Jehovah’s Witnesses frustrated by arbitrariness in Finland


by Svetlana Niberliain

Idel.Realii, 16 May 2019

Finnish authorities report that the total number of requests for getting asylum in Finland that have been submitted is around 250 refugees, Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia. So far, according to information from Finnish authorities, about 90 requests have been processed. And 90 percent of applications have been refused. Idel.Realii has investigated why there are refusals and what they mean for those who have been refused.

According to the influential daily Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat of 17 April 2019, the Finnish migration service has turned down the majority of petitions of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses (an organization that has been banned in Russia since May 2017) for granting asylum that it has reviewed. In the service’s estimation, Russia is a secure country for the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses have submitted to Finland a total of about 259 applications for granting asylum, of which almost 90 have been processed, Anu Karppi, the director of a department of the Finnish migration service, told the newspaper. Only ten percent of applicants received a positive response.

“According to information we have at our disposal, violations of the law with respect to Jehovah’s Witnesses do occur in Russia, but the risk of serious and prosecutable crimes is relatively low,” Karppi states. “There are about 170 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia in all, and the majority of them so far are living and professing their religion. Certainly an atmosphere of fear reigns there, but as of the present a small number of violators of the law have been prosecuted.


What is happening in Finland was described for Idel.Realii by the elder Ruslan (the name has been changed) from Moscow, who is 47 years old. He fled here with his family about two years ago.

–Here other Jehovah’s Witnesses, including refugee elders, and I are trying to act together, supporting one another. And there are many of them, because it is the elders who are the main object for prosecution. That is, whereas now in Russia there are more than 200 criminal cases, it can safely be said that it is elders who make up the majority, for example, like Dennis Christensen, who recently was sentenced by an Orel court to six years in a penal colony. It is they whom the Russian authorities accuse of arranging the activity of an extremist organization that has previously been banned by a court. Searches and raids are organized and nothing is spared—by tortures and threats to elicit information about who are the elders in the congregations. Therefore the elders are prosecuted in the first place. Apparently it is said loudly that I control the situation in Finland. But my fellow believers and I are monitoring the situation and we are trying to do something in the legal area.

I agree that approximately 90 percent of the decisions of the migration service of Finland with respect to Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia are refusals to grant asylum. That is, asylum is granted to one in ten. Until recently—after the ban of the organization in April 2017 up to, say, February-March 2019—there was not a single positive decision at all with regard to a single Jehovah’s Witness from Russia. I think that, by and large, it is a lottery in which it is difficult to detect the logic of Finnish authorities. Believers who are in practically identical circumstances receive opposite decisions.”

-How many person are affected by refusals?

–By our calculations, already well more than 100, somewhere around 130 to 150 persons. It is difficult to say exactly now. As regards the decisions themselves: you see for example personally I waited about a year and a half for the decision of the migration service. While my friends received a negative decision. But my wife and I, a positive one.

The reason for refusals—this is the politicization of the decision of the immigration service. And here the issue is not at all the fear of Finnish authorities in the face of Russian authorities, but rather simply the reluctance to provide asylum. Most likely this is caused by the fact that they understand: the country borders Russia, and if pressure by Russian authorities on Russian Witnesses increases, then many will flee. Whereas as of now there are in Finland about 300 refugee Witnesses from Russia, this number could increase exponentially if it were to be known that asylum is being granted here. This is its own kind of defense against a flood of Witness refugees, that’s what I think.

As I said earlier, these decisions are obviously political. The decisions of the migration services and, consequently, of the courts that support the decision of the migration service. Because the decision must be unbiased. The migration agency must make an assessment of each refugee that is proper and based on law, international law. And to provide a legal basis for the decision and not such as one wishes and which does not correspond to the requirement of legislation, do you understand? These decisions regarding Witnesses obviously show political willpower. The desire or the reluctance to grant, that is not the law. And any lawyer who is more or less informed on these matters would be able to confirm this. Listen, in England there are 100% positive decisions. In Germany those who receive negative decisions from the migration service call this the “slow positive,” because they know that they will receive a positive decision through the courts nevertheless. Even the Czech Republic, which does not want to take refugees, grants positive decisions. Even Austria, which is considered a problematic country regarding the acceptance of refugees—even it gives positive decisions. But Finland does not give them. The Finns resort to threats of expulsion. Because they do not issue these decisions on the basis of law but on the basis of some personal preferences. On the basis of willingness or reluctance to accept refugees. And this is a politicized decision.

How are the refusals rationalized? They steadfastly do not want—if we are talking about the legal aspect—to recognize that in Russia Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted as a group and that the fears of those who request asylum are objectively justified. That each Witness, if the authorities identify him as a Witness, is already under threat of criminal prosecution. As of the present, there are more than 200 criminal cases [known to Witnesses in Russia]. Incidentally, the Finnish migration service sent its own representatives to Russia who supposedly investigated the matter involving the Witnesses and upon their return a report was published. They themselves acknowledge—these figures are in this report—that there are more than 200 criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses in the RF. While practically all criminal cases are article 282, parts one and two. A very serious article—extremism. Up to ten years imprisonment. But the migration service steadfastly does not want to admit that Witnesses are persecuted as a group. It writes in its refusals that say no: nothing is threatening you; return home.

