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RUSSIA: Criminal cases against "unknown persons" lodged "to prevent lawyers 'meddling'"?

The day after Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow overturned a lower court ban on the activity of the Grace Pentecostal Church in Khabarovsk, local prosecutors again began summoning church members as they investigate two criminal cases against unnamed church members. The Church's lawyer, Inna Zagrebina, told Forum 18 News Service of concerns about criminal cases being lodged against "unknown persons". Church leaders are then questioned without being able to defend themselves. "This is often done to prevent lawyers 'meddling' in the cases," she said. "Then when the investigation is complete they unveil the accusation. So from the start it's clear who they're going to accuse, but that person can't do anything. It's a trick." The FSB security service has taken a close interest in the Church, but denied to Forum 18 it is running a campaign against the Church. Elsewhere, a Baptist conscientious objector to military service has been threatened in his military unit with prosecution. But the Military Prosecutor's Office has insisted that no case is planned.

RUSSIA: "Extremism" prosecutions continue, but Supreme Court advises caution

Russia continues to prosecute Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi and Jehovah's Witnesses on "extremism" charges, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Supreme Court on 28 June issued an instruction warning that prosecutions of individuals on "extremism" charges should be carefully and narrowly framed. It warns that it is important to consider the individual's intention in distributing the works. If the intention is not to incite hatred or enmity or to humiliate the human dignity of others, prosecutions should not be brought. Officials have been unwilling to discuss the impact of the Supreme Court's instruction on their prosecutions of Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses with Forum 18. Anatoly Tskhai of the Investigation Committee, for example, refused to say if he was aware of the Supreme Court decision. "Ring back in mid-August," he said and put the phone down. Currently, cases are known to be either threatened or under way in Gorno-Altaisk, Ulyanovsk, Astrakhan Region, Krasnoyarsk, Chita, Dagestan and Orenburg.

RUSSIA: 18-month prison term and heavy fine

Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov, a Muslim who reads the works of the theologian Said Nursi, is due to appeal against his 18-month prison term on extremism-related charges, his lawyer Rauila Rogacheva told Forum 18 News Service. Kelmukhambetov, who suffers from diabetes, was arrested at the end of the year-long trial on 28 June when the verdict was handed down and is now in prison hospital in Orenburg. An FSB security service spokesperson defended the prosecution to Forum 18. A court in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk has heavily fined a Muslim organisation for teaching Islam without an educational licence, although Russia's Supreme Court has ruled in a similar case that such licences are not needed. "People have been deprived of their rights to teach and receive religious education," Mufti Gayaz Fatkullin complained to Forum 18. An official of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office described the case to Forum 18 as "stupidity and a violation of the rights of religious believers".

RUSSIA: "One complex of measures against religious communities"

Many criminal and administrative cases against religious communities "take place with violations of the right to freedom of conscience, violations of the rights of religious organisations and violations of the separation of church and state," Mikhail Odintsov, the top official dealing with religious issues at the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 News Service. He regards the many such cases as "one complex of measures against religious communities". Among cases causing his Office concern are the ban on the activity of Khabarovsk's Grace Church, which the Church is challenging in Russia's Supreme Court on 5 July, and the ban on materials distributed by New Generation Church in Blagoveshchensk, which will also appeal to the Supreme Court. Grace Church's Pastor Vladimir Pak is also being investigated on criminal charges carrying an eight-year prison term for allegedly harming health. "This is a very serious and worrying development, that church leaders face possible criminal prosecution for their activities in the church," the church's lawyer Inna Zagrebina told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Muslim's appeal begins, Jehovah's Witness' second trial to begin

Beginning yesterday (20 June) in the Russian North Caucasian republic of Dagestan was the appeal hearing of Ziyavdin Dapayev. He is challenging the three-year suspended prison sentence imposed on extremism-related charges for leading study of the works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi in private homes. His lawyer particularly objects to the court-ordered destruction of his religious books. "They contain quotations from a holy text [the Koran], so I hope that at least this part of the verdict will be annulled," Murtazali Barkayev told Forum 18 News Service. Beginning tomorrow (22 June) is the second trial on extremism-related charges of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov, in what Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson has deemed a "landmark case". The Prosecutor challenged Kalistratov's acquittal after a six-month trial which saw 71 witnesses questioned and 24 separate hearings. An appeal court ordered a re-trial. The Ombudsperson complained the case was built on an "expert analysis" of Jehovah's Witness texts which was "tendentious and superficial".

RUSSIA: "The main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains"

Following the acquittal in Russia of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov, a Gorno-Altaisk Court spokesperson would not state if and when the full text of the verdict will be released, when Forum 18 News Service asked for this. It is unclear if the Prosecutor will appeal against the verdict. Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center told Forum 18 that "it's difficult to say what the verdict will mean for other cases. I would like this one to set a precedent but it depends a lot on the formal reasons why he was acquitted". Ziyavdin Dapayev, a Muslim from Dagestan also facing "anti-extremism" charges, told Forum 18 that he is not sure how, if at all, the verdict will affect his case and similar cases. He sees intimidation and prejudice at a local level as a more decisive factor than verdicts in "extremism" cases elsewhere. Jehovah's Witnesses spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18 that "the main problem – the Law on Extremism – remains in place. Our publications are still banned and people who have committed no crimes continue to be investigated and prosecuted." In a separate development, the European Court of Human Rights has begun considering the admissibility of a case concerning Russian bans on Islamic texts.

