanded that the judge remove herself, saying she had a personal interest in the case. When the defense lawyer in her opening statement characterized the prosecutor’s position as aggressive ignorance, the prosecutor demanded that a criminal case be opened against her.
Other statements by the prosecutor were no less odious. For example, in support of her accusation of destruction of the family, she brought forth Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to celebrate holidays; the prosecutor felt that participation in politics and celebration of Orthodox Christmas as a state holiday is mandatory. In pointing to four cases of divorce, she did not even bother to check the court decisions in these cases. It is noteworthy that the congregation numbers over 10,000 believers. When the defense presented the court documents, the reasons for the divorces were shown to be rather more prosaic—a father refusing to support his children, wife beating and so forth. In rebuking the organization for demanding so much time from its members for preaching that they are unable to take care of their families, the prosecutor did not have any idea of who and how much time was spent preaching.
What else could one expect from a prosecutor that admitted that she had never attended a single meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses and had never spoken with a single member of the congregation? She had no idea of the conditions at Bethel, which she described as the “headquarters of a totalitarian sect”, until Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves testified in the court. And while she referred to the Russian Constitution and international law in general, she stated that the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in cases of Manoussakis, Kokkinakis, and Tsavachidis had no relevance whatsoever to this trial. Furthermore, she learned of these court precedents only after the judge insisted that she read the documents presented to the court by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Justice Department’s position was more reserved, but she was no more further along than the prosecutor in her theology lessons. She felt that Jehovah’s Witnesses forcibly destroy the family since they teach (as she understood) that families will be separated after Armageddon. No less “convincing” was her argument that only 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would end up in paradise, whereas others awaited a fate so terrifying that fear of it causes massive mental disorders.
The destituteness of the arguments of the prosecutor and the Justice Department, as well as their ignorance of the Bible and the doctrinal literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses—on which they were attempting to base their arguments—was clearly evident to the judges. It was also clear that official agencies looked at the congregation’s activity through the eyes of the anti-cultists, who obligingly provided them with all their documents and literature.
It should be noted that historical documents that convincingly showed the similarity of the accusations made against Jehovah’s Witnesses to those previously made against them by totalitarian regimes made a large impression on the court. Decrees and sentences from Nazi Germany were presented, in accordance with which believers had been sent to concentration camps and imprisoned. The court’s attention was also directed toward to Stalin-era laws, when believers were subject to persecution, sent in large groups to Siberia and the Far East with their children, as well as to sentences right up to the end of the 1980’s, when usually one could be sentenced to five years in prison for sharing the religious convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was done to show that the accusation made by the prosecutor in this trial were identical; only the state’s protected interest had changed. While the Nazis defended “the National-Christian state during the period of its national ascent” (Decree of the Reich President “On the Defense of the German Nation and State” and the Soviet authorities defended the “work to build communism”, now the object of the state’s care was “traditional values”. For the court, these yellowed archival documents that bore witness to the firmness of believers who had been exiled to concentration camps but had not denounced their faith, were perhaps the most unexpected and convincing evidence of the hatred of totalitarian society toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. These documents also gave the opportunity to truly evaluate the prosecutor’s claims.
Now let’s have a look at the prosecutor’s witnesses.
Anti-cult activists gave the evidence against the congregation. They told tales of how their loved ones had accepted another faith, and admitted that they would not have objected if they had turned to Orthodoxy. In telling the court about the alienation that had arisen, they failed to note that it was their very own sharp hostility to their relatives' position that had led to spiritual separation. One of them even threw an explosive device into a congregation of believers in protest of his son’s choice—a professional military man who had left the service. For many of them, the “battle against sects” had become their new profession, and they had joined into a committee. Other used the anti-cultists to settle scores with their former spouses or to obtain custody of their children using the issue of religion. The anti-cult committee had participated in their civil cases, and their lawyer had represented their interests. Now they were forced to give testimony in court against the congregation. However, once the defense presented official documents—court decisions in divorce cases, letters from juvenile institutions, etc.,—it was evident that one needed to view their evidence with a critical eye.
The witnesses for the defense confirmed the voluntary and informed nature of their choice of religion. They told of their families, work, and studies, showed photographs of their life in Bethel, and did not appear at all to be “zombified”, as the prosecutor tried to depict them. Those who headed up the congregation also gave testimony. Some of them were third-generation Jehovah’s Witnesses and had gone through exile and concentration camps together with their loved ones. Vasilii Kalin, coordinator of the Administrative Center, was exiled together with his parents to Siberia at the age of five; Moscow Congregation elder Stepan Levitskii and the parents of elders Anatolii Timura and Yaroslav Sivulskii served long years in prison for their participation in meetings and distribution of the Bible. There testimony gave life to the tragic history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
The prosecutor gave special attention to specialists who were supposed to convince the court of the need to ban the religious congregation.
Religious scholars were represented by Frederich Ovsienko, professor with the Russian Presidential Civil Service Academy; I. V. Metlik, little known in academic circles; and anti-cultist of fame Aleksandr Dvorkin.
The respected professor, who, according to the text of his study, had researched the “illegal activity” of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was unable to give a single example of such activity, restricting himself to a personal interpretation of their doctrinal literature. Metlik knew neither the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses nor the meaning of the name “Jesus”. His fantasies of the concentration camps that Jehovah’s Witnesses were supposedly preparing to create for those who disagree with them, of their plans to carry out terrorist acts to initiate the end of the world, of their plans to exile those who refuse to submit to them to the Far North to do landscaping work were accompanied by claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses are engaged in commercial activity, refuse alternative civilian service, and obstruct their children from receiving education. When excerpts from so-called expert sect studies or ideological studies from Soviet-era trials were read to this “scholar”, he said that he was in complete agreement with them. Later it was revealed that this expert was actually an engineer in chemistry that had later taken up child pedagogy.
And, finally, Aleksandr Dvorkin, who tried to stun the court with stories about a Jehovah’s Witnesses that he knew who dreamed of taking a machine gun to kill everyone who disagreed with him, was unable to answer a single specific question about the actual work of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The psychiatric evidence of the prosecution was presented by the well-known professor Kondratyev, who heads up a group at the notorious Serbskiy Center that studies new religious movements. He is the author of the “sectomania” theory, which, in his opinion, can be compared to drug addiction. Keeping with the tradition of punitive Soviet psychiatry, the professor rebuked the new enemy of the Russian state. Admitting that he had not examined members of the Moscow Congregation, the professor realized his potential as a theologist. His conclusion, in sum, was that “the practice and admonitions of the organization” are directed at “opposing and disparaging the traditional spirituality of the peoples of the Russian Federation.” Imagine the surprise of the court, when Jehovah’s Witnesses lawyers exposed him as guilty of banal plagiarism. His study reproduced the odious 1997 Moscow Patriarchy Handbook word for word, which insultingly evaluates many religious organizations. After a moment of embarrassment, professor Kondratyev declared that he had given his computer diskette to the handbook’s authors. When it was proven that pages of his work was copied word for word from Khvylya-Olinter, another anti-cultist at the Ministry of Internal Affairs (who had expressed thanks to Aleksandr Dvorkin for his assistance and materials provided), the professor stated that they work from the same desk. At the same time, the prosecutor’s claims of mass psychosis in the congregation were based on the opinion of namely this specialist.
It is also interesting that all the specialist that testified for the prosecutor were forced to admit that they had not directly studied the congregation’s believers. The more experienced Aleksandr Dvorkin and Fyodor Kondratyev referred to 10-15 believers, which whom they had supposedly had conversations, but the could not name a single one.
Specialists testifying for Jehovah’s Witnesses had not only studied the doctrinal literature, but had directly studied the congregation’s believers as well. For example, Viktor Kagan, vice-president of the Independent Psychiatric Association had done a psychological study of 113 believers, who had been given to him by a random sampling made by the Institute of Sociology. He stated that the level of psychological health of the congregation’s believers was higher than that of the general population and that they were much more psychologically stable. All of his research was presented to the court. However, in contrast to professor Kondratyev’s opinion, the court did not accept it as evidence in the case, limiting itself to a short summary and the testimony of Viktor Kagan, which was insufficiently recorded in the transcript.
The court also refused to accept expert religious studies, research regarding the issue of blood transfusions, critical analyses of the work of prosecution experts that openly declared themselves to be apologists for the Russian Orthodox Church.
And so, the trial came to a close, and the prosecutor had not presented any evidence other than a few quotes from doctrinal literature taken out of context that contained nothing illegal. After questioning the witnesses and studying the opinions of the specialists in the case, it became clear that a decision to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be made. Then the judge once again came to the assistance of the prosecutor, and decided to adjourn the trial. This had already been done twice in September and November 1998, when the prosecutor had been directed to prepare for the trial and present evidence. Why was this being repeated again in March 1999, when it was obvious that the prosecution would not be able to provide anything new? And what reason was given this time?
The court decided to appoint an expert religious study. It did not want to make a comparative analysis of specialists that had already testified. This evaluation would obviously not be in the prosecutor’s favor. The court decided not to take into account the conclusions of the Expert Council with the Ministry of Justice, which conducts State religious studies analyses when religious organizations are registered. (Some of the more well-known academics are on this council, and its conclusions served as the basis for re-registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia). The court granted the prosecutor’s motion in appointing the expert study, including three specialists from the prosecutor and two from the congregation. The case was adjourned indefinitely, and according to the law, once the trial is back in session it is heard from the beginning. Thus, the prosecutor and the “public” will once again be given the opportunity to prepare their accusations and look for evidence.
It is difficult to evaluate the appointment of the expert study other than as fabricated grounds to avoid rendering the obvious decision. Taking into account the judge’s professionalism, it is likely that this was done due to certain pressure from her superiors. Keeping in mind the close relationship of Moscow City Hall and the federal government with the Moscow Patriarchy, and understanding the significant precedent that this case has for further developments in the area of religious freedom, each can make certain conclusions.
The new union of “sword and plowshare” in the Golovinskiy Intermunicipal Court, where servants of Orthodoxy, apparently, hope to cultivate the seeds of the true faith on Russian soil cleared by the sword of State inquisition, which they view as their canonical territory, is a mirror image of the process taking place on the federal level. Advocates of denominational-state interests are troubled neither by the fact this has all been experienced in the past, nor by the obvious violations of the Russian Constitution and the European Convention.
What can be said in conclusion? Although the lengthy trial has a negative effect on the re-registration of congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in other cities, the Ministry of Justice has registered them on the federal level. This trial has been quite arduous and has been delayed using various excuses, but the Ministry of Justice, undoubtedly, could not ignore the wide international publicity of the Golovinskiy trial, not the absurdity of the accusations against the religious organization. Finally, when re-registration was completed, the Ministry of Justice received inquiries, including from the State Duma, demanding that the registration be annulled. Now stories about the position of officials are appearing in the press, for example, concerning a speech of Genrich Mikhaylov, secretary of the Commission on Affairs of Religious Associations with the Russian Government, concerning the increase in activity of “all kinds of religious sects” as the 1999 parliamentary elections approach. According to him, Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially active in the upcoming elections, whose actions often are of an “openly aggressive nature”. He referred to supposed information that congregations were trying to get their candidates into legislative organs. Strange then that Jehovah’s Witnesses were accused of the opposite at the trial: refusing to accept the state and the government.
It should be noted that namely the press play a large role in inciting religious intolerance, and this campaign is getting more intense. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the past four years approximately 600 negative stories about them appeared in the press, on radio and television, whereas there were more than 200 during the first four months of this year. The accusations made are ridiculous.
It would seem that even without an official decision, we can evaluate the result of the trial. Even though the entire state system was against them, it was unable to liquidate Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to prove the absurdity of the accusations made against them and the illegality of trying an essentially doctrinal dispute in the courts.
This attempt to create the judicial precedent of liquidating a religious organizations on the basis of a discriminatory law failed.
The following is the brief summary of the trial. Notwithstanding the close attention that mass media and international community pay to this trial, the court flagrantly violates rules of the law of procedure, thus helping the attorney and making obstacles for the Witnesses' advocates. And this is quite reasoned. Both the state and antagonists of religious freedom have staked too much in this trial. “Eliminators” of the freedom of conscience are lucrative allies of authorities in their desire to regain national values that have been lost in the post-communist Russia. Consolidation of the sovereign Orthodoxy in the society that is weakened by atheistic Marxism is impossible without return to the religious dissent suppression. And, similarly to the Soviet period, violence in the spiritual field is used jointly by the attorney who exercises “supreme supervision over law”, representatives of anonymous “public” who are engaged by authorities and the justice that tries to look impartial. A shift to the communist past in Russia took place over several years invisibly under the cover of slogans of fight for democracy. Now revenge-seekers feel confident enough to throw away decrepit scenery and to move to “gaping heights” without burdening themselves by extensive constitutional rhetoric. Jehovah’s Witnesses were among first in their way. Will the long-suffering history repeat itself? The answer to this question will be also given during this separate trial.