The refusals themselves reach the absurd. For example, they write to one elder: ‘You serve as an elder, but you are risking nothing. Nothing horrible.’ And they give him a negative response. For another, in essence the same kind of elder, they write: ‘Indeed, you serve as an elder. You run the risk of being held accountable for arranging the activity of a forbidden organization, and we will give you a positive response.’  Of course I am exaggerating, but it’s something like that. That is, one and the same arguments lie at the basis for both positive decisions and negative ones.

Or they write: ‘Indeed, the order of the plenum of the Russian Supreme Court really gives law enforcement agencies the possibility of denying parental custody of children because they take them to religious meetings of a forbidden organization. And therefore you face the risk of losing custody of your children. We will grant you asylum.’

To others they write the same thing and say: ‘No, we will not grant asylum, because they still have not taken children from anybody. We have not heard of this.’

That is, there is a kind of cynicism in these decisions. There is no logic in them. We have the opportunity to review many decisions, you understand. Many have already received both positive and negative decisions, and we see all of them and compare. There simply is no logic. Well, in some decisions it is mentioned of course about personal persecutions, some were arrested by police and had threats and interrogations, and some were prosecuted as criminals or, perhaps, even held in a SIZO.

But those who actually were put into a SIZO and were miraculously able to escape are unique. You can count them on one hand. Because when the Russian authorities bring criminal cases, they impose restrictions on leaving the country and then a person cannot emigrate, cannot leave the country. The main stream of refugees are those who are potentially at risk of facing prosecution. Perhaps they were not put into a SIZO and there still has not been a criminal case opened regarding them. But when people have left, it is because something happened in their city, in their congregation, or in a neighboring congregation. They have done this because they feel a reasonable fear of prosecution on the basis of the fact that their fellow believers are being prosecuted. They do not want to become the next victim. Understand? Therefore they flee. And the European legislation on refugees gives such a possibility—to receive asylum on the basis of reasonable fear. They cite some absurd statistics: there are 165 thousand of you there and only 200 criminal cases. The chance of being prosecuted is supposedly slight. But listen. There are relatively few cases because the Witnesses have gone underground.


There was a decision of the Supreme Court of the European Union in Luxembourg on 5 September 2012. In it the court explained: if a person cannot freely and publicly perform any actions connected with his religious confession, with his religion, and he is threatened with criminal prosecution for this, that is already a serious basis for considering that this is persecution and for granting asylum.

Is it possible to say that my fellow believers in Russia can publicly and freely profess their faith? No. We cannot talk about this at all, in principle; 200 criminal cases, that we have today regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is the consequence of the deepest cover up. Of the fact that my fellow believers have gone underground. I have heard, for example, that they are even conducting meetings in vehicles. And if the authorities find out that somebody is doing something publicly somewhere, there will instantly be arrests and criminal cases, and if today Jehovah’s Witnesses were publicly to profess their faith in the RF, the criminal cases would not be 200, but tens of thousands. But nobody—not the Finnish migration service, not Finnish courts—wants to use in considering our cases those precedent-setting decisions of the Supreme Courts of the European Union, which exist, because these decisions are “inconvenient” for them.

There is another very interesting matter. The fact is that the corps of lawyers in Finland are paid for refugees at government expense. And you see, these lawyers—and we reviewed an enormous number of their appeals, which they file, appealing the decision of the migration service in courts—perform very badly. You know, surely a student of the first year of law school would write ten times better. These appeals are about nothing at all. They simply assemble general phrases. We do not know why it happens this way. Perhaps they do not want to do their work efficiently or they do not want, say, to fight the state by defending our interests. In fact, the appeals are about nothing at all. Therefore we are making a greater effort in order to gather this legal material and process it. We have gotten lawyers, and paid them for their work from our own means, and we controlled their work. We have tried to do something. Now we hope that the situation will change.

We have phoned and written to many rights advocacy organizations. To Amnesty International, and to Human Rights Watch, and to a number of other organizations. To London, Stockholm. Oslo, Geneva, New York. . . . We wrote to the parliamentary ombudsman in Finland about the situation, who monitors the observance of human rights. We have written and phoned often to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. This is their direct purpose: to help those refugees who are in such situations. But we have been unable to reach them. Everywhere, by and large—do you know how they speak Russian?—the runaround. They have just fallen behind. Nobody wants to pay attention to what is happening in the Finnish legal system.

There is another question, in that the courts that consider the cases of refugees are required to consider the facts of the case not at the time when the migration service made the decision but at the time when the court itself is considering the case. That is, to conduct a prospective investigation. And the courts do not want to do this at all. They do not care at all. They simply repeat in their decision some phrases from the decision of the migration service and also issue negative decisions.