RUSSIA: More raids and trials, pressure on lawyers, defendant forced to resign from job?

Raids by Russian authorities on Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi for alleged "extremism" continued in March, but none are yet known in April, Forum 18 News Service notes. Lawyers defending those charged have also reportedly coming under pressure from the authorities. One Jehovah's Witness facing trial in the southern region of Astrakhan, Gulfira Zakaryaeva, has stated that her employer was visited by law enforcement agents, who recommended that she be told to resign. She claims that she was told to do this of her own free will "to avoid any problems". Astrakhan Police told Forum 18 that "it is unlikely any pressure was applied" to her to resign, and her former employer declined to comment. Both groups of religious believers have been put under state surveillance, and Protestants in the far eastern Russian Republic of Sakha have received an intrusive questionnaire from the local police Centre for Combating Extremism. Police have refused to tell Forum 18 how this information will be used, or whether criminal cases will be opened against those questioned.

RUSSIA: Will Duma approve "anti-Constitutional" religious literature restrictions?

Proposed Russian legal amendments that would ban anyone except registered religious organisations from distributing religious literature have received initial backing from the Duma's Committee on Social and Religious Organisations, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The Committee has set 30 April as the deadline for comments on the amendments, which also impose fines for this "offence", and are an initiative of the Duma of Belgorod Region. In May the Committee will review the draft in the light of comments and either pass it to the full Duma or reject it. Some do not think the draft will be adopted, but it has aroused concern from human rights defenders and some religious communities. Similar proposals have regularly been made, but this is the first time to Forum 18's knowledge that such a proposal has had initial Committee backing. It is unclear how much support this proposal has among senior Russian political figures.

RUSSIA: European Court of Human Rights "obviously ignored"

Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and Armenian Catholics continue to struggle to gain registration – and so legal status – from the authorities of the capital Moscow, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A court has decided not to change a decision to close the Jehovah's Witnesses Moscow branch – despite a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling against this. Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer Artur Leontyev said this "obviously ignored the ruling of the European Court", and said an appeal will be made. ECtHR mandated damages and costs have also not been paid to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Also Moscow's Armenian Catholic congregation continues to be unable to gain registration. A court hearing was postponed until 11 April, when the authorities failed to appear. The Armenian Catholics' lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, told Forum 18 beforehand that a negative ruling "would give us the chance to take the issue to the Constitutional Court and challenge the Religion Law". His colleague Inna Zagrebina told Forum 18 that nationwide illegal state interference in communities' internal life is "an integral part of life for religious organisations".

RUSSIA: 17 hearings already, more to come

When the criminal trial resumes in Gorno-Altaisk of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov on extremism-related charges on 14 February, it will be the 18th hearing in the case, which began in October 2010. It is already the longest running case of its kind in the court, but a court spokesperson refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why it is taking so long. Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18 it is expensive for Kalistratov's lawyers to travel repeatedly from St. Petersburg to Gorno-Altaisk, but insisted "it is a material issue to fight this case". Other Jehovah's Witnesses are facing similar charges. Also due to resume on 16 February in Dagestan is the criminal trial of Ziyavdin Dapayev, a reader of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Further Jehovah's Witness publications were added in January to the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which already includes many of Nursi's writings.

RUSSIA: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution"

Russia continues to raid meetings of readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi in 2011, Forum 18 News Service has found. Azerbaijani national Rashid Abdulov was arrested in Ulyanovsk on 20 January and is still in detention awaiting charge. Other Muslims gathered in the same flat were briefly detained in a raid in which police reportedly used physical violence was used against them, including against children present. Abdulov's lawyer Vladimir Zavilinich told Forum 18 that: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution, and fits in with the trend of arrests in Novosibirsk and Krasnodar". Abdulov was found to be in possession of materials listed on titles which feature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, and his lawyer expects him to come to trial in "a maximum of six to nine months, during which time Abdulov will remain in prison". Fellow Nursi reader Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov from Uzbekistan also remains in prison in Russia. This follows an extradition request from his home country and a request he filed to receive refugee status in Russia. Jehovah's Witnesses are also subject to such raids.

AZERBAIJAN: "There is no discrimination" ?

After Azerbaijan's deportation of a former leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Russian citizen Ivan Uzun, and the denial of re-entry to Moldovan citizen Gheorghiy Sobor, Adventists have told Forum 18 News Service they are trying to resolve problems with the government through dialogue. Sobor lives in the capital Baku with his Azerbaijani wife and their three young children. He thinks he may have been denied re-entry as he helped Adventists gain state permission to import books. His wife Aida told Forum 18 that: "Without any court decision and without the possibility for him to respond, they have separated Gheorghiy from his family and children. Such an action contradicts basic human rights and international law at the same time as Azerbaijan considers itself a democratic country". Yusif Askerov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed that "there is no discrimination". Adventists stress that they have been present in the country for more than a century. An Adventist told Forum 18 that: "We're working to build bridges with the government".