WITNESSES ON THE RUN: HOW BELIEVERS ARE PERSECUTED IN RUSSIA
Authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany have called attention to a new trend: Jehovah’s Witnesses have been fleeing Russia. According to information of the Ministry of Migration and Refugees of the F.R.G., in 2018 the proportion of Russian citizens among refugees arriving in Germany is 2.3%. At the same time, the number of applications for asylum from Jehovah’s Witnesses is growing.
The newspaper of the federal ministry for affairs of migrants and refugees, Entscheiderbrief, writes concerning this:
“On 20 April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court dissolved the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all 395 of its divisions on the territory of the RF, and it also ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an extremist organization. Since January 2018, police and the local service of the F.S.B. have taken repressive measures. There have been especially many arrests and searches of apartments in the Orel, Belgorod, and Kemerovo oblasts. Thus, more than 70 arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses were made for alleged participation in the activity of an extremist organization. In the event of conviction, they face imprisonment for a term of from two to four years.
“A representative of the Finnish Department for Refugee Affairs thinks that one should not speak of the systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. In this context, the increase in the number of applications for granting asylum is striking. For example, in Finland 125 applications were registered in 2017 and the same number by September 2018. The number of applications for granting asylum from Jehovah’s Witnesses is also growing in Germany. In August 2018 alone, 77 persons sent a request for granting asylum in the F.R.G.”
Andrei K., 38, was an elder of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Belgorod. He arrived in Germany with his family, his wife and six-year-old son, in 2013. A year and a half ago Andrei’s family received political asylum.
We arrived in Munich and applied for political asylum. Why Germany? I found the corresponding tickets. At that moment it did not matter where—just leave; there was no time to delay.
Originally we wanted to go to the U.S.A. or Canada. But a visa is necessary for this. In order to get it, a visa story is necessary. I did not have the time to make this story. It was necessary to make the decision in a short time. Therefore Germany.
Before coming here I did not know a single instance when one of our people applied for political asylum. We were some of the first in Bavaria, so far as I know.
In Finland there are many Jehovah’s Witness refuges from Russia, although there are many more in Germany. In Bavaria alone there are about 1,000 applications. There also are in other parts of Germany. I know some personally and I know about some who have arrived. In Bavaria alone I can say that since 2013 about a thousand persons have come to Bavaria. This is reliable information. In the city of Bamberg alone—there is a large camp there and for some reason most Jehovah’s Witnesses are sent there—about 800 persons passed through. And also they came through Munich and Zirndorf. So somewhere around a thousand, in my estimation, in all.
“I simply appealed to the police”
We moved quickly. By train to Moscow, and we flew from Domodedovo to Germany. Here it is important to understand the legal component of arrival. In order for Germany to have legal bases for considering an application for granting political asylum, it is important not to violate the Dublin agreement and other inter-European acts that are fundamental, so that one country or another will consider your case and have a basis for it.
Of course, it is possible to arrive with a visa and “surrender.” But I used another means—transit. I bought a ticket to a visa-free country–in my case, Serbia—and transited through Munich. And I simply appealed to the police in the transit zone.
“It’s a pity that they were deported back to Chechnya”
We are now living in a three-room apartment in a city of Bavaria. We attend assimilation courses and the kid goes to school. He is already going to school here in Germany. They took him right away in second grade. He is now in the sixth; he’s 12 years old. We used to live in a kind of dormitory for refugees in one of the villages of Bavaria. There are people of various nationalities there, from Africa, Afghanistan. The conditions are acceptable, normal.
We tried to find a common language with people of various cultures. Because as Jehovah’s Witnesses we try to talk about the Bible with people of a different nationality. We tried to talk with them in English or some already spoke German, which we also studied. Then a family of Chechens was placed in the dorm. We tried to talk with them about the Bible and about God. Subsequently the wife of this family even began to attend our meetings. She was with us several times and we conversed about spiritual topics. It is a great pity that the family subsequently was deported back to Chechnya.
“If I am returned, serious problems await me”
We waited a long time, because I submitted many documents confirming the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses back in 2009 and 2010, when this campaign began. Actually in Germany they take granting political asylum very seriously and the federal Ministry for Affairs of Migration and Refugees is supposed to verify what you said to them there.
Of course, they have both resources and methods to do this. Therefore my arguments were surely verified.
There are several forms [of political asylum]. We received the maximum, which can only be gotten on the territory of the F.R.G. There is the Asylgeseta (law of granting asylum to persecuted persons—Idel.Realii), and it is specifically prescribed that when a person receives political asylum, documents are given to him originally for three years, and they are subsequently extended until gaining citizenship.
