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
21 March 2012
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.
5 March 2012
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.
1 March 2012
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.
20 January 2012
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.
12 January 2012
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.
10 January 2012
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.
5 January 2012
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.
2 December 2011
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.
7 November 2011
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.
28 October 2011
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.
24 October 2011
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."
14 October 2011
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.
10 October 2011
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.
12 September 2011
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.
31 August 2011
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.
25 July 2011
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.
19 July 2011
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.
30 June 2011
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".
29 June 2011
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.
21 June 2011
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".
20 April 2011
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.
13 April 2011
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.
24 March 2011
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.
1 March 2011
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".
11 February 2011
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.
4 February 2011
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.
14 December 2010
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."
1 December 2010
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.
30 November 2010
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.
29 October 2010
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.
22 September 2010
RUSSIA: Will Russia extradite reader of Muslim theologian to Uzbekistan?
Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov, an Uzbek reader of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi, has been arrested in Russia after a request from Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. He fled Uzbekistan after being warned his arrest was likely, after his brother, another reader of Nursi's works, was given a six year jail sentence. A prosecution official told Forum 18 that the extradition decision will be taken by the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow. Yelena Ryabinina of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute told Forum 18 that "people are being sought and prosecuted not because of any extremist actions, but because of what they read. The Uzbek authorities regard any religious or political dissidence or independent activity as a threat that must be crushed", she told Forum 18. "There is an international ban on extraditing individuals to countries where torture is practised – and Russia should abide by this. We are ready to take this case as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if we have to," she added.
7 September 2010
RUSSIA: Congresses disrupted, website blocked
Police and local officials who disrupted a Jehovah's Witness congress in southern Russia in July used cars, dustcarts and power cuts to prevent it from going ahead, before sealing off the building on alleged security grounds, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Other congresses elsewhere were disrupted or blocked. "Everywhere the pattern's the same," Jehovah's Witness Grigory Martynov told Forum 18. "The police seal the building saying they're looking for a suspicious item. When nothing is found, it doesn't matter – the main point is to disrupt the congress." Meanwhile, as part of a crackdown on websites with "extremist content", a court in the Russian far east has – for the first time - ordered an internet service provider to block local access to the Jehovah's Witnesses' Watchtower website. Other sites – including YouTube – have also been ordered blocked on prosecutors' suits, but Valentina Glazova of Khabarovsk Regional Prosecutor's Office denies that these represent censorship. "Our office supervises the implementation of the law," she told Forum 18. "Access to extremist material on websites should be blocked." As of 7 September, the Russian Federation had not challenged a European Court of Human Right ruling in favour of Moscow's Jehovah's Witness community, which becomes final on 10 September.
26 August 2010
RUSSIA: First criminal charges against Jehovah's Witnesses, Nursi reader sentenced
Ilham Islamli has become the first reader of the works of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi – some of which are banned in Russia - to be convicted under the Criminal Code and punished under extremism-related charges, Forum 18 News Service notes. After two months' pre-trial detention, Islamli was given a suspended sentence on 18 August by a court in Nizhny Novgorod for publishing Nursi's works in Russian on a website he ran. A criminal case against another Nursi reader continues in Dagestan, though the case against a third has been dropped. For the first time, extremism-related criminal cases have now also been opened against three named individual Jehovah's Witnesses. Launched after mass raids on his congregation, the case against Jehovah's Witness Maksim Kalinin is said to have involved FSB security service surveillance using a secret video camera in his home, as well as their tapping of telephone calls made by seven other Jehovah's Witnesses. In Altai Republic, extremism charges have already been brought against local Jehovah's Witness leader Aleksandr Kalistratov, who faces possible imprisonment of up to three years if convicted.
12 August 2010
RUSSIA: "A plan of organisational and operational search measures"
Russian state officials have repeatedly refused to explain why and by whom moves against Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi were initiated. Forum 18 News Service notes that internal government documents, from a wide geographic spread of regions, reveal that the campaign is co-ordinated at a high level. Both Jehovah's Witnesses and Nursi readers have been targeted in ways that suggest that their believers and communities are closely watched by the police and FSB security service – both within and outside their communities. One police document cites "a plan of organisational and operational search measures to expose, warn and stop the illegal activity of representatives of the religious organisation the Jehovah's Witnesses". Another document refers to an Interior Ministry directive "with the aims of securing law and order, anti-terrorist protection and security at especially important and government sites, and aggression in countering the intrusion of xenophobia, and racial and religious extremism". A further document reveals that police shared "operational information" about a named Jehovah's Witness with a Russian Orthodox Church diocese. Private employers and public libraries have also been ordered to co-operate in the campaign.
