May 15, 2014

ECHR looks into Russia’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witness

MOSCOW, March 25, 2014 (RAPSI) - The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) communicated a vast collection of complaints this month to Russia in connection with the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.

Russia and the applicants were asked earlier this month to consider a plethora of questions related to treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their congregations in light of the European Convention on Human Rights’ (Convention) guarantees of religious freedom and free expression, as well as its prohibition of discrimination.

According to court documents, in 2007, a Russian Deputy Prosecutor General notified the country’s prosecutors’ offices that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other foreign religious and charitable organizations may have constituted a public threat.

The letter stated: “There are various branches of foreign religious and charitable organizations within the territory of Russia whose activities do not formally violate the provisions of Russian legislation but quite often promote the growth of tension in society.”

The letter grouped Jehovah’s Witnesses with the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, “various eastern faiths,” and Satanism, referring to them collectively as “branches that frequently carry out activities that damage the moral, mental, and physical health of their members.”

Prosecutors throughout the country were instructed to look into the threat that extremist material was being produced or disseminated in violation or Russia’s mass communications law.

According to the complaint, the present collection of cases revolves around ten claims, many centering on Jehovah’s Witness literature:

  1. The liquidation of a local Jehovah’s Witness organization in Taganrog, Russia, along with the confiscation of its property and a ban on 34 of its publications;
  2. Seven other instances of the banning of religious publications in various Russian regions;
  3. The revocation of a permit to distribute religious magazines; 
  4. A series of administrative proceedings launched against nine individuals in eight regions over the distribution of extremist literature; 
  5. Five cases where administrative proceedings were launched over the distribution of unregistered mass media;
  6. Thirteen cases where administrative proceedings were launched for conducting religious events; 
  7. Three searches carried out in private residences, and the seizure of religious literature;
  8. Five cases where searches were conducted in places of worship, with the disruption of religious services; 
  9. The seizure of a shipment of religious literature; 
  10. And the detainment of a Jehovah’s Witness for preaching.

The complaint asserts that the Taganrog local religious organization (LRO) was liquidated after a court held that it was an extremist organization, due in part to the fact that one of its founding members succumbed to wounds she received in a motor vehicle accident, after refusing to accept blood transfusions.

According to the website of the international Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization, adherents do not categorically reject all forms of medical treatment. The organization does, however, reject certain specific treatments, including blood transfusions. As explained by the website: “Some treatments conflict with Bible principles… and we reject these. For example, we don’t accept blood transfusions because the Bible forbids taking in blood to sustain the body. (Acts 15:20) Likewise, the Bible prohibits health treatments or procedures that include occult practices.—Galatians 5:19-21.”

The claims present a number of issues under Russian domestic law, including its laws against extremism, the Criminal Code’s provisions against the incitement of hatred or enmity and against associations that infringe upon the rights of citizens.

Parties to the case have been instructed to answer a series of questions pertaining to the treatment of Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses under international law.  

The ECHR has considered three applications filed against Russia by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past, finding in each case that there had been violations of the Convention.