Ewelina U. Ochab
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses extremists? Russian courts certainly think so. On April 1, 2019, Sergey Skrynnikov, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, became the second member of the religious group to be convicted under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Skrynnikov had allegedly done nothing more than engaging in peaceful worship. The first Jehovah’s Witness was Dennis Christensen from Denmark. He was sentenced to six years in prison for the same “offence.” Christensen awaits his appeal hearing on May 7, 2019. The cases of Sergey Skrynnikov and Dennis Christensen, while causing an outcry in the western world, are nothing unusual in Russia.
Indeed, in early May 2019, there were 186 Jehovah’s Witnesses facing criminal charges for practicing their faith in Russia. This includes men and women in pretrial detention or under house arrest. All of the charges relate to Article 280 and 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. For example, Article 282.2 criminalizes the act of organising the activity of an extremist community with Subsection (1) concerning “organizing the activity of a non-governmental or religious association or other organization that due to its extremist activity was liquidated or had its activity banned by a court decision that has entered legal force, with the exception of organizations declared terrorist under Russian Federation legislation”, and Subsection (2) “Participating in the activity of a non-governmental or religious association or other organization that due to its extremist activity was liquidated or had its activity banned by a court decision that has entered legal force, with the exception of organizations declared terrorist under Russian Federation legislation.” Furthermore, Article 282.2, Subsection (1.1.) criminalizes the act of “persuading, recruiting, or otherwise inducing a person to participate in the activity of an extremist organization.”
And indeed, on April 20, 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation adopted a ruling that liquidated the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Solnechnoye and 395 Local Religious Organizations (LROs) used by Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia. In doing so, the Russian Supreme Court opened the door to charges under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code against (virtually) any members of the LROs (used by over 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia). Furthermore, the ruling pronounced that the “property of the liquidated religious organization remaining once creditors’ demands have been satisfied” to be turned over to the Russian Federation.
As a result of the decision of April 2017, Sergey Skrynnikov was arrested and convicted of participating in the activity of an extremist organization under Article 282.2(2) and made subject to a fine of the equivalent of $5,348.00.
How has peaceful worship turned into an activity of an extremist organization? Is there such a thin line between the two?
According to a Federal law passed on July 25, 2002, No. 114-FZ “On Combating Extremist Activity”, extremism is defined as “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person on the basis of their religious affiliation or attitude toward religion.” Despite the fact that the intention behind the provision was to address incitement of hatred (conductive of terrorism), the law is overly broad, leaving too much scope for interpretation that may cover virtually any activity. This definition of extremism under Russian law is too vague to ever ensure legal certainty.
As observed by a recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, this gives Russian authorities “wide latitude to interfere in peaceful religious observance and persecute believers.” The USCIRF report identifies Muslims as the main group targeted by the anti-extremism legislation. However, in recent years, non-Muslim religious groups have also appeared on the radar of the Russian anti-extremism law, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and other religious groups “traditionally disapproved of” by the Russian Orthodox Church. The number of incarcerated Jehovah’s Witnesses speaks for itself. The USCIRF report indicated that the provisions and policies aimed at protecting people and national security are used to sanction people for their religious manifestation.
While the issue of terrorism and violent extremism in the 21st century is so severe that it requires an adequate response, such a response must not infringe upon fundamental human rights such as freedom of religion or belief. The vague concept of extremism should not be abused to ban any belief that is different from the mainstream belief. Any restriction must adhere to, at minimum, the international legal standards.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.”