A Lengthy Legal Struggle Ends in Victory!
IT BEGAN in 1995 and lasted for 15 years. During all that time, true Christians in Russia were under attack by opposers of freedom of religion. These opposers were determined to have Jehovah’s Witnesses outlawed in Moscow and beyond. Even so, Jehovah saw fit to reward the integrity of our dear Russian brothers and sisters with a legal victory. What, though, led up to this confrontation?
During the first half of the 1990’s, our brothers in Russia regained the religious freedoms that they lost in 1917. In 1991 they were registered by the government of the Soviet Union as an official religion. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered in the Russian Federation. Moreover, Witnesses who had suffered religious persecution decades earlier were officially recognized by the State as victims of political oppression. In 1993, Moscow’s Department of Justice registered the Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as we are legally known there. That same year, Russia’s new constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, also went into effect. No wonder that one brother exclaimed, “We never even dreamed we would see such freedom!” He then continued, “For 50 years we had waited for this!”
The brothers and sisters in Russia used that “favorable season” well by quickly stepping up their preaching activities, and many responded. (2 Tim. 4:2) “People were deeply interested in religion,” noted one observer. Before long, the number of publishers, pioneers, and congregations multiplied. In fact, from 1990 to 1995, the number of Witnesses in Moscow jumped from some 300 to over 5,000! As the ranks of new servants of Jehovah in Moscow kept swelling, opposers of religious freedom became alarmed. In the mid-1990’s, they attacked by instigating a legal war. That struggle would go through four drawn-out stages before it would finally be resolved.
CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIONS END WITH A TWIST
The first stage of the struggle began in June 1995. A Moscow-based group that is openly aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church filed a complaint accusing our brothers of engaging in criminal activities. The group claimed to be acting on behalf of family members who resented that their spouses or children had become Witnesses. In June 1996, investigators began searching for evidence of wrongdoing, but they found none. Still, the same group filed another complaint
“But then,” says a lawyer involved in the case, “something bizarre happened.” Although the representative of the prosecutor’s office that conducted this fifth investigation admitted that there was no evidence of criminal activity, she still advised that a civil suit be brought against our brothers. The representative alleged that the Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses violated national and international law. The prosecutor of the Northern Administrative Circuit of Moscow agreed and filed a civil complaint.* On September 29, 1998, hearings started in Moscow’s Golovinsky District Court. The second stage had begun.
THE BIBLE IN COURT
In a cramped courtroom in northern Moscow, Prosecutor Tatyana Kondratyeva launched the attack, using a federal law signed in 1997 that describes Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as traditional religions.* The same law, in practice, has made it difficult for other religions to obtain legal recognition. It also allows courts to ban religions that promote hatred. Using this law, the prosecutor falsely alleged that Jehovah’s Witnesses promote hatred and destroy families and therefore should be banned.
A lawyer defending our brothers asked: “Who are the individuals in the Moscow Congregