Police misapplying law in arresting Jehovah’s Witnesses


Religion scholar describes how Belgorod Jehovah’s Witnesses are threatened for prayer in an apartment

by Tatiana Grigoreva

MBKh Media, 26 February 2018

In early February police personnel arrested 16 Belgorodians at the door of an apartment where supposedly a meeting was held of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization that is forbidden in Russia. Searches were conducted at the homes of all detainees at their registered address, during which Bibles, electronic equipment, data storage devices, travel passports, money, and photographs were seized.

In response to an inquiry by MBKh Media, the Belgorod regional Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that on 5 February 2018 a criminal case was opened on the charge of participation by several residents of Belgorod and Belgorod oblast in the activity of a forbidden religious association, and in the context of the case operational search activities were conducted and persons who were participants in commission of a crime were identified.

Roman Lunkin, a religious studies scholar and senior researcher and director of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, described for MBKh Media what may threaten believers after the organization was ruled to be extremist:

“Despite the fact that the constitution of the Russian federation permits citizens to gather together as a religious group and to pray even when a religious organization has been liquidated, in reality everything is otherwise. Situations with arrests and criminal cases are continuing, because law enforcement personnel do not distinguish the concepts of “religious organizations,” “religious associations,” and “religious groups.” If someone says to them that Jehovah’s Witnesses are meeting, then for them this is a meeting of a forbidden organization, and participants in the meeting are guilty a priori. Regardless of the fact that members of a religious group are meeting and not of an official organization. It is still necessary to prove whether this is a continuation of the activity of that organization that was liquidated by a decision of the Supreme Court. Reading the Bible on the basis of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation is not a crime. And this unofficial group can be independent from that association that existed previously. The presumption of innocence should operate, and the police should prove that the assembled citizens are participating in the activity of the banned organization.

The expert said that this can be done only in the event that literature that has been ruled to be extremist is being used, within the context of the activity of the liquidated organization, or the composition of the members of the religious group coincides with the composition of the founders of the banned organization.

“But if citizens come to a meeting, who are in no way formally associated with the liquidated organization and have not been officially recognized as members of the organization, then what right do the police have to maintain that this is a continuation of the activity of that organization? And as far as I know, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature that has been ruled to be extremist has not been used in meetings for a long time and it is not likely to be found in a search,” the religious studies scholar thinks.

Roman Lunkin suggested that in the near future in various Russian cities, criminal cases will be conducted one after the other for creation and participation in the activity of a forbidden religious organization and citizens will receive real jail time. The religion expert emphasized that there are many loopholes that police can use. They can arrest believers not only during the conduct of meetings but also during funerals and wakes, if rituals in them are conducted in accordance with the religious traditions adopted by Jehovah’s Witnesses or of another religious organization that is operating without official registration.

“Members of a religious organization (not a forbidden one—ed. note) have the right to conduct without any restriction ceremonies in a cemetery and in a crematorium, and to bring their equipment and liturgical objects, but a religious group may be fined for conducting an unsanctioned public action. Law enforcement agents may also declare that this is missionary activity without registration. It should not be the police’s business who is praying in a cemetery and how, if a citizen is not violating public order. But because of the general character of accusatory policy with respect to believers in the country, such situations may arise. Thus far the majority of arrests have been connected with meetings of religious groups in a home. According to my information, Baptists from unregistered groups have suffered especially. They are now threatened in a number of regions with confiscation of private homes where meetings have been conducted.”

On 20 April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” to be an extremist organization. Earlier, in 2016, individual religious organizations in Belgorod and Stary Oskol were liquidated. They also were ruled to be extremist organizations. (tr. by PDS, posted 27 February 2018)

Related article: 
More details about harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses
February 10, 2018

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