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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

RUSSIA: No more mosques outside "Muslim areas"?

Just as in the Russian capital, Muslims in other parts of Russia considered ethnically Russian face persistent difficulties building mosques to meet the growing numbers of Muslim worshippers, Forum 18 News Service has found. Jamaletdin Makhmudov, a St Petersburg Muslim, told Forum 18 that the municipal authorities do not prevent Muslims from meeting in approximately six rented premises besides the two official mosques. But he says the city's long-standing refusal to allow construction of further mosques remains unchanged. A Muslim community in Sochi – the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics - has lobbied fruitlessly for a mosque for over 15 years. Rejecting one appeal, an official pointed to a mosque in a village two hours' drive away. In Maloyaroslavets, officials rejected the community's latest application, claiming all sites for places of worship are already taken.

RUSSIA: No more mosques for Moscow?

With only four official mosques in the Russian capital (one of which is being reconstructed), Moscow's Muslim community has long sought to open new places of worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police estimated 170,000 worshippers at the end-of-Ramadan festival Eid-ul-Fitr (locally known as Uraza-bairam) in August, close to the numbers who attend Russian Orthodox churches at Easter. Yet one of just two new mosque sites approved in early September was withdrawn on 20 September after street protests. A Council of Muftis official told Forum 18 "we're just asking for the number of mosques to be raised from four to 10 at least – that would be just". Anton Ignatenko, Vice-chair of Moscow's Department for Relations with Religious Organisations, apologised to Forum 18 that he was currently not authorised to comment on this issue.

RUSSIA: Raised penalties for demonstrations extended to worship

Pentecostal Pastor Aleksandr Kravchenko became the first religious leader in Russia known to have been fined at the higher level for holding a religious service since fines for violating the Demonstrations Law were raised in June. The large fine followed a police raid billed as part of "anti-extremism" measures, according to letters seen by Forum 18 News Service. The Magistrate brushed aside Kravchenko's argument that he did not need to notify the authorities of the services he has held at the same venue for two years. Also in Adygea, the FSB security service ordered prosecutors to close a Muslim prayer room, while Muslims in two other locations faced warnings that their Eid-ul-Fitr ceremonies in rented premises needed to conform to the Demonstrations Law. In Moscow, Pastor Vasily Romanyuk might be prosecuted for leading Sunday worship on the site of his bulldozed church.

RUSSIA: Shock at Moscow church demolition

Unknown workers – backed by police and druzhinniki (civil volunteers) – began tearing down Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church on the eastern edge of Moscow soon after midnight today (6 September), the Church's Pastor, Vasili Romanyuk, told Forum 18 News Service from the Russian capital. By morning almost the entire three-storey building had been destroyed. "This is the Soviet approach – to come in the middle of the night with mechanical diggers," Mikhail Odintsov, an aide to Russia's Ombudsperson for Human Rights, told Forum 18. "This is unacceptable." The church has struggled to legalise the building it put up with its own money in 1995-6. Andrei Ivanov, spokesperson for the prefect of Moscow's Eastern Administrative District, defended the destruction. "Everything was done at the decision of the court," he told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: One month in prison, another to follow

Jehovah's Witnesses Igor Yefimov and Aleksei Nikolaev, arrested in Chuvashia on 26 July, have been ordered held in continuing pre-trial detention until late September. "This is the first time in contemporary Russia that a court has ordered any of our people to be held in detention simply because they are Jehovah's Witnesses," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutors tried to have three others imprisoned as they await trial on "extremism"-related charges. "The accusation that he created an extremist group is absurd," Yefimov's wife Marina complained to Forum 18. In Chelyabinsk, three local Muslim women are due to go on trial on 6 September on "extremism"-related criminal charges. "We're not extremists – indeed, we're against extremism and against violence," one of the accused, Farida Ulmaskulova, insisted to Forum 18. "Islam bans the killing of oneself or others."

RUSSIA: More "extremist" books to be banned?

In two separate cases Russia's FSB security service in Kostroma Region, north-east of the capital Moscow, and Prosecutors in Primorskiy Territory, on the Pacific west of Sakhalin Island, have confiscated religious literature, Forum 18 News Service has learned. In Primorskiye the Jehovah's Witness who had the literature has been fined, but it is unclear whether the Muslim in Kostroma will be fined. In both cases the literature has been sent for "expert analysis" to see if it should be declared "extremist" and banned throughout Russia. The FSB claimed in relation to the "voluntary" handover of works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi in Kostroma that it had conducted "warning/prophylactic measures among individuals inclined towards carrying out crimes of extremist orientation". Asked by Forum 18 what these "crimes" were, the FSB stated that "they were not planning explosions or murders" and would not elaborate more.

RUSSIA: "A completely innocent person can be subjected to criminal prosecution"

"Extremism"-related criminal cases in Russia against Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi and Jehovah's Witnesses are continuing. In the latest moves, two of four Jehovah's Witnesses facing prosecution in Chuvashia were on 30 July ordered to be detained until their trial. A further six community members are now also suspects in the criminal case. Also that day but in a separate case, prosecutors have appealed against the acquittal of another Jehovah's Witness on "extremism" charges. These moves follow the sentencing on 27 July of two Jehovah's Witnesses, Andrei and Lyutsia Raitin, to 200 hours community service each. Jehovah's Witnesses point out that "the verdict on the Raitins confirms the fact that anti-extremist laws are highly vague, which leads to the risk that a completely innocent person can be subjected to criminal prosecution".

RUSSIA: "Absurd bans"

Russia's recent ban of more than 65 Islamic works has attracted many protests. Appeals against the bans will be presented on 6 August to Orenburg Regional Court, Forum 18 News Service has been told by a court official. On 18 July it became known that one of the 65 books, Elmir Kuliyev's Russian-language book "The Path to the Koran", had been banned for the second time by a court in Omsk. This second ban was, like the Orenburg banning decision, at the initiative of the FSB security service. Islamic scholar Rinat Mukhametov has stated that the Orenburg court ban was a "crucial turning point" for Russia's Muslims. He said the "absurd bans" had to be challenged.

UZBEKISTAN: Two women deported for exercising religious freedom

Two long-term residents of Uzbekistan born in the country – both Jehovah's Witnesses - have been deported to punish them for discussing their faith with others, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Russian citizen Yelena Tsyngalova was deported on an Uzbek Airlines evening flight from Tashkent to Moscow today (25 July), after being detained since 2 July. Accompanying her were her two teenage children, one a Russian citizen, the other an Uzbek citizen. Her mother Galina Poligenko-Aleshkina – an Uzbek citizen who is a pensioner with disabilities and who shared the family flat – is now left to fend for herself. Kazakh citizen Oksana Shcherbeneva was deported on 16 June immediately after completing a 15-day prison term. Other Jehovah's Witnesses detained and tried with her were jailed and fined.

RUSSIA: "Extremism" religious freedom survey, July 2012

Use of Russia's Extremism Law against those with views the authorities dislike – especially Muslims who study the works of Said Nursi, and Jehovah's Witnesses - has mushroomed under both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. This is the most threatening recent development for freedom of religion or belief in the Russian Federation, Forum 18 News Service notes in its survey of "extremism"-related violations. Other religious freedom issues, such as treatment of state-favoured organisations within the four faiths of Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the nation's privileged "traditional religions", are addressed in Forum 18's general religious freedom survey.

RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, July 2012

Despite his liberal image, President Dmitri Medvedev introduced discriminatory measures on the basis of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service finds in its general survey of religious freedom in the Russian Federation. So far, newly elected President Vladimir Putin has given mixed signals of his intentions in this area. The state's treatment of certain groups within Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the nation's privileged "traditional religions" – to the exclusion of others – is now routine. This is seen in school education, the military and the ability to meet for worship. Yet the most threatening development is use of the 2002 Extremism Law against those the authorities dislike, addressed in a separate Forum 18 "extremism" survey.

RUSSIA: "An attempt to revive total ideological control"

Russia's Council of Muslims has expressed outrage over the banning in one court hearing in Orenburg of 65 Islamic texts as "extremist". The ban was imposed in a 20-minute hearing on 21 March and came into force on 27 April, but only became known when copies of the decision were handed to Islamic publishers at a book fair in Kazan in mid-June. The Council condemned such religious book bans as "an attempt to revive total ideological control". Damir Mukhetdinov, first deputy chair of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of European Russia, told Forum 18 that the organisation has already spoken to the Presidential Administration of its concerns. "We are already deciding on our next steps and preparing documents for an appeal." Fr Georgy Maksimov, now a Russian Orthodox deacon but then a layman, conducted one "expert analysis" of the Islamic books for the FSB security service. He told Forum 18 that "having my own views does not prevent me from fulfilling my public duty as a citizen. I have qualifications in religious studies and conducted this expert analysis in this capacity."

UZBEKISTAN: Imminent expulsion for exercising religious freedom?

Despite being born, brought up and living in Uzbekistan, Jehovah's Witness Yelena Tsyngalova and her two teenage sons are facing imminent expulsion to Russia, in apparent punishment for exercising her freedom of religion or belief. As in similar previous cases, Uzbekistan is seeking to expel the family without formally deporting them. "Yelena knows no-one in Russia and has nowhere to go, plus she has a disabled mother here in Tashkent who would be left all alone," her fellow Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18 News Service. "She wants to stay here." Uzbek officials refused to discuss the family's expulsion with Forum 18. When Tsyngalova attempted to find out the reasons for her deportation with the head of the Sergeli District Visa Department, Utkir Buzakov, he threatened her with 15 days' imprisonment. When she told officials she had two teenage children and a mother who is an invalid, officials said she would have to take the two children with her. Although tickets for a Tuesday 12 June expulsion have been withdrawn, officials subsequently stated she will still be deported and this will not be delayed. Also, Tereza Rusanova, a Baptist from Uzbekistan who has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 2009, is facing criminal prosecution after she returned to Uzbekistan to renew her passport.

RUSSIA: Many long "extremism" trials, few convictions

A trial date is about to be named for 25-year-old Muslim Ramil Latypov, a court official at Orenburg's Lenin District Court in the Russian Urals told Forum 18 News Service on 5 June. Like many readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, Latypov is facing prosecution on "extremism"-related criminal charges. Like many such prosecutions, the case was initiated by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the regional Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Of criminal trials of 15 religious believers on "extremism"-related charges known to have been completed, only five individuals (all Nursi readers) ended up with prison terms, despite investigations and trials often lasting several years and the insistence of prosecutors that the individuals are dangerous. Five more received suspended prison terms. One (a Jehovah's Witness) was ultimately acquitted. The trial of the other four failed to reach a verdict within the two-year trial period allowed.

RUSSIA: Police raid and charge "people in strange clothes"

Police in Russia on 22 May raided a lecture for Izhevsk's Hare Krishna community, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "They were conducting a public event of the Hare Krishna Society – such events must be approved," police Captain Larisa Ignatyeva told Forum 18. A local Hare Krishna leader is now facing charges under Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession, or picket"). Captain Ignatyeva told Forum 18 that the raid – involving herself – took place after local residents "with small children" had complained to the police that they had seen "people in strange clothes" in the Polyclinic. Asked if the Hare Krishna devotees had disturbed the work of the Clinic or caused any disruption or harm to any Clinic users, she said they had not. Jehovah's Witnesses regularly face raids followed by cases under Article 20.2, some of which are thrown out, but normally only after stress and preparation time for those who should never be brought to court in the first place. A controversial draft Law, introduced after protests at the election of President Vladimir Putin, may massively increase the currently small Article 20.2 fines.

RUSSIA: "Suddenly this case comes and they are regarded as law-breakers"

At least 16 raids took place early on 4 May on Jehovah's Witness homes and places of worship in five towns in Russia's Orenburg Region, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The raids followed criminal investigation on "extremism"-related charges. Orenburg Region Investigation Committee press secretary Anzhelika Linkova told Forum 18 on 15 May that "there are no specific suspects at the moment, the facts are being established". Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov commented to Forum 18 on 14 May that "they have legally existed there for some two decades, and suddenly this case comes and they are regarded as law-breakers – it is all nonsense". Elsewhere, in Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, the FSB security service is continuing its attempts to prosecute Amir Abuev, a Muslim who reads Said Nursi's works, and to subject him to psychiatric examination. Abuev told Forum 18 after the latest summons for psychiatric examination that "I don't intend to go". And in Dagestan in the North Caucasus, Nursi reader Ziyavdin Dapayev continues to challenge a court order that around 70 Muslim books confiscated from him should be destroyed.

UZBEKISTAN: Continuing freedom of movement bans

Uzbekistan continues to impose bans on entry and exit from the country on people exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. The authorities also use the border crossing points for confiscating religious literature. Referring to bans on people taking part in the haj and umra pilgrimages, human rights defender Shaira Sadygbekova described the authorities, especially the Religious Affairs Committee, as "creating artificial barriers for ordinary Uzbeks". Khaitboy Yakubov of the Najot human rights organisation stating that such barriers are widespread. Among other violations are bans on exit visas for Muslims who have passed the stringent state approval procedures for going on state-organised pilgrimages, bans on Muslims joining waiting lists for these pilgrimages, bans on individual Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses leaving the country, and bans on Hare Krishna devotees and Christians entering the country. Officials have refused to discuss these human rights violations with Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Regional targeting of religious "sects"

New amendments in Kostroma Region ban and punish "propaganda of religious sects among minors". An official order in Arkhangelsk Region banned Jehovah's Witnesses from renting municipally-owned property. A deputy Education Minister in Bashkortostan warned educational leaders – using FSB security service information – against "destructive religions", such as Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses. The Health Department of Kurgan Region warned health institutions that Baptist leaders intend to "use the technology of hidden influence on the psychic state of citizens to increase the number of parishioners through the involvement of specialist doctors in the area of psychology and psychiatry". Although many of these official texts – seen by Forum 18 News Service – were subsequently revoked, religious communities say they reflect the attitudes of many local officials. "Such views are not just those of one official – many think like that," the regional Baptist presbyter in Bashkortostan told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: "They broke the law and have to answer before the courts"

Fifteen named Jehovah's Witnesses and "unidentified" others in the southern Russian town of Taganrog are being investigated in two criminal cases on "extremism"-related charges carrying prison terms of up to three years, according to case documents seen by Forum 18 News Service. These are the largest criminal cases against Jehovah's Witnesses launched in Russia since 1991, Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18. "I'm not saying these people are dangerous," Investigator Vitaly Pustynnikov, who launched the two cases, told Forum 18 from Rostov-on-Don. "But they broke the law and have to answer before the courts." Taganrog's main Jehovah's Witness community was declared "extremist" through the courts in 2009 and forcibly liquidated. At least twelve community members have faced house searches since August 2011 for "banned 'jehovist' literature" and membership documents. An officer of the FSB security service in Taganrog – which contributed material for at least one of the cases - explained to Forum 18 that the FSB counters "terrorism and extremism". However, he refused to specify to which category he believes Jehovah's Witnesses belong.

RUSSIA: Psychiatric examination, lawyer gagged, car tampering

Russia's FSB security service is seeking to have a Muslim being investigated on "extremism"-related criminal charges forcibly detained in a psychiatric facility for a psychiatric evaluation, after he refused to undergo one voluntarily, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Amir Abuev, a Muslim resident of the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, has been forced to sign a statement that he will not leave the city. "They're trying to prove he is mad, but he is a perfectly sane individual," his Moscow-based lawyer Sergei Sychev told Forum 18. Abuev's car has also been tampered with – despite his being under surveillance from the authorities - and Abuev's local lawyer has been obliged to sign an order banning them from discussing the case publicly until the investigation is completed. The FSB investigator has several times refused adamantly to discuss any aspect of the case with Forum 18. The 31-year-old Abuev - a reader of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi - denies any wrongdoing.

