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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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RUSSIA: What's wrong with "extremist" Koran translation?

While many Muslims in Russia are outraged by a 17 September Novorossiisk court ruling banning as "extremist" a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran by Azerbaijani scholar Elmir Kuliyev, some Muslim organisations have welcomed the ruling. Their objections to Kuliyev's text – equally applicable to another translation they accept – suggest to Forum 18 News Service that long-standing rivalries between Russian Muslim organisations may lie beneath state moves against Kuliyev's work. Critics of the translation highlight his rendering of several ayats (Koranic verses), but Forum 18 notes that his rendering of them differs little from those of other widely-available Russian translations. Ravil Tugushev - a Muslim lawyer who has lodged an appeal against the Novorossiisk ruling - told Forum 18 he also compared Kuliyev's text with four other translations and found "no special differences between them".

RUSSIA: Muslims rush to challenge Koran "extremism" ruling

"It is a provocational decision – to destroy, and not just confiscate, the Holy Book of Muslims (..) and the court case and decision took ten minutes?!" Mufti Ravil Gainutdin of Russia's Council of Muftis wrote to President Vladimir Putin after a Novorossiisk court banned as "extremist" and ordered destroyed a widely-used Russian translation of the Koran. "Muslims are angered by this lawlessness." The secretary of Judge Gennady Chanov who issued the ban told Forum 18 he "does not give comments". Stressing that the copy of the Koran translation had not yet been destroyed, she refused to say who might destroy it, or how. Lawyer Ravil Tugushev has lodged an appeal. "Muslims' rights are being violated," he complained to Forum 18. Many Muslim, Jehovah's Witness and Falun Gong works have been banned as "extremist", with punishments for those who distribute them.

RUSSIA: Moscow Krishna devotees face eviction

Boxes of property at Moscow's only Hare Krishna temple are packed and labelled in order of priority, so that the congregation's most treasured items can be removed "within 15 minutes if the bulldozers come", the congregation's lawyer, Mikhail Frolov, told Forum 18 News Service. In November 2012, a court ruling ordering the Krishna devotees' eviction from the site came into force. Meanwhile, in May 2013 a Moscow city agency told them that building a new temple at an alternative site they had been allocated in 2007 would be "inexpedient" taking into account the opinions of local residents. Muslims and some Protestants have met similar difficulties acquiring or retaining property in the Russian capital. Pentecostals whose church was bulldozed in September 2012 now have to meet at three separate venues, the pastor told Forum 18. A Moscow city official dealing with religious issues declined to discuss these problems with Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Six-month "extremism" sentence for St Petersburg Nursi reader

After nearly six months in prison and a psychiatric examination, Shirazi Bekirov was sentenced in St Petersburg to six months in an open-regime prison. He is the thirteenth Muslim in Russia known to have received a criminal sentence for reading the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, many of which have been controversially banned in Russia as "extremist". A court official was unable to say exactly how Bekirov's activity was "extremist". However, she told Forum 18 News Service that Bekirov was freed on 2 September as he had already spent nearly the whole sentence in detention since his March arrest. A similar Nursi-related criminal case against three women in Chelyabinsk Region was halted after no conviction was reached within the required two-year period. Travel bans on them have now been lifted. However, Bekirov, the three women and other Nursi readers who have faced prosecution – whether or not they were convicted of any "crime" – appear on a Russian government "list of terrorists and extremists (current)".

RUSSIA: Parliamentary Religion Committee back in action

The increase in Russian legislative initiatives affecting freedom of religion or belief since President Vladimir Putin's May 2012 return appears partly due to renewed activism by the Committee on Social Associations and Religious Organisations of the Duma (parliament), Forum 18 News Service notes. The Duma is a rubber-stamp parliament endorsing any idea coming from Putin's Presidential Administration, Boris Falikov of the Centre for the Study of Religions at the Russian State University for the Humanities told Forum 18. "But initiatives in the religious sphere mostly conform to the personal convictions of the Committee's members". Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis noted in relation to "astoundingly nonsensical laws" that: "the 'anti-opposition' campaign begun since Putin's return to the Kremlin involves a kind of 'competition between initiatives', and basic technical control over these initiatives is much weaker than before".

