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15 August 2013

RUSSIA: Rise in legal proposals affecting religious freedom

Russian legislative initiatives concerning freedom of religion or belief have markedly increased since President Vladimir Putin's return in May 2012, Forum 18 News Service notes. This appears at least partly due to activity by the Duma's Committee on Social Associations and Religious Organisations after its chairship passed to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party in late 2011. But not all are restrictive, or have proved resistant to revision in the direction of more religious freedom. For example, a government legislative initiative backed by the Committee regulating religious meetings has still to be voted on by the Duma. The amendments, proposed on 7 June 2013 in response to a Constitutional Court ruling, are to some extent positive: meetings for worship in private could not be subject to a need to gain state permission in advance. However, a degree of uncertainty remains over public meetings for worship in rented premises. Some local state officials have continued to obstruct meetings for worship in private or rented premises. But despite a general trend towards harsher restrictions, not all recent proposals negatively affecting religious freedom are being adopted.

14 August 2013

RUSSIA: "Religious feelings" not offended – or the calm before the storm?

Since a vaguely-worded Russian law criminalising "offending religious feelings" came into force on 1 July no prosecutions have followed, Forum 18 News Service notes. Alexander Verkhovsky's SOVA Center for Information and Analysis has reported only one associated incident, concerning a representative of the Saami people in Russia's Far North. Critics fear that the new amendments are so poorly defined that they could be used by anyone to prosecute actions they simply dislike. Verkhovsky, for example, thinks they will certainly be interpreted in a way that criminalises actions previously not treated as criminal. While understood as a concession to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), there is considerable disagreement over the criminalisation of "offence to religious feelings" in both the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Russian society, Forum 18 notes. And not every legal initiative apparently motivated by the notion of "offending religious feelings" is progressing in Russia.

15 July 2013

RUSSIA: State destroys own "extremism" evidence

A Russian court case in Siberia to ban 68 Islamic books and leaflets has taken an ironic turn, Forum 18 News Service has learnt: the state has destroyed its own evidence. Following appeals against the March 2012 ban, which was not made known until June 2012 and came from a hearing lasting only 20 minutes, Orenburg Regional Court has ordered a repeat "expert" analysis. But only 42 of the titles are now being analysed, because the authorities are unable to find copies of the remaining 26. Prosecutions can only be brought relating to "extremist" texts if they are the exact edition of the work specified on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. But this has not stopped prosecutions relating to editions not on the Federal List. While "everything depends upon the analysis and the court's decision," the omission of the 26 texts should mean that the Court's ban on them will ultimately be lifted, appeal lawyer Nurzhigit Dolubayev told Forum 18. Compilation of the Federal List List is accelerating, Forum 18 notes. The List is now growing at a rate at least three times faster than when it first came into existence.

10 July 2013

RUSSIA: Orthodox relics block Jehovah's Witness meeting

A written Russian official refusal to allow Jehovah's Witness to meet for worship in Nizhny Novgorod Region, made in consultation with a local Orthodox bishop, provides rare evidence that state opposition to Jehovah's Witnesses is fuelled by support for the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Forum 18 News Service has found. "As the administration, we conduct all our activity in close contact with the [Moscow Patriarchate] Diocese," the official who drafted the refusal, Svetlana Zakharova, confirmed to Forum 18. "There's not a single question affecting the interests of one side or the other that we don't decide collegially." It is highly unusual for Russian officials to make such admissions, especially in writing, Forum 18 notes. Elsewhere, more Jehovah's Witness texts have been banned, and raids on and detentions and fines of Jehovah's Witnesses and Falun Gong practitioners continue. The government is also set to increase punishments for "extremist" activity under the Criminal Code.

24 June 2013

RUSSIA: Eight readers of Islamic theologian arrested

Shirazi Bekirov – a reader of Islamic theologian Said Nursi – has been under arrest in St Petersburg since his home in the city was raided by the FSB security service late on 2 March, a fellow Nursi reader told Forum 18 News Service. Six other homes were also raided, more than ten people were briefly detained and thousands of Nursi's books were seized. Bekirov stands accused of organising the activity of banned "extremist" organisation, "Nurdzhular", an organisation Nursi readers insist does not exist. He faces up to three years' imprisonment if convicted. An Azeri named "Elnur" is among seven Nursi readers in detention in Russia's Perm Region since at least May after police and FSB raids on private homes, in which thousands of copies of Nursi's works were seized. A spokesperson for Volga Federal District's Interior Ministry told Forum 18 that all seven suspects are still in detention - "Their question is still being decided" – and that they have not yet been formally charged. He refused to name those detained.