Why might they not extend political asylum after three years? A person must commit a criminally punishable act and reject assimilation. And there is a third important factor connected with assimilation: that is language study.
If they were to cease persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and to rehabilitate them, then Germany still would not have the right to cancel your residence permit. In order to return a person, Germany most recognize that Russia (in my case) is a safe country. That is, if it is safe for Jehovah’s Witnesses in a political sense, then there would be another conversation and you might be sent back, of course. But if a person has children and a child finished elementary school on German territory, then it is simply impossible to send him back.
Germany considers each case individually. If you come from Russia as a Jehovah’s Witness and you say: “Here is the court’s decision and it is likely that I will be jailed (this refers to the decision of the Russian Supreme Court of 2017 banning the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and ruling it to be extremist—Idel.Realii), then nothing will be said. And therefore some Jehovah’s Witnesses receive a refusal, because they do not have a personal story, a personal threat, and incidents confirming it. The Germans understand that if they return me and my family, serious problems await me. Starting with a criminal prosecution and ending in other means of which our agencies in the RF are capable. Beating, intimidation, and many others. I think that you know all of this.
“A widespread campaign began against us”
It will be possible to speak about a return to Russia only if everything changes fundamentally. Therefore for now our return to Russia in the foreseeable future does not seem possible. As it also does not seem possible to return and start to defend by legal means our legal rights and interests. Because we know how the legal system works there. How the law on combating extremist activity is applied; at the present moment it is simply a law for suppressing dissent. Therefore you do not have a possibility of defending yourself.
The case of Dennis Christensen, who is behind bars, for example, shows this. A citizen of Denmark who is living in Russia. On 25 May 2017 he was arrested during group study of the Bible with fellow believers and he was put into the investigative cell of Orel because he professes the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or the case of the 57-year-old resident of Nevelsk, Sergei Kulakov. Grani and Sova have reported about these cases.
At the present time, about 26 persons are behind bars in Russia. And no legal means will help. It does not even help that some cases have been accepted for review by the E.C.H.R. on a priority basis. For alleged participation in the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia they now face up to ten years, because, as a rule, cases are opened on the basis of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF, or 282.3 (“financing”), and there are stricter sanctions there.
In Belgorod it all began when the authorities began seeking “legal bases” for combating the activity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the Code of Administrative Violations of Law was the first lever in 2008-2009. There are two interesting articles in the code: article 5.1.2, “Violation of the law on missionary activity,” and article 6.8, “Imposing religious views.” Article 5.1.2 was later deleted. Law enforcement practice simply broke down since the courts at that time still made more objective and independent decisions. According to article 6.8—here’s the decision of the court of the city of Shebekino of Belgorod oblast, where I was the defendant (the editorial office has a copy of the court’s decision—Idel.Realii). They tried to charge a Jehovah’s Witnesses married couple who simply started talking about sacred scripture with a person at a bus stop. This article, if I am not mistaken, is also in the code, but it does not work against Witnesses. But that is not the point. Simply somewhere around 2008-2009 there began against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I would say, a widespread campaign. It consisted in applying all available resources of the law in order to combat the activity of the Jehovah’s Witneses. It all began with these simple articles of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law, and it ended, as we now know, in criminal prosecution.
“They detained him there more than a day, threatening to infect him with AIDS”
They tried to open a criminal case, for example, against Sergei I., a disabled person of the second group. On the basis that he had a book, “What the Bible really teaches,” which at the present time is considered extremist in Russia. And he simply offered this book to some person. The Investigative Committee twice refused to open this criminal case.
Then they opened two administrative cases against him. But since at that time the courts in the RF still were more or less independent, these cases fell apart in the courts. There were procedural violations there, and a lot more. So later, in order to get revenge on this Sergei, police officers took him out of his apartment in broad daylight to police department No. 5 in the city of Belgorod. They detained him there more than a day, threatening at the same time to prick him with a syringe which is contaminated with AIDS so that he would sign what they needed. But he refused. Then he managed to phone one of our fellow believers and they managed to spring him from the police. But a statement was submitted to the Investigative Committee and the special security service of the MVD for Belgorod oblast, but there were no results. It was, as always, an order to refuse to open a criminal case because, according to the police blotter, Sergei spent less than three hours in the police department. It is one example of what happened.
“Everything was done to arouse hatred”
Then representatives of the public movements Nashi and Stal began conducting public events near the building where Jehovah’s Witnesses conducted peaceful worship services. Rather there were even protest actions aimed at arousing hatred and enmity. Here are photographs I selected from thousands, I guess. The demonstrators wore white tee shirts with slogans “I hate Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and “Honk if you are against Witnesses.”