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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".

RUSSIA: Is "negative evaluation of Christianity" a crime?

Four Jehovah's Witness publications have been ruled "extremist" by a Siberian court since the beginning of 2013, with rulings expected soon on a further four, Forum 18 News Service notes. One "expert" analysis used by the court uncovered "propaganda" of the superiority of citizens on religious grounds and incitement of religious discord. It also pointed to the publication's "negative evaluations of Christianity and its religious leaders", but gave no examples from the text itself. The publications are expected to appear soon on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. In April a court in Chelyabinsk is due to consider whether 95 further Jehovah's Witness works are "extremist". Fifteen more works by Islamic theologian Said Nursi and a Russian translation of a biography of him were added to the Federal List on 19 March. Individuals and communities who possess such works deemed "extremist" can be fined or even imprisoned.

RUSSIA: Familiar twist in anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign

Russian officials are reviving old tactics in their long-running campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A prosecutor in the Siberian city of Tobolsk opened a criminal case against local Jehovah's Witnesses alleging they "called upon citizens to refuse to perform their civic duties" and "motivated citizens to refuse vital medical treatment". The maximum punishment they might face if the case reaches court is four years' imprisonment. The prosecutor refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Police and FSB security service officers raided six Jehovah's Witness homes in Tobolsk and that of another local resident, seizing religious literature and other items. In December 2012 a court in Kemerovo refused a prosecutor's request to ban the local Jehovah's Witness community on similar grounds. Officials have failed to respond to Forum 18's repeated attempts to find out why Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who read Islamic theologian Said Nursi's works are targeted.

RUSSIA: What's the matter with Said Nursi?

The reasons for Russia's ongoing nationwide campaign against readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi have remained obscure, Forum 18 News Service notes. The state has offered weak or no explanations for banning as "extremist" 39 Nursi works and an alleged associate organisation, "Nurdzhular", which Nursi readers deny exists. Much of the state's argumentation is incoherent, with quite different reasons offered for banning Nursi writings and "Nurdzhular" in different contexts. Court materials seen by Forum 18 contain no evidence that either Nursi's writings or Muslims who read them advocate violence, despite claims to the contrary by officials. However, since the anti-Nursi campaign became apparent in 2005, clear patterns are emerging in the types of "evidence" offered. Considered together, these suggest that the campaign's primary cause is state opposition to "foreign" Turkish and American spiritual and cultural influence. Officials and others who support the bans have pointed to this in their public statements. But as this is not a criminal offence, weak allegations of "extremism" are instead offered in a legal context.

RUSSIA: Contradictions in "extremism" case against imams

Forum 18 News Service has found numerous inconsistencies in the Russian state prosecution's case against Ilhom Merazhov and Komil Odilov, the two imams facing criminal "extremism" charges in Novosibirsk. "The case should be examined in a legal, not political, manner - but many concepts being used aren't legal terms," Ilhom Merazhov, one of the imams, told Forum 18. "We're accused of 'gradual transformation of the personality', forming 'behavioural stereotypes' and 'new life values'. This doesn't make [legal] sense!" Aleksandr Tokarev, an officer in the police Counterextremism Department closely involved in the case, has refused to address the charges' many contradictions when contacted by Forum 18. For example, the charges include the claim that the two imams encouraged participation in "Nurdzhular", an alleged organisation with the claimed aim "to change the form of state government and introduce Muslim religious government on the basis of sharia". But some of the prosecution's evidence strengthens the imams' counterclaims that they reject violence. There are also numerous flaws in an "expert analysis" commissioned by the prosecution.

RUSSIA: "Extremism" trial of imams resumes

The trial of two imams serving with a major Russian Muslim organisation resumed today (27 February) in Novosibirsk. One of the imams, Komil Odilov, was questioned for the whole four-hour hearing, the other imam, Ilhom Merazhov, told Forum 18 News Service afterwards. Merazhov complained he was not permitted to ask questions about the substance of the case, such as the meaning of allegations that the imams had sought "Islamisation of the region" and formed a "conspiratorial medressah". "We acted within the boundaries of our religion and did not violate Russian laws," Merazhov insisted to Forum 18. "How can they say 'conspiratorial medressah'? It's Odilov's flat, he's the owner, he talks about God in his own flat and it's a crime! This is simply repression." Police officer Aleksandr Tokarev, who has been closely involved with the case, did not provide any specific examples when asked by Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about Merazhov and Odilov's activity. Tokarev referred Forum 18 to the charges against the pair: "It's all laid out there!" He declined to answer any further questions.

RUSSIA: Criminal charges to follow armed Tatarstan raids?

Armed and masked Russian law enforcement agents raided 23 homes of readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Tatarstan, in the early hours of 14 February, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "They took everything," one of those searched, Laura Khapinova, told Forum 18. "Anything where they saw the word 'Islam'." Two of those raided are under arrest on criminal charges of "extremism". Ilnur Khafizov is in police detention and Nakiya Sharifullina under house arrest, Khapinova told Forum 18. A uniformed investigator showed Khapinova and her flatmate a search warrant "for banned literature, drugs and weapons". One question put by interrogators was "Do you read or distribute extremist literature?", she told Forum 18. "They don't like the fact that guests come to our home to pray and read the Koran and other literature," Khapinova remarked. Tatarstan's Interior Ministry was unable to tell Forum 18 what was concretely "extremist" about the activity of those searched.

RUSSIA: Reduced state harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses?

Incidents of Russian police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses appear to be declining, Forum 18 News Service notes. However, Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov stated that the apparent reduction in such incidents could be because ordinary Jehovah's Witnesses are now less likely to report them. "At first they're outraged, yes. But the second and third time you get used to it and don't think anything about it, it becomes just 'a chat with the police'", he told Forum 18. Also, followers of faiths the authorities dislike won a victory in the Constitutional Court on 5 December 2012. It ruled that regulations obliging organisers to seek advance state approval for religious events should be loosened. The ruling followed prosecution of two Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgorod Region for meeting for worship without state approval. It should make the religious freedom situation of communities without access to designated houses of worship easier.

RUSSIA: Is anti-Jehovah's Witness campaign slowing?

Russia's efforts to convict Jehovah's Witnesses for criminal "extremism" appear to be weakening, Forum 18 News Service notes. "But we can't say the authorities have become more relaxed in principle," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov he remarked to Forum 18 in Moscow. "It's not clear how they will react next, what other methods they will seek." Incidents of police harassment against Jehovah's Witnesses are also reducing. Martynov's continued concern stems primarily from a criminal case against 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the southern Russian town of Taganrog. Forum 18 notes that local prosecutors have so far found it easier to convict Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works than Jehovah's Witnesses because they are deemed to belong to a banned "extremist" organisation. Even with Nursi readers - although one trial and several other criminal investigations continue - no "extremism" criminal convictions have been handed down since October 2011.

RUSSIA: Why is Falun Gong literature banned?

Russian Falun Gong practitioners have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg after their core spiritual text was ruled "extremist", Mikhail Sinitsyn, Falun Gong practitioner and lawyer, has told Forum 18 News Service. The appeal followed failure to overturn a December 2011 rejection of an earlier appeal by Krasnodar Regional Court. Extraordinarily, the Regional Court ruling directly contradicts its own earlier decision in Falun Gong's favour as "expert analyses" were "unfounded" and "one-sided". But in its December 2011 ruling, Krasnodar Regional Court ruled that Falun Gong texts are "extremist" on the basis that other "experts" in a report "confirm the conclusions" the same Court had earlier rejected. "We thought our case was so obvious that we could rely on our own courts, but it turned out not to be a legal issue but a political one", Sinitsyn commented to Forum 18. One of those involved, Sergei Shipshin, works for a state institution belonging to the Justice Ministry. However he insisted to Forum 18 that "we are independent experts".