–What do the refusals mean for people?

–I will speak about those who have appealed the decision of the migration service in court and have already received refusals in administrative courts. You probably are including them in your question. As of now, I know about seven families. Four families are families of elders. You see, the administrative courts issued refusals to them, that is, they left the decision of the migration service in force.

There is this interesting judicial system here that after the first instance, in an administrative court, there is the threat that you will simply be expelled from the country. It is possible to file an appeal in a higher administrative court, but in practice the higher court rarely cancels the expulsion. They prefer to send a person to their country and let them await there the decision of the higher court. And this is in the event the higher court takes the appeal for review. It can simply refuse and not take it for review. Such justice is interesting. Therefore at the same time as in the first instance, the administrative court, a person received a negative decision and there immediately arises the risk of his deportation. We have sent appeals for suspension, for prevention of deportation, to the European Court of Human Rights. We submitted appeals to the Supreme Court. Now we are waiting decisions in both places. The police in one region can come to those who received a refusal in court and they say ‘well, we will wait for the decision, no problem, everything is fine.’ They are loyal that way. In another place they came and said: ‘Now you have some deadline from day to day and if the court does not suspend your deportation, then we will take up your expulsion to your homeland.’ One thing is clear: a person very soon after the first refusal of a court becomes an object for the police, who must expel him from the country as fast as possible.

The police came to one family—just now, in the morning of 9 May, I checked with them—and they said: ‘We will expel you either to St. Petersburg or to Moscow, and we will transfer you to the police department.’ And they ask: ‘So they will put us in jail. What will happen to us and who will take on himself the responsibility for this?’ And the police said: ‘That does not concern us. It is not our jurisdiction.’ And this is against the background that in a special report on the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which was published by the Finnish migration service, it is written in black and white: in fact Jehovah’s Witnesses who will be deported to Russia will be placed under special threat on the part of the police and the FSB. They may be watched, they may have serious troubles. The Finnish migration service realizes this and the police are threatening not just deportation to Russia but transfer into the hands of the Russian police. Imagine what kind of stress this is for people!

In general, here the courts—this is an interesting subject requiring a separate conversation. In Finland they do not summon to the court session those whose case they are considering. Neither the applicants themselves nor their attorneys. That is, the judge makes the decision with only the papers in hand. Neither the person nor his lawyer are heard. The Finnish legal system thinks that this is a proper state of affairs. Although this contradicts European legislation. That is, a person has the full right to be present in the court if the case impacts him. But in Finland the courts say: ‘You had your say in the migration service; your interview is recorded, which you gave them. That is enough for you.’ You see, there is this violation simply because nobody takes them to be serious, reasonable claims. Of course they act very ugly in this matter. So that now, as I already told you, we are waiting for the outcome, we are waiting on the ECHR. We are waiting on the Supreme Court. We are waiting to see whether they stop the expulsion of these families. We have made all the efforts we can. The next word is up to these courts. And to the Finnish authorities.


-You have a positive decision. Why? Were you just lucky?

The immigration service realized that the Russian authorities were persecuting me for religious reasons. But I consider, as I said earlier, that it does not matter; it is by and large a lottery. For one of my fellow believers it was written in the decision that they recognize that the authorities were persecuting her for religious reasons, but at the same time they gave her a negative decision. In the majority of cases the circumstances of those who were granted asylum do not differ especially from the circumstances of those to whom they do not give asylum.

What are the prospects for those Witnesses to whom they gave a posibive decision? Is it for some time, or for good? Can it be reconsidered?


–A positive decision can, in principle, be reconsidered, of course. But for that there needs to be very weighty circumstances and it is done through the courts. This mainly happens when a person, who has been recognized as a refugee, commits a crime or something similar. In general it is granted, so far as I know, for four years. That is, in principle, this gives the possibility of getting a permanent residency permit after several years, and after another year, Finnish citizenship. Well now, to lead a full life and to enjoy such support on the part of the Finnish government: language classes, some resources for the time until we find work.

You say that you are doing much on your private initiative. And does the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization do something on its level? The central office is located in America and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in Finland. Can they do anything?

–Nobody has authorized me to speak in the name of the organization; I will say a bit on my own. Of course, there is help. It consists, for example, in spiritual and emotional support. Representatives of the organization visit Russian-speaking groups and the congregations support the refugees. There is also help through local congregations, if there is a need, including material need. The Finnish congregations are always ready to extend a helping hand and we are sincerely grateful to them. But you understand, a religious organization is not an instrument for political struggle. We have no staff of migration lawyers, for exmple. We cannot influence the political system of Finland. And nobody will intervene. Christians will not intervene in political processes. Even if it is necessary to suffer. Understand? Therefor, undoubtedly, on a certain level the organization will help and support. But to participate in struggle, to put pressure on politicians so that refugees receive here some rights—this would be a violation of Christian principles. The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses never intervenes in political matters. (tr. by PDS, posted 18 May 2019)