4 August 2010
RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witness war veteran prosecuted for extremism
An 85-year-old veteran of the Second World War is the first Russian Jehovah's Witness known to have been prosecuted for "production and distribution of extremist materials", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The prosecution is the latest turn in the ongoing nationwide state campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses. Aleksei Fedorin, the veteran, denied the charges, explaining that police gathered various Jehovah's Witness titles he distributed for several years before they were banned, and that he was ill on the recent days he is alleged to have distributed them. Fedorin was also interrogated for eight and a half hours continuously, although he suffers from dizziness and faints. The judge in the case refused to comment on her decision to Forum 18. Earlier prosecutions for producing and distributing religious literature have involved controversially banned Islamic titles. Previous cases against Jehovah's Witnesses have rested on little-used provisions of some regional Administrative Codes. In at least one case, an attempt appears to have been made to recruit a Jehovah's Witness as an FSB informer.
2 August 2010
RUSSIA: Baptist and Jehovah's Witness worship services raided
Worship services of Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered recent raids by Russian law enforcement agencies, many involving the FSB security service, Forum 18 News Service has learned. After the latest, 9 July raid on Jehovah's Witness worship, officials - including an FSB officer and two Prosecutor's Office investigators – found nothing illegal but still held back all who had taken part in the service, writing down their names, addresses and telephone numbers. From 12 July, investigators interrogated more than 20 congregation members, proving most interested in the structure of the community, its aims and goals, members' religious convictions and the distribution of religious literature. A Baptist congregation similarly treated was given as authority a poorly photocopied court decision justifying the raid "in view of the fact that meetings of an unregistered religious organisation" were held in the raided building. Russian law does not require religious communities to register or seek state permission for home worship. Officials have been unwilling to discuss their actions with Forum 18.
27 July 2010
RUSSIA: Traffic Police start searches for religious literature
Russia continues to stop and search Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of Said Nursi's works for literature banned under anti-extremism legislation. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that a new development is the use of the Traffic Police - which is not part of the ordinary police, but is also under the Federal Interior Ministry - to conduct such searches. In another new development, police officers seized a Nursi title which is not one of the banned titles on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. They justified this by claiming that the text is identical to a banned title. A legal case following the seizure is pending. Police refused to tell Forum 18 how they knew that three minibuses they stopped and searched contained Jehovah's Witnesses, or how they knew that a person detained on arrival at Novosibirsk railway station would be carrying translations of works by Said Nursi. In another development, imports of every print edition of two Jehovah's Witness magazines - "The Watchtower" and "Awake!" - and not just editions on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, have been banned in Russia. An official denied to Forum 18 that this is censorship.
26 July 2010
RUSSIA: Outdoor activity harassed, banned and violently attacked
Outdoor public religious activity by Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees and Protestants has resulted in harassment by the police, repeated bans, and in one case a refusal to defend a Protestant meeting against violent attack involving stun grenades, Forum 18 News Service notes. The categories of activity targeted subdivide into very small groups of people sharing their beliefs with others in conversation in the street - normally Jehovah's Witnesses or occasionally Protestants - and outdoor public meetings or worship. By far the most common form of harassment takes place against pairs of Jehovah's Witnesses, and can involve unduly severe treatment of elderly or infirm people. Hare Krishna devotees in both Smolensk and Stavropol regions have experienced repeated banning of outdoor meetings, on grounds such as that they "inconvenience tourists on the way to the drinking fountains". Baptists in Rostov Region have experienced an attempted ban on a street library. Baptists in Tambov Region were banned from holding evangelistic concerts in a village, and when they were attacked with stun grenades by unknown people police did nothing to defend them.
19 July 2010
COMMENTARY: RUSSIA: Art curators' verdict not isolated instance – this is a system
The conviction of art curators Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev is the most high-profile symptom of the problems flowing from Russian anti-extremism legislation, notes Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. This legislation has been used to target religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi, suggesting that these uses of anti-extremism law are not isolated instances – this is a system. Only indifference to religion prevents people worried by restrictions on freedom of speech from noticing the growing proportion of anti-extremism cases relating to religion. Particularly disturbing is the precedence given to the catch-all legal concept of 'religioznaya rozn' (religious discord) over the narrower 'religioznaya vrazhda' (religious enmity), as this allows criminalisation of legitimate criticism of others' worldviews. There must be, Verkhovsky argues, a re-examination of anti-extremism legislation, or at least a clear Supreme Court explanation conforming to international human rights standards.
12 July 2010
RUSSIA: Will Jehovah's Witness and Armenian-rite Catholic court victories be respected?