RUSSIA: "I've never encountered the practice of destroying religious literature before"

Judge Patimat Dadayeva in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan has ordered up to 70 copies of translations of 15 different Islamic books, by the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, to be destroyed. She refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why she ordered their destruction and refused to order other Islamic books seized from local Muslim Ziyavdin Dapayev to be returned. "This is blasphemy," Dapayev's lawyer Murtazali Barkayev told Forum 18. "I've never encountered the practice of destroying religious literature in Russia before." Four more works by Nursi were in March banned and placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Courts in several places in Russia are also seeking to ban more Jehovah's Witness publications. Elsewhere, prosecutors in Tomsk have today (21 March) failed in their appeal against an earlier court decision rejecting their suit to have the book The Bhagavad-gita As It Is declared extremist. This text is the most important book for Hare Krishna devotees. Tomsk Regional Prosecutor's Office will decide whether to appeal against the latest decision once the Regional Court has issued its full written decision, spokesperson Svetlana Krimskaya told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: One "extremism" criminal trial ends, others continue

After two years of investigation and trial hearings, Russian prosecutors have run out of time in their attempt to convict on "extremism"-related charges four Muslim readers of the works of theologian Said Nursi from Krasnoyarsk. However, criminal cases continue against other Muslim readers of Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses elsewhere in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes. Two of the defendents, Andrei Dedkov and Yevgeny Petry, cautiously welcomed the closure of the cases, though both stressed to Forum 18 that the decision has not been issued yet in writing. Both said that although this case is now closed, a new case could be launched at any time. Petry told Forum 18 the same day that he and his friends are still under surveillance and have their phone calls monitored. Dedkov noted that many of "our books" (Russian translations of Nursi's works) are still banned. A common factor in many of the Nursi reader and Jehovah's Witness cases is surveillance and raids by the FSB security service.

RUSSIA: Kaliningrad Muslim "extremist" ?

Amir Abuev, a resident of Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, is the latest Muslim to face a criminal case on "extremism"-related charges, after an 11 February FSB security service raid on his flat where local Muslims had gathered to pray the namaz (prayers). Participants told Forum 18 News Service they were questioned all night, while Abuev – a reader of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi - was detained for about 48 hours. Abuev's friends expressed concern that he – like other Muslims who read Nursi's works – could be imprisoned on "fabricated charges". FSB officers told the media Abuev belongs to the banned Nurdzhular movement. Like other Muslims who read Nursi's works, Abuev denied to Forum 18 that such a movement exists. The FSB security service investigator leading the case, Lieutenant Artyom Voychenko, declined to discuss the case. "I won't give you any information," he told Forum 18. The FSB security service also confiscated all Abuev's literature and DVDs with religious material in an illegal way.

RUSSIA: Prisoner of conscience freed but not exonerated

Seven months after being imprisoned in the Russian city of Orenburg, Muslim prisoner of conscience Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov was freed on 19 January at the end of his second appeal against his 18-month prison term, his lawyer Rauila Rogacheva and family members told Forum 18 News Service. A reader of the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi, Kelmukhambetov had been imprisoned on "extremism"-related charges which he rejected. The Regional Court changed his punishment from imprisonment into a fine, which he is not required to pay due to changes in the Criminal Code. Rogacheva told Forum 18 that "I don't agree with the verdict as Asylzhan has not been exonerated." She said she will continue to challenge Kelmukhambetov's conviction when she gets the written verdict, which generally takes a week to issue. Elsewhere, cases continue on "extremism"-related criminal charges against other Muslims who read Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses, who are also subject to raids on their meetings by officials. However, a magistrate in Udmurtia has upheld the rights of a local Jehovah's Witness community to meet for worship without notifying the authorities first.

