“Discrimination and Harassment“ of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the City of Moscow
This document is respectfully submitted with the greatest concern for human rights in the emerging democracy of the Russian Federation. Although steps have been taken by authorities at the federal level to respect the constitutional rights of over 130,000 citizens of Russia who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the City of Moscow has targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses on two fundamental issues in an evident attempt to deprive them systematically of numerous inalienable rights. The violations of these rights have been occurring over a period of eight years and are worthy of international attention and assistance. These flagrant violations persist despite the guarantee of freedom of religion and conscience by the Russian Constitution, by the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and by the European Convention of Human Rights, which Russia adopted upon its entry into the Council of Europe and subsequently ratified on May 5, 1998.
The two fundamental issues of concern:
- The deliberate, malicious use of the authority of the City of Moscow Prosecutor’s Office in conducting a three-year untenable criminal investigation and in launching and continuing a protracted five-year civil case asking for a court-ordered “liquidation” of the legal entity of the Moscow community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the banning of their religious activity.
- The adamant refusal of the City of Moscow’s Department of Justice to reregister the local community of Jehovah’s Witnesses as required by law. This refusal has had adverse effects on the ability of the more than 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow to carry out their worship.
Prosecution of the Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Assembly regrets the problems of the Salvation Army and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow but welcomes the decision of the Russian authorities to ensure that the problem of local discrimination and harassment of these religious communities be brought to an end.
The above quote from Resolution 1277 of the document “Honouring of obligations and commitments by the Russian Federation (provisional edition)” adopted by the Council of Europe on April 23, 2002, followed a report by co-rapporteurs, Mr. David Atkinson and Mr. Rudolf Bindig, in which they delivered the following recommendation regarding the Moscow civil trial against Jehovah’s Witnesses:
The co-rapporteurs regard the length of the judicial examination in this case as an example of harassment against a religious minority and believe that after six years of criminal and legal proceedings the trial should finally be halted.
Mr. Atkinson told the Parliamentary Assembly on April 23, 2002:
The banning of the Salvation Army and Jehovah’s Witnesses from Moscow is, of course, totally unacceptable.
As noted above, the co-rapporteurs describe the problems that Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing in Moscow as “discrimination and harassment.” Why is the Resolution worded in such strong terms?
Since 1995, the City of Moscow has actively sought a way to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. From 1995 to 1998, at the behest of City Prosecutor’s Office, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses were investigated five times by various teams of prosecutors and investigators, each concluding that their were no grounds for a case against the community. Four of these investigations were for alleged “criminal activity.” The prosecutor of the first criminal investigation and the senior officer of the second and third investigations stated in their conclusions:
[T]he activity of this organization as well as the leadership of this religious community “Jehovah’s Witnesses” is not connected with the causation of damage to health of citizens or other encroachments on individuals or to the rights and freedom of citizens, and [that activity] does not induce citizens to refuse to carry out their civic duties or to the commission of any kind of unlawful actions and is in full accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation and its legislation.
Despite such conclusions by competent officials, the City Prosecutor’s Office systematically annulled these and similar conclusions in the first four investigations, each time sending the case back for so-called further investigation.
In the fifth and final investigation, the City Prosecutor’s Office assigned the case to Y. E. Solomatina, investigator for “especially important cases.” Despite her decision to terminate the criminal case because of the absence of concrete elements of crime, in a bizarre move she nevertheless forwarded a copy of her decision to the prosecutor of the Northern Administrative Circuit of the City of Moscow “for a decision on the matter of bringing a civil suit in the Moscow Golovinsky Court asking for a prohibition on the registration of the community [of Jehovah’s Witnesses].” (Italics ours)
One week after Investigator Solomatina’s suggestion, on April 20, 1998, this civil complaint was submitted by the Prosecutor of the Northern Administrative Circuit in the form of a civil procedural examination based on the 1997 law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. The City of Moscow Department of Justice became a third-party participant in the prosecutor’s application. Two weeks later, on May 5, 1998, Russia ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The first trial hearings began on September 29, 1998. Charges against the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses were stated in general terms. Consequently, soon after the court hearing began, the court became preoccupied in examining the religious teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finally, on February 23, 2001, after over two years and 37 court appearances, during which time 45 witnesses testified and no less than four different prosecutors made their appearance in addition to a representative from the city’s Department of Justice, all charges filed by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office against Jehovah’s Witnesses were dismissed by Judge Yelena Prokhorycheva, who stated in her decision:
The Court came to the conclusion that there is no basis whatsoever for the liquidation and banning of the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow, since it has not been established that this community in Moscow violates the Constitution of the Russian Federation or laws of the Russian Federation.
Unbowed, the City Prosecutor’s Office appealed this decision. On May 30, 2001, the Judicial Chamber for Civil Disputes of the Moscow City Court under Presiding Judge L. B. Sherstnyakova annulled the above decision of the Golovinsky Court and ordered a retrial. This decision was appealed, since in another court, Presiding Judge Sherstnyakova had handed down a decision motivated by religious intolerance against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a fact judicially noted by the Supreme Court of Russia in a decision dated July 22, 1999, in the unrelated case of Savinkin v. Nikishina:
The Presidium of the Region Court [L. B. Sherstnyakova] did not give attention to the protest’s argument that the fact that N. V. Nikishina is a member of the religious association “Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lyubertsy” in itself cannot serve as grounds for transferring custody to the father. The court should not have entered into a discussion of the nature of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in resolving the case.
The appeal was rejected however, and the retrial commenced on October 30, 2001, in the Golovinsky Intermunicipal District Court with Judge Vera Konstantinovna Dubinskaya presiding. Coincidentally this date marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of a constitutional law in Russia that vindicated, or rehabilitated, Jehovah’s Witnesses who were victims of religious oppression under Soviet rule.
During the ongoing retrial, the prosecution has spent much time examining the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has repeatedly expressed the view that facts are not required. Consequently, the trial has developed into a theological argument. The prosecution severely criticized Jehovah’s Witnesses for “corrupting the sense of the Bible.” It claimed that Jehovah’s Witnesses' teachings 'erode the culture and traditions of Russia.' The prosecutor believes that the standard for religious truth is the Russian Orthodox Church.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in court were astonished to hear the prosecutor say that the application to ban the legal entity was a means to protect the rights and freedoms of all 10,000 Witnesses in Moscow. As a direct result of this declaration, Jehovah’s Witnesses organized a petition, collecting 10,000 signatures, asking the Golovinsky Court and all responsible governmental agencies to reject the prosecutor’s false claim of protecting their rights.
During this period, the court heard 32 witnesses. These included Soviet persecution survivors, non-Witness family members content with the religious choice of their Witness relatives, specialists in nonblood medical management, and religious scholars.
On April 4, 2002, the Golovinsky Intermunicipal Court chaired by Judge Vera Dubinskaya issued a ruling appointing two expert studies.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the expert studies envisaged are scientifically unsound, unreasonable, and incompatible with the European Convention. Therefore, they filed an appeal of this court-ordered expert study on October 18, 2002, in the Moscow City Court. On November 22, 2002, the Moscow City Court granted the appeal, annulling the ruling by trial court Judge Dubinskaya to appoint an expert study. The basis was procedural grounds only, and Judge Dubinskaya intends to reappoint the study following correct procedure.
The retrial resumed on February 11, 2003. Pursuant to legislative changes, defense counsel requested the prosecutor to present an amended claim and Judge Dubinskaya ordered same.
On February 13, 2003, the prosecutor presented an amended claim as ordered by the Golovinsky Court. It is primarily an attack on religious literature. Because of new legislation that questioned the jurisdiction of the Golovinsky Court, defense counsel requested that the case be transferred to the Moscow City Court. The Golovinsky Court dismissed the motion and expedited an appeal to the Moscow City Court for a ruling.