Both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Armenian-rite Catholic parish in Moscow have recently won legal victories in defence of their right to exist, Forum 18 News Service notes. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg rejected allegations that the Jehovah's Witnesses destroy families and infringe the rights and freedoms of citizens and which were used to attempt to ban their community in Moscow. The ECtHR also found that the excessive length of court proceedings against the community violated the right to a fair trial. However the Jehovah's Witnesses have submitted another complaint to the ECtHR, this time against a Supreme Court ruling outlawing 34 Jehovah's Witness titles as extremist and dissolving their community in Taganrog. This paved the way for the current nationwide wave of raids, detentions, literature seizures and other violations of freedom of religion or belief against Jehovah's Witnesses. Separately, Armenian-rite Catholics won a case in Moscow against a city decision not to register their parish. The city Justice Department has appealed in Moscow against the judgment, but no date has yet been set for the appeal hearing.
7 July 2010
RUSSIA: Pre-trial detentions of Muslim and Jehovah's Witnesses
Ilham Islamli, a reader of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi, has been held since 18 June on charges of inciting religious hatred for posting Nursi's works on a website, Forum 18 News Service has learned. It is unknown when the case might reach court. "It will happen this year," is all Investigator Vladimir Chernobrovin would tell Forum 18. Asked who might have suffered from Islamli's posting of some works by Nursi, Investigator Chernobrovin responded: "Asking who suffered or not is not relevant. The investigation is based on the court decisions banning Nursi's works." Meanwhile, two Jehovah's Witness women, Anna Melkonyan and Mariya Zubko, were freed on 1 July after 56 days' pre-trial detention but are still facing prosecution on accusations of theft. The two women, their lawyers and Russia's Jehovah's Witness community insist that the two were not involved in burglaries which took place in the town of Lobnya in Moscow Region. Melkonyan's lawyer, Natalya Medved, told Forum 18 that it is not clear whether the two women's faith led the police to accuse them of the burglaries. "It could be that it's not just because they are Jehovah's Witnesses. The police can't find the real criminals, so they believe that as foreign citizens the two women won't have anyone to defend them."
7 June 2010
RUSSIA: Ghostlike existence for Dagestan's Protestants
The Hosanna Church – the largest Pentecostal Church in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan – had a five-year agreement allowing prison visits abruptly cancelled in early 2010, Pastor Artur Suleimanov told Forum 18 News Service. The authorities have also changed their earlier positive assessment of the church's work with drug addicts. He believes such problems result from the personal initiative of individual officials. Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs insists that the authorities impose no restrictions on churches' social work. "If the Protestants' activity is in line with the law, there are no problems at all," he told Forum 18. Three Pentecostal pastors told Forum 18 that their congregations' lack of freedom was overwhelmingly due to public attitudes, which prevent some church members from attending Sunday worship even at openly functioning churches in urban locations. One village police chief who stopped Protestants meeting pointed to the mosque and told Pastor Suleimanov: "That's my law."
3 June 2010
RUSSIA: Dagestan's religious freedom policy changing?
Islamist insurgents from Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have stepped up their attacks in recent months. However, Forum 18 News Service notes that the local state authorities appear to have realised that responding to this with harsh restrictions on the religious freedom of Muslims has proved futile and counter-productive. "The authorities are beginning to understand that they can't keep raiding everywhere and trying to control things in that way, that constant pressure doesn't make people regard them positively," local human rights lawyer Ziyautdin Uvaisov told Forum 18. "Physical elimination doesn't go anywhere," Shamil Shikhaliyev of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed, "we've been destroying them [alleged Islamist militants] for ten years now but there are more and more - like the Hydra, you chop off one head and two more appear." Nevertheless, under current republican law the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan still has a monopoly on all Muslim life in the republic, including on religious literature distribution and education. Many in Dagestan's political and Muslim establishment also remain wary of a change in policy, due to frequent insurgent murders of their colleagues.
2 June 2010
RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic education
Legal provisions in the Russian North Caucasus republic of Dagestan restricting religious education are a major element in the near monopoly on Muslim public life enjoyed by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Some local Muslims maintain that the restrictions prevent qualified people from teaching. "You might have a very well-educated imam returning from Syria or Egypt who is a classic convinced Shafi'i Muslim in line with Dagestan's tradition," Shamil Shikhaliyev, head of the Oriental Manuscripts Department at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Dagestan branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Forum 18. "But he won't get a position at a mosque because it is the unwritten law of the Directorate that anyone who studied abroad is Wahhabi and can't become an imam." One local human rights defender, Ziyautdin Uvaisov, has described how those disagreeing with the Directorate's line who have tried to study in its educational institutions usually ended up either leaving or being expelled.