RUSSIA: Appeal to be freed from jail due, but criminal prosecutions continue

After seven months' imprisonment in Russia, Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov is hoping that his second appeal against an 18-month jail term – due on 19 January at Orenburg Regional Court - will see him freed, his lawyer Raulya Rogacheva told Forum 18 News Service on 10 January. She said that: "Asylzhan has been in the prison hospital since his imprisonment suffering from the effects of diabetes. I saw him yesterday and he was the worst I have ever seen him." Although her client does not smoke, he is being held with others "who smoke constantly". She said that as a devout Muslim he only eats halal food, yet the warders bring whatever has been prepared, regardless of whether it meets his religious dietary requirements. The trial of four more Nursi readers on the same "extremism"-related charges resumes in a Krasnoyarsk court on 18 January. Muslim readers of Nursi's works frequently face prosecution under Criminal Code Article 282.2 ("Organisation of the activity of an extremist organisation"). Elsewhere in Russia, other criminal cases are continuing against people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. These include Jehovah's Witnesses, who are normally prosecuted under Criminal Code Article 282.

RUSSIA: One acquittal, but the same day trial of two more begins

The criminal trial in Russia of a Jehovah's Witness married couple, Andrei and Lyutsiya Raitin, on "extremism" charges under Criminal Code Article 282 is due to resume on 23 January. Jehovah's Witnesses describe the accusations as "baseless", and have pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that the same day the Raitins' trial began - 22 December 2011 – fellow Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov was finally acquitted on exactly the same charges. "Unlike Kalistratov, the Raitins held no position of responsibility in their local community," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18. "They're just ordinary members of the community". Article 282 continues to be used against Jehovah's Witnesses, and punishments under this article were increased in December 2011. Elsewhere in Russia, other criminal cases are continuing against people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. These include Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi, who are normally prosecuted under Criminal Code Article 282.2.

RUSSIA: Has "madness" of banning religious publications been stopped?

On 20 December 2011, Russia's Ambassador to India Aleksandr Kadakin agreed with widespread Indian outrage at attempts by prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk to declare the book the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is "extremist". "It is not normal either when religious books are sent for examination to ignorant people," Kadakin added, describing those seeking to ban the work as "madmen". Eight days later a Tomsk court finally rejected the prosecutor's suit. Yuri Pleshakov of Moscow's Hare Krishna community welcomed the ruling. "I hope the authorities will learn their lesson and that the case can now be forgotten," he told Forum 18 News Service. However, the prosecution case to ban a further Jehovah's Witness work resumes in court in Krasnodar Region on 16 January. 68 Jehovah's Witness publications and 15 works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi have already been ruled "extremist" and placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, making it illegal to distribute or store them for distribution.

RUSSIA: "This isn't about freedom of conscience or censorship"

Russian state censorship increasingly extended nationwide in November to cover Jehovah's Witness websites – and possibly also Hare Krishna sms announcements, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A Prosecutor's Office official claimed to Forum 18 that blocking the websites "isn't about freedom of conscience or censorship – it's about restricting access to extremist materials." Also, four more Jehovah's Witness publications have been banned nationwide by being added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Meanwhile, attempts to ban the Russian translation of a key book for Hare Krishna devotees – the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is – have been delayed. The reason is a delay for an unknown length of time in producing an "expert analysis" before the case can resume. Elsewhere, on 22 December an appeal is due to be heard after the second trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov on "extremism" charges. Also facing "extremism" charges is a Muslim reader of the works of theologian Said Nursi, Ilham Merazhov. He is challenging the search of his home and the launching of a criminal case against him.

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Fined for meeting for worship

Increasing numbers of people – mainly Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses without their own permanent buildings - are being fined or threatened with fines in Russia for organising or conducting meetings for worship which has not been specifically approved by the local authorities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Local police and prosecutor's offices insist that such permission is required, and bring cases under Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket"). The legality of these prosecutions under the Constitution and the Religion Law has been challenged, but it appears that around half of the prosecutions are successful. Inna Zagrebina of the Moscow-based Guild of Experts on Religion and Law told Forum 18 that she regrets that many such prosecutions are not legally challenged. However, one case, Aleksandr Nabokikh and Others v. Russia, was lodged at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in May. Residents of old people's homes have also occasionally been denied the right to have their co-religionists visit them.

RUSSIA: Raids on meetings for worship increasing?