20 June 2013

RUSSIA: Readers of Islamic theologian under house arrest, travel bans

Seven readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi are known to be under house arrest or other travel bans in different regions of Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. All are accused or suspected of organising or participating in banned "extremist" organisation "Nurdzhular" – charges they reject - and could face up to three years in prison. Gulnaz Valeyeva – one of three female Nursi readers on trial in Chelyabinsk Region - married in 2012. But she is unable to live with her husband, who works over 2,000 km away in Krasnoyarsk, another of the three told Forum 18. Another cannot visit her frail 85-year-old mother. Meanwhile, all 16 Jehovah's Witnesses on criminal trial in Taganrog of belonging to an "extremist" organisation have been under travel bans for over a year, Viktor Zhenkov, one of their lawyers, told Forum 18.

18 June 2013

RUSSIA: Imams' defence rejected "for contradicting prosecution"

Ilhom Merazhov – one of two imams given a one-year suspended prison sentence on 27 May in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk after a three month criminal trial on "extremism" charges – has expressed his astonishment. "Convicted of organising an extremist organisation when we didn't conduct extremist activity - it's nonsense!" he told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor's Office official Sergei Ageyev even admitted in court that "the deed of which they are incriminated does not envisage any kind of extremist activity", according to the transcript. The verdict orders a large quantity of Muslim literature from the imams' personal libraries to be destroyed as "weapons of the crime". "I'm speechless, this is the same as destroying the Koran. It's blasphemy!" Merazhov insisted. In a case on the same criminal charges in the southern Russian town of Taganrog, where the local Jehovah's Witness congregation has been banned as "extremist", the criminal trial of 16 of its members has begun.

29 May 2013

RUSSIA: Government checks on religious organisations seek "extremism"

"Extremism" was a key reason given for Russia's state inspections of some Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities this Spring, Forum 18 News Service notes. Yet no signs of "extremism" were found during the vast majority of government checks. For example, a Pentecostal Church in Russia's Far East was initially accused of "extremism" when a Public Prosecutor inspection found its statutes did not specify that non-citizens could participate in its activity as well as Russian citizens. These accusations were soon dropped. But in Irkutsk Region and Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, administrative cases for "production or distribution of extremist materials" were opened against local Muslim leaders, one resulting in a fine. One of the cases related to possession of a translation of a work by Islamic theologian Said Nursi. Muslims are, like Jehovah's Witnesses, subject to ongoing checks for "extremism". Searches of their communities this Spring were thus not necessarily part of the NGO sweep.

28 May 2013

RUSSIA: Mixed response to sweeping government checks

Representatives of hundreds of religious organisations inspected by state officials this Spring have voiced mixed impressions of the checks to Forum 18 News Service. Following its inspection, a Catholic parish in southern Russia is facing a heavy fine for fire safety violations. But this appears exceptional. Unlike major human rights organisations the checks appeared to target, most religious representatives surveyed by Forum 18 received only minor complaints. Konstantin Andreyev, a Moscow-based lawyer, remarked to Forum 18: "The majority [of Public Prosecutor employees] did this quite formally, understanding that they just need to submit reports saying they checked." Protestant representatives in particular were unconcerned, and sometimes even defended the state's actions. But the Jehovah's Witnesses are worried about the possible consequences of a massive inspection of their Russian headquarters.

22 May 2013

RUSSIA: Why were hundreds of religious organisations checked?

Hundreds of religious communities across Russia are among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) inspected by officials, Forum 18 News Service has found. Check-ups ranged from a simple telephone request for documents to multiple, extensive searches. It "wasn't simply the initiative of the Prosecutor", Moscow-based lawyer Konstantin Andreyev told Forum 18. "There's a political subtext." Yet the new regulations on foreign funding for NGOs – including designation of some as "foreign agents" – do not legally apply to religious organisations. In several cases, religious organisations appear to have been inspected due to "foreign" links, such as Catholic charity Caritas and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The General Prosecutor's Office order for the sweep is not public, but Samara Regional Public Prosecutor's Office ordered that inspections should check compliance with laws on "surveillance and criminal procedure" and the Extremism Law by "social and religious associations and other non-commercial organisations".

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