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RUSSIA: Religious opposition to war in Ukraine - prosecutions and detentions

Despite the official support for Russia's invasion shown by many religious leaders, most notably those in the Moscow Patriarchate, small numbers of clergy and laypeople in Russia continue to protest for explicitly religious reasons against the renewed war in Ukraine. They often face detention, prosecution, and the loss of their jobs in consequence. One, Fr Ioann Burdin, told Forum 18 he is appealing against being fined "so that life is not a bed of roses for the authorities and judges".

RUSSIA: First known criminal investigation for opposing Ukraine war on explicitly religious grounds

Nina Belyayeva, a Protestant who is a Communist Party municipal deputy, has become the first known person in Russia to face criminal prosecution for opposing the war in Ukraine on explicitly religious grounds. During a meeting of Semiluk District Council in Voronezh Region she called Russia's invasion a war crime. She later wrote: "I realised that if I kept silent, I would not be able to respect myself. I wouldn't be a true Christian and human being." She fled Russia in early April.

RUSSIA: 71 known "missionary activity" prosecutions in 2021 – list

Forum 18 found 71 prosecutions in 2021 (4 of organisations and 67 of individuals) for violating Russia's July 2016 Administrative Code Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5, which punish "illegal missionary activity". 44 of the prosecutions resulted in initial convictions, all being punished with fines (though 7 were overturned on appeal). In 2021 there was a conviction rate of 85 per cent. Of the 15 foreigners prosecuted, 4 were fined, of whom 3 were also ordered deported.

RUSSIA: 37 known "missionary activity" prosecutions in second half of 2020 – list

Forum 18 found 37 prosecutions in the second half of 2020 (3 of organisations and 34 of individuals) for violating Russia's July 2016 Administrative Code Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5, which punish "illegal missionary activity". 27 of the prosecutions resulted in initial convictions, all being punished with fines (though 3 were overturned on appeal). The second half of 2020 saw a conviction rate of 84 per cent. Neither of the two convicted and fined foreigners was ordered deported.

RUSSIA: "Virtually anything can be deemed to be unlawful missionary work"

In the 18 months from July 2020 to December 2021, Forum 18 found 108 prosecutions on administrative charges of unlawful "missionary activity" to punish a wide range of activities, including worship meetings for fellow believers. Prosecutions continued in 2022, with a judge fining and ordering deported a Tajik citizen for leading Muslim prayers. The legislation on missionary activity is "formulated in such a way that virtually anything can be deemed to be unlawful missionary work", comments Olga Sibiryova of SOVA Centre.

RUSSIA: Patriarchate priest fined for condemning war in Ukraine

On 10 March, a court fined Fr Ioann Burdin of the Moscow Patriarchate's Kostroma Diocese one month's average local wages for online remarks and a Sunday sermon in church condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and stressing the importance of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill". The court decision is "a ban not only on expressing one's opinion but also even on professing one's religious beliefs", Fr Ioann told Forum 18. So far, no other individual is known to have been prosecuted under the new Administrative Code Article punishing "discrediting the use of the Armed Forces" for expressing opposition to Russia's war against Ukraine related specifically to their exercise of freedom of religion or belief.

RUSSIA: Three acquitted on "extremism" charges but jailings continue

An appeal court has overturned the suspended sentences handed to three Jehovah's Witnesses. "We hope that the Kamchatka example will turn out to have an effect on other judges, and they will take the liberty of correcting the mistakes made by their colleagues," said Jehovah's Witness Yaroslav Sivulsky. The acquittals may be linked to Supreme Court amendments governing the implementation of "extremism" laws. Yet prosecutions continue. On 25 January, an Astrakhan court handed Anna Safronova the longest prison sentence yet given to a Jehovah's Witness woman – six years. The Justice Ministry did not answer as to whether Russia had become a safer country as a consequence of the prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim Nursi readers.

RUSSIA: Suspended sentences and fines – list

Courts across Russia have jailed on "extremism"-related criminal charges many Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who read the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Courts have punished still more with suspended sentences or fines. Nearly 100 Jehovah's Witnesses are now on probation after receiving suspended sentences, as well as one Muslim Nursi reader. Jehovah's Witnesses serving suspended sentences have described the consequences, including being unable to see relatives living in other regions, and finding it impossible to secure jobs. A total of 20 Jehovah's Witnesses have been fined. Jehovah's Witness Yevgeny Yakku was fined more than a year's average wage in his home region of Arkhangelsk.

RUSSIA: "Foreign agents", "undesirable organisations", and freedom of religion or belief

Russia has used increasingly strict legislation on "foreign agents" (a term which has connotations of spying) and "undesirable organisations" to curtail, complicate, or prohibit the activities of organisations which promote human rights and monitor their violation, including that of freedom of religion and belief. This "indirectly affects the people human rights defenders stand up for", says Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis (branded a "foreign agent"). The Justice Ministry and prosecutors are seeking through the courts to close down the Memorial Human Rights Centre (also branded a "foreign agent"), partly for its monitoring of criminal prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses.

RUSSIA: Jailed, awaiting appeal, deported, post-prison restrictions - list

Of 54 people given jail sentences on "extremism" charges for exercising freedom of religion or belief, 20 are serving their sentences in prison, 12 awaiting appeal, 2 were deported after completing their jail term and 16 have been released from prison but remain under restrictions or supervision. Two who have completed their jail terms have left Russia and are therefore no longer subject to the post-prison restrictions. Two left Russia before conviction. Post-prison restrictions on 46-year-old prisoner of conscience Aleksey Berchuk are due to end on 27 November 2038, when he would be 63.

RUSSIA: "I would like to believe" acquittal "is first of many"

For the first time since the Supreme Court ban on Jehovah's Witnesses as "extremist" in 2017, a Vladivostok court yesterday (22 November) issued an acquittal. Dmitry Barmakin walked free after the Judge cited 28 October Supreme Court amendments which direct judges to ascertain a defendant's "specific actions", their motivation, and "the significance [of these actions] for the continuation or resumption of [a banned organisation]'s activities", rather than rely on generalised claims. The prosecutor could appeal against the acquittal. A 63-year-old teacher Nakiya Sharifullina risks being jailed if Tatarstan's Supreme Court on 17 December upholds the prosecutor's appeal against her suspended sentence for allegedly organising a "madrassah".

RUSSIA: "Prior conspiracy" leads to eight-year jail terms

Courts have jailed four Jehovah's Witnesses for eight years each so far in 2021 for exercising freedom of religion or belief, one in Blagoveshchensk and three in Astrakhan, equalling the term a Dagestan court handed to Muslim Ilgar Aliyev in 2018. Courts gave other Jehovah's Witnesses shorter jail terms. In Astrakhan, the judge cited as an aggravating circumstance "the commission of a crime as part of a group of persons, by prior conspiracy". Astrakhan Region Prosecutor's Office did not reply as to why prosecutors requested such long jail sentences, and why meeting for prayer and Bible reading should be treated as a criminal offence.