Russian police and other security agencies appear to increasingly be raiding religious communities as they meet for worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police have often raided and searched places of worship – particularly of Jehovah's Witnesses – but not when services and meetings are underway. Raids on religious communities as they meet for worship are rarer, though these have increased. In September, four Jehovah's Witness communities in the Chuvash Republic, and one Muslim community in Belgorod Region, were raided as they met for worship. One Jehovah's Witness is now facing "extremism" criminal charges. In Belgorod, several hundred Muslims were in the middle of Friday prayers when police – some with weapons and wearing masks – broke up the service, claiming to be looking for illegal immigrants. Of more than 350 men present, more than 150 were taken to police stations. Only six were found to be in Russia illegally. "We ourselves have asked the police why they didn't wait until our prayers were over," community leader Ramazan Ramazanov told Forum 18. "We have had no reply yet."

RUSSIA: New sentences, raids, criminal cases

Criminal prosecutions on extremism-related charges of people in Russia exercising their freedom of religion or belief appear to be increasing, Forum 18 News Service notes. Six readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi were convicted at a two-hour trial on 11 October in Nizhny Novgorod. Three received prison terms, with Elshan Gasanov receiving one year's imprisonment. That same evening in Novosibirsk, police and FSB security service officers raided several homes looking for copies of Nursi's books. Several people were detained and later released. Two, Ilham Merazhov and Kamil Odilov, now face criminal charges. Meanwhile, Gorno-Altaisk District Court in Siberia has set 3 November for announcing the verdict in the long-running criminal trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov. These actions came as a trial continues aimed at banning the most important work for Hare Krishna devotees, the Bhagavad-Gita As it Is, as "extremist" literature. Devotees fear that they too could – like Muslims readers of Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses - face "extremism" charges leading to possible imprisonment.

RUSSIA: "How can a believer light a match to destroy holy books?"

Russian prosecutors are seeking to have the Russian translation of the most important work for Hare Krishna devotees – the Bhagavad-Gita As it Is - banned. "They are trying not just to declare our book extremist, but our religious teaching also. If they succeed, our community throughout Russia could be declared extremist", the community's lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecution "expert analyses" have been severely criticised. Meanwhile, an appeal court in Dagestan has ruled that works by the Muslim theologian Said Nursi should be handed to the Dagestan Muslim Board "for a decision on the question of the destruction of the banned books and pamphlets". Forum 18 notes that Russian law bans handing over state functions – such as this decision - to religious organisations. Dagestan's Muslim Board told Forum 18 they have not been given the books, and would not destroy them on state orders. Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson described the decision to Forum 18 as "incomprehensible", asking: "How can a believer light a match to destroy holy books?" Book confiscations and destructions have taken place in relation to both Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witness literature.

RUSSIA: "Unfortunately the judge did not agree with the prosecutor"

Rashid Abdulov, a Muslim who reads the works of theologian Said Nursi, told Forum 18 News Service he was pleased to have been freed on 7 September after nearly eight months' detention. But he rejects the extremism-related charges on which he was convicted and handed a one-year sentence of compulsory work. However, Ulyanovsk Regional Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 the sentence is too "mild" and will appeal "as we believe he deserves a four-year term in a labour camp". Fellow Nursi reader Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov's appeal is continuing in Orenburg against his 18-month prison term. A diabetes sufferer, he is in the prison hospital. His lawyer told Forum 18 that the judge rejected her request for him to be freed while the appeal is heard. Eight criminal cases on extremism-related charges are underway against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, four of the cases against named individuals. One is already on trial, while the cases of two more have just been handed to court.

RUSSIA: "The fantasy of the special services"?

Readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi claim prosecutors planted "evidence" of how to make explosives during a raid on a flat in Chelyabinsk where Muslim women meet to pray. Two Nursi readers – one of whom was running a summer school for local girls also raided - now face criminal prosecution. Nursi readers described to Forum 18 News Service claims that they were running schools for future suicide martyrs as "the fantasy of the special services". The Department for Especially Important Cases refused to discuss with Forum 18 why prosecutors had made accusations that the two women were preparing suicide bombers as if they were fact if the investigation has not been concluded. Meanwhile, the criminal case against four Nursi readers in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk has finally reached court after a 17-month investigation, with the preliminary hearing today (31 August). Only one of the four has been allowed to use his own lawyer. In the long-running trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov, prosecutors have called as prosecution witnesses two Russian Orthodox, neither of whom personally knows Kalistratov.