RUSSIA: China-led restrictions on Falun Gong

Russia's small community of followers of the Chinese spiritual practice of Falun Gong face increasing state pressure, Forum 18 News Service notes. In 2005, officials refused to register a newspaper, citing provisions of the 2001 China-Russia treaty "On Neighbourly Relations, Friendship and Co-operation". The movement's core spiritual text "Zhuan Falun" has been included on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and courts have blocked access to websites containing the text. Four practitioners were detained in Vladivostok in July, while "anti-extremism" police summoned three local leaders in southern European Russia. In the latest deportations, two Ukrainian Falun Gong practitioners were barred from Russia in September when they tried to attend the movement's annual conference near Moscow. One had to move his wedding from Russia to Ukraine, as he told Forum 18. A similar Russian desire not to alienate the Chinese lies behind repeated denials of a Russian visa to the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

RUSSIA: Religious freedom "the only viable option for consolidating Russia's extraordinary diversity"

This is the second of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

RUSSIA: "The Kremlin's failure to uphold its own constitutional commitment to religious freedom"

This is the first of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

RUSSIA: Pussy Riot, blasphemy, and freedom of religion or belief

The way that Russia has handled the Pussy Riot case indicates that the authorities are using it to intensify restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. A shift from the Kremlin's initial response to the case suggests that a claimed moral outrage was not the motivation to prosecute, and that support for the Moscow Patriarchate is tactical. Since the Extremism Law was adopted in 2002, officials have used the same selective determination of what causes offence to persons of one worldview to restrict the freedom of religion or belief of people with a different worldview, as can be seen in prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses. This approach now also targets supporters of atheism. Arbitrary state prosecutions of some manifestations of religion or belief – such as by Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works - may soon be further strengthened by controversial proposed "blasphemy" amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Administrative Offences. The legal chaos proposed by state representatives after the Pussy Riot trial thus continues a well-established trend.

RUSSIA: Article 20.29 causes 60-day community ban, fines, and bookshop closure

Prosecutors often use Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences to try to punish individuals, religious communities and bookshops found to have religious literature which has controversially been banned, Forum 18 News Service has found. A court in Primorsky Region banned a Jehovah's Witness community for 60 days after a raid found 16 copies of their publications which have been placed on Russia's Federal List of Extremist Materials. A Muslim bookshop in Tolyatti was fined 50,000 Roubles (nearly 11 months' minimum wage) after a prosecutor and officers of the Police's Anti-Extremism Centre found two copies of books by a Turkish Sufi teacher. "The books have been banned and are on the Federal List, so they have to be seized. That's all," a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18. Verdicts often order confiscated literature to be destroyed.

RUSSIA: "The crime he is being accused of does not envisage the existence of victims"

Two separate criminal trials in Russia, on "extremism"-related charges, have started of Muslims who read the works of theologian Said Nursi, Forum 18 News Service notes. The sixth hearing in the trial of Ramil Latypov is due to begin in the southern Urals city of Orenburg on 22 October, and the trial of Farida Ulmaskulova, Gulnaz Valeyeva and Venera Yuldasheva in Chelyabinsk east of the Urals is due to resume on 26 November. Asked who had been the victims of Latypov's alleged "extremist" activity, a Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18 that there had been no victims, and none were appearing at the trial. Also, the criminal trial of a Jehovah's Witness in the southern Astrakhan Region has been adjourned. However, in Chuvashia in the central part of European Russia, Jehovah's Witnesses Igor Yefimov and Aleksei Nikolaev were freed from pre-trial detention. They are among five local Jehovah's Witnesses still facing "extremism" criminal charges for exercising their freedom of religion or 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.