Rus­sian court bans Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses

Rul­ing or­ders state to seize ‘ex­trem­ist’ group’s prop­erty

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Doug Stanglin

Rus­sia’s Supreme Court for­mally banned Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses as an ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion Thurs­day and or­dered the state to seize its prop­erty in Rus­sia, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian news me­dia.

The court, af­ter six days of hear­ings, or­dered the clos­ing of the group’s Rus­sia head­quar­ters and its 395 lo­cal chap­ters.

The In­ter­fax news agency quoted Jus­tice Min­istry at­tor­ney Svet­lana Borisova in court as say­ing the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses pose a threat to Rus­sians.

“They pose a threat to the rights of the cit­i­zens, pub­lic or­der and pub­lic se­cu­rity,” she told the court.

Borisova also said the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses’ op­po­si­tion to blood trans­fu­sions vi­o­lates Rus­sian health care laws.

“We are greatly dis­ap­pointed by this devel­op­ment and deeply con­cerned about how this will af- fect our re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity,” said Yaroslav Sivul­skiy, a spokesman for Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses in Rus­sia. “We will ap­peal this de­ci­sion, and we hope that our le­gal rights and pro­tec­tions as a peace­ful re­li­gious group will be fully re­stored as soon as pos­si­ble.”

In a state­ment on its web­site, Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses in Rus­sia said the de­ci­sion could go down in his­tory as a “black day for the fun­da­men­tal free­doms in Rus­sia.”

“This de­ci­sion may lead to very dire con­se­quences for the faith­ful of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions, as well as for Rus­sia’s im­age in the world arena,” the group said.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, one wit­ness, iden­ti­fied as Natalia Koret­skaya from St. Petersburg, tes­ti­fied that she was a mem­ber of the group from 1995 to 2009, TASS news agency re­ported. She said top church of­fi­cials pur­ported to en­force church rules “but in real fact the talk is about to­tal con­trol of an in­di­vid­ual’s per­sonal life — his in­ti­mate life, ed­u­ca­tion and work.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the group coun­tered that such tes­ti­mony had been pre­pared ahead of time to ad­vance the state’s ar­gu­ments, TASS said.

Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses repre- sen­ta­tives said they will ap­peal the de­ci­sion, ac­cord­ing to TASS. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s spokesman said if the ap­pel­late panel of Supreme Court judges up­held Thurs­day’s verdict, the case would be taken to the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights.

The Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses, which has some 175,000 fol­low­ers in Rus­sia, first legally reg­is­tered as a re­li­gious group in Rus­sia in 1991 and re-reg­is­tered in 1999, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s in­ter­na­tional web­site.

The case reached the Supreme Court fol­low­ing a law­suit by Rus­sia’s Jus­tice Min­istry.

In Fe­bru­ary, in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­spected the head­quar­ters of the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses in St. Petersburg, the in­de­pen­dent Rus­sian news­pa­per No­vaya Gazeta re­ported. More than 70,000 pages of doc­u­ments were con­fis­cated for the Gen­eral Prose­cu­tor’s Of­fice, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sia’s Sova Cen­ter of In­for­ma­tion and Analy- sis, which mon­i­tors hate crimes and the en­force­ment of anti-ex­trem­ist laws.

The re­li­gious group’s press ser­vice said its re­li­gious pro­grams do not in­clude banned ma­te­ri­als and that of­fi­cials have no­ti­fied au­thor­i­ties when­ever any­one brings such lit­er­a­ture into their build­ing.

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Rus­sia up­held a lower court rul­ing that de­clared 34 pieces of Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses lit­er­a­ture as “ex­trem­ist,” in­clud­ing their magazine The Watch­tower in Rus­sian.

The group has been of­fi­cially banned from the port city of Ta­gan­rog since 2009, af­ter a lo­cal court ruled the or­ga­ni­za­tion guilty of in­cit­ing re­li­gious ha­tred by “prop­a­gat­ing the ex­clu­siv­ity and supremacy” of their re­li­gion, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish news­pa­per The In­de­pen­dent.

In 2015, a court in Ros­tov con­victed 16 Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses of prac­tic­ing ex­trem­ism in Ta­gan­rog. The court handed out jail sen­tences — later sus­pended — of more than 5 years for five of the de­fen­dants and stiff fines for the others.

That same year, the supreme court of Rus­sia banned the re­li­gion’s in­ter­na­tional web­site as “ex­trem­ist.”

“We are greatly dis­ap­pointed by this devel­op­ment and deeply con­cerned about how this will af­fect our re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity.” Yaroslav Sivul­skiy, a spokesman for Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses in Rus­sia

AP FILE PHOTO

A group of Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses, right, sit in court dur­ing their trial in Moscow when a court sought to ban the re­li­gious group in 1999.

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