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.

RUSSIA: Orthodox can get Catholic and Lutheran churches – but Catholics and Lutherans can't

Seeking the return of the century-old Holy Family Catholic Church in Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad in vain over nearly two decades has been the local parish of the same name, which still worships in a temporary structure. However, the church – as well as former Lutheran churches and several castles – was suddenly handed to the Russian Orthodox, who have never owned them, under two local Laws. Catholic parish priest Fr Aleksandr Krevsky told Forum 18 News Service "there were hopes" earlier for the church's return, but now: "All lies in the hands of the Lord." Handing such property to the Orthodox is "fully justified", Inna Moreva of the Kaliningrad Government insisted to Forum 18. Asked why it was right that property confiscated during the Soviet period from Catholic and Lutherans was handed to another religious community, she responded: "You're not Russian, you won't understand." One Kaliningrad official told Forum 18 anonymously that the decision was unfair. "It was a surprise for us officials as well."

RUSSIA: City administration considered liquidation of religious community "necessary"

Intensive work by the city administration over many years against the Jehovah's Witness community in Gorno-Altaisk in southern Siberia was revealed by city official Irina Moshkareva in the criminal trial of local Jehovah's Witness leader Aleksandr Kalistratov. Despite a lack of written complaints against the organisation, administrative or criminal convictions or any official warnings to the Jehovah's Witness community, she told the court that she had prepared a January 2008 appeal from Mayor Viktor Oblogin to Altai Republic Supreme Court calling for the activity of the community to be halted and its organisation to be liquidated, a transcript of the hearing seen by Forum 18 News Service reveals. Asked by Kalistratov's defence why the move to halt the community's activity had been initiated, Moshkareva responded: "Because our leadership considered it necessary." No official was prepared to explain to Forum 18 why such a move – which the Altai Republic Supreme Court rejected – was initiated, and why officials then used Russia's 2002 Extremism Law to pursue the same aim.

RUSSIA: First post-Soviet criminal trial of Jehovah's Witness "ludicrous"

The first post-Soviet criminal trial in Russia of a Jehovah's Witness for sharing beliefs with others – which may conclude as soon as 17 December – is causing increasing alarm, Forum 18 News Service notes. Aleksandr Kalistratov is accused under the Criminal Code's Article 282, which the Prosecutor in defending the trial has described as "amorphous and so does not require concretisation". Mikhail Odintsov of the Office of Russia's Ombudsperson for Human Rights said he had read the charges and attentively listened to the evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor, but had "failed to find a single convincing conclusion". He described the trial's expert analysis as "unscientific" and concluded that relying on it "is fraught with further miscarriages of justice and may prove a detonator of mass violations of human rights". Prosecutors in other regions who have launched similar criminal extremism cases against Jehovah's Witnesses are awaiting the outcome of the Gorno-Altaisk trial before proceeding. Exactly the same extremism-related charges that Kalistratov is facing were used to convict Ilham Islamli, the first reader of the works of the late Muslim theologian Said Nursi to have been convicted under the Criminal Code.

RUSSIA: Presenting Islam as "the true faith" = extremism?

Muslims in Russia's Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk are challenging a court's designation as "extremist" another work by the Muslim theologian Said Nursi, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The verdict also declares the work liable to confiscation wherever it is found. However, the 2002 Extremism Law only permits the confiscation of material if it is published, distributed or stored with the aim of distribution. Krasnoyarsk's Zheleznodorozhny District Court declared that the Russian translation of "Tenth Word on the Resurrection of the Dead" is "extremist", after Krasnoyarsk Muftiate had published 500 copies of the book. A proof copy was sent by the FSB security service to the Rector of Viktor Astafyev University for analysis. The Court based its judgment on that analysis – but refused to accept another analysis refuting extremism claims by three experts in psychology and philosophy from Moscow State University. An appeal brought by the Muftiate is due to be heard by Krasnoyarsk Regional Court on 29 November.