On February 20, 2003, defense counsel appeared before the Moscow City Court. In addition to the jurisdiction question, defense counsel urged the Moscow City Court to apply Article 6 of the European Convention. It provides: “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations. . .everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time.” The defense argued that after 81 days in court, repeated delays caused by needless court-ordered expert studies of religious literature and still no decision, there has clearly been an unreasonable delay in the Golovinsky prosecution.
The Moscow City Court refused to hear the appeal and made no decision on the issue of jurisdiction. Defense filed an immediate protest with the Chairman of the Moscow City Court.
On March 26, 2003, the Judicial Chamber for Civil Affairs of Moscow City Court made a determination on the question of its jurisdiction in this case, which had been raised by the Community’s lawyers in an interlocutory appeal. Moscow City Court ruled that the Golovinsky District Court has jurisdiction to issue a ruling on the merits on the NAC Prosecutor’s claims for liquidation of the Community and a ban on its activities. This is regardless of the new Code of Civil Procedure that had entered into force on February 1, 2003, which appointed jurisdiction of this category of cases to the regional courts. The trial at the Golovinsky District Court will resume in April or May, once the file has been returned from Moscow City Court to the Golovinsky District Court and Judge V. K. Dubinskaya sets a court date.
Refusal to Register Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered at federal level in 1999, and their 360 communities have also been registered throughout Russia. Nevertheless, the community in Moscow was forced completely underground and prevented from possessing properties and places of worship. . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses will be without registration and unable to profess their faith without hindrance. (Italics ours.)
Why did Council of Europe co-rapporteurs, Mr. David Atkinson and Mr. Rudolf Bindig, make the above statement in their report?
The City of Moscow Department of Justice continues to refuse to register or reregister any community of Jehovah’s Witnesses under the 1997 religion law. Applications to lower courts asking for a legal remedy are delayed or dismissed on dubious technical grounds. Moscow officials and courts refer to the yet-to-be-decided Golovinsky trial as a pretext for postponing or dismissing any attempt by the Moscow religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be registered. There are currently three court applications to order the Moscow Department of Justice to register congregations. Local judges in Moscow repeatedly postpone the hearings.
This refusal of legal registration has been accompanied by what seems to be an orchestrated attempt to create an atmosphere of suspicion and religious intolerance against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow. As evidence of this, a slanderous campaign has been carried out by the press. Between 1996 and 2002, more than 1,000 slanderous articles were printed and hundreds of radio and television programs were aired against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Moscow-based government-sponsored newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta has printed ten negative articles. As a result of this, the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, cast as being “a scandalous sect,” is denied registration, viewed as being banned, and constantly being sued. As a result, owners of halls, theaters, and other buildings refuse to rent their facilities to Moscow congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or if they are already renting, renewal of their leases is refused. Attempts by Jehovah’s Witnesses to purchase property and erect their own houses of worship meet with extensive bureaucracy and are stalled for years.
Even in the trial to liquidate Jehovah’s Witnesses, the prosecution under questioning has admitted that one of its goals is to ensure that Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally unable either to erect a building in Moscow or to lease one.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, responsible for investigating violations of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, to which Russia is a signatory, warned against such discrimination. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights states in part:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of . . . religion. The right shall include freedom to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, either individually or in community with others.
In direct reference to Article 18, the Human Rights Committee, at its 48th session in 1993, stated in its official General Comment 22 in paragraph 2 the following:
2 The Committee therefore views with concern the tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominate religious community.
In light of the above information, we feel that it is appropriate to ask the following two questions:
- Why is the City of Moscow allowed to act independently of the rest of the Russian Federation in its attempts to ban religious minorities?
- Will the Russian authorities ensure that the problem of local discrimination and harassment of these religious communities be brought to an end in harmony with Resolution 1277 of the Council of Europe?