26 May 2010
RUSSIA: Dagestan's controls on Islamic literature
Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan does not formally ban particular items of Islamic literature, but it grants the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan exclusive vetting powers over what is circulated, Forum 18 News Service has found. The restrictions are not always enforced. In practice, Islamic literature which does not display an endorsement from the Directorate is regarded with suspicion. There are limited opportunities to buy or sell such literature, as all mosques and prominent Islamic bookshops come under Directorate control. For Dagestan's many practising Muslims, easy access to information on Islam is thus limited to a relatively narrow range of viewpoints. Possession of "unapproved" books may mean the authorities identify their owner as a "Wahhabi extremist". Directorate bookshops carry many pamphlets condemning so-called Wahhabism in a way similar to Orthodox anti-sectarian brochures, with titles such as "Caution, Wahhabism!" and "Confessions of An English Spy". Only Arabic texts of the Koran are on sale. This starkly contrasts with the stock of a small independent Islamic bookshop visited by Forum 18.
25 May 2010
RUSSIA: Dagestan's Sufi monopoly
The authorities in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have imposed a near monopoly on Islam by a narrow strand of Sufism, Forum 18 News Service has found. The monopoly – imposed in an effort to counter the local Islamist insurgency - is not absolute, but it dramatically reduces the public space allowed for Muslims who do not wish to subjugate themselves to the one permitted Spiritual Directorate. By reinforcing the perception that only Muslims with legal status under the Spiritual Directorate are legitimate, it has fuelled persecution of other Muslims by law-enforcement agencies, local Muslims told Forum 18. A series of local provisions combine to give the Directorate legal control over Muslim public life in Dagestan, permitting only one umbrella organisation per confession. Local religious communities require the endorsement of this umbrella organisation – in Islam's case, the Directorate - to register. Religious literature and education are particularly restricted, although to varying degrees in practice. However, there are signs that the authorities are considering loosening the Directorate's control.
5 May 2010
RUSSIA: Does Dagestan need its anti-Wahhabi law?
Rasul Gadzhiyev, departmental head of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs, defends the southern Russian republic's 1999 local law banning Wahhabism: "no one's talking about annulling it – no way," he insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Yet he could not state definitively why it was needed in addition to Russia's 2002 Extremism Law. Local scholar of the Russian Academy of Sciences Shamil Shikhaliyev told Forum 18 that many in Dagestan now believe the Law to be a mistake "because in practice it determines the state's priorities in the religious sphere". By outlawing Wahhabism as a religious trend, he explained, the state in effect endorsed other forms of Islam. "But who gave the state the right to judge what is correct and what is incorrect in Islam?"
4 May 2010
RUSSIA: Muslim community leader kidnapped by Dagestan authorities?
Sirazhudin Shafiyev, a Muslim who led negotiations on behalf of the Salafi group in a divided mosque community in 2005 in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, was abducted in September 2009 and has not been seen since. Family members told Forum 18 News Service they suspect he was seized and killed by the security services in connection with his religious activity, complaining that those who follow their interpretation of Islam are "persecuted". Rasul Gadzhiyev of Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs rejects such allegations of kidnapping and murder, telling Forum 18 "no one is going to pursue you if you haven't committed a crime prosecutable by law." Yet the authorities admit maintaining lists of suspected "Wahhabis". Even Dagestan's state-backed Muslim Spiritual Directorate objects to the lists. Its spokesman complained to Forum 18 that anyone who attends a mosque morning and evening "goes on a police list".
25 March 2010
RUSSIA: Who initiated anti-Jehovah's Witness and anti-Nursi campaigns?
Despite many enquiries, Forum 18 News Service has been unable to establish which Russian government agency or individual initiated the campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses and readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and why. An Interior Ministry official – who did not give his name – told Forum 18 that "the police don't decide these things for themselves. Someone else has to give the order, perhaps a prosecutor. The police just carry out the order." The official insisted that the moves against Jehovah's Witnesses are "centralised", but declined to speculate on which agency or agencies were involved. The official ended the call before Forum 18 could ask about the campaign against Nursi readers. Contrary to this, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev of the presidential Council for Co-operation with Religious Organisations rejected any suggestion of a "centralised" campaign. Jehovah's Witnesses have documented increasing numbers of short-term police detentions of their members.
23 March 2010
RUSSIA: Lutheran extremists?
After initially denying it, Officer Senichev (who refused to give his first name) of Kaluga Police in central Russia admitted to Forum 18 News Service that eleven armed officers with dogs had interrupted the 28 February Sunday morning service of St George's Lutheran congregation. "We had a call on the hotline that extremist literature was there. We're obliged by law to investigate all such calls." He was unable to specify which Russian law requires the police to respond to anonymous calls. Senichev was also unable to say why, if extremist literature was believed to be present, police officers conducting a search needed to be armed and accompanied by dogs. Nor was he able to explain why the search was conducted during the church's Sunday worship service. The preacher at the service, Pastor Igor Knyazev, later wrote an article entitled "How to behave during raids". Meanwhile, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that an administrative fine on two members in Krasnodar Region was accompanied by the first official order in post-Soviet Russia to destroy their confiscated literature.