This of course had consequences. There were attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses. I cannot say whether this was connected or not, but everything was done in order to arouse a full measure of hatred and enmity on the territory of Belgorod oblast.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted a statement to the Investigative Committee, the prosecutor’s office, and the Commission on Combating Extremism. But law enforcement agencies did not discern extremism in the slogans that the picketers used or in their actions.
One public event, for example, was with drums and it was attended by about fifty persons. They pounded the drums and climbed onto the roof of the house of worship, and walked around, and the worship service was disrupted. Four persons needed medical care later. Elderly people inside the building felt ill and first aid was summoned, which concluded that one had a blood pressure crisis and another had heart problems. And instead of law enforcement agencies responding somehow, they simply opened a case of administrative violation of law against the organizer who supposedly violated the procedure for conducting an event. It was picketing and they staged a parade. That’s all the violation of the picketers as it turned out. These are just a few examples that happened beginning with 2009-2010. Pickets or protest actions, as they are more correctly called, began in the summer of 2011.
“This destroys the dignity of the police”
I was warned several times by sympathetic police officers and other agencies, advising me to leave the region, and better, the country. They said that my telephone was tapped and the F.S.B. was collecting material on me.
Once an officer of law enforcement agencies asked me to come to a meeting with his more high ranking colleague for a conversation. I came to this meeting. They took my cell phone so that I could not record the conversation—as they explained to me, my cell phone can listen even when I am not talking on it. They explained to me that F.S.B. personnel were listening to me; they were listening to me on weekends and holidays like they listen to criminal leaders or high ranking officials. Although they did not have permission of a court to do this, but they were listening to my telephone, since the F.S.B. has such a capacity. That was in 2012. And this was the first warning that they were collecting material on me.
Then, really, I began noticing that my telephone was tapped. There were obvious sounds, or for example, a recording was heard of what I or my interlocutor said on a quick scroll. I then realized how the F.S.B. makes such recordings and on what grounds. There is an order of the State Committee of Communication of 1999 regarding the establishing of SORM systems. There is SORM-1, SORM-2, SORM-3. Each mobile operator establishes for itself a certain kind of equipment and F.S.B. officers can, without any court decision, tap your telephone at any time, whenever they want. Therefore I did not have any doubts that the officers of law enforcement agencies were telling the truth.
Many people at that time sympathized with us, understanding what was happening. Many humanely expressed dismay about what was happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many even expressed words of support. One experienced officer even said to me that it had become embarrassing to work for the police. Because instead of hunting real criminals they were hounding elderly people who met to read the Bible or to pray in their home. Certainly this destroys the dignity of many police officers and the more so the special subdivisions.
“Aren’t you afraid that they’ll bash your head with a steel bar?”
Another time I was summoned to the Center for Combating Extremism on the basis of a statement to give explanations. Before that I submitted a statement regarding an incident of conducting a protest action, which aroused hatred and enmity toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. And they said to me: so you wrote a statement, and aren’t you afraid that they will bash your head around the corner with a steel bar or do something else? I said: so that’s why I went to the law enforcement agencies in order to prevent these negative consequences. They laughed. They said that nobody will defend us and in principle the guys, these Nashites, troopers, they do everything right. This was the first such threat against me from police personnel.
Subsequently they summoned me for a conversation with another high ranking, by local standards, law enforcement officer. This time they described for me what was happening in Taganrog. There was a trial there for finding the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Taganrog to be extremist. And the law enforcement officer said to me that the situation in Taganrog was “an example for us, how we are supposed to act.” But humanly, many understood that this is stupidity, insanity, and would lead to no good. But they all had to do what they were told. So they were forced to show their work against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They again advised me to leave, because the work was being conducted and the material was being wrapped up.
Another time they summoned me to the police for questioning on the basis of some statement. Again they expressed a negative attitude toward me for the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the police officer had on the table among the materials of his case a map of the movements of my Renault Duster car around Belgorod on certain days. There were very many surveillance cameras and it was obvious that this system was used for following my movements.
Taking into account what was happening, I understood that there would be something. It doesn’t just happen that materials are collected and telephones are tapped and they summon you to the police so often. Supposedly to ask me about my statement, sure. But a statement is one thing; conversations are held about something else. They asked me not to go to law enforcement agencies and not to file a complaint in court and engage in activity for the defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the extent I was engaged.
Then they summoned me to more conversations and again advised me to leave. Well a whole lot of things happened—I was followed and serious threats arrived. So I decided to leave the country with my family.
P.S. The full names of the characters are known to the editorial office. The names have been abbreviated at the request of the characters for their protection. (tr. by PDS, posted 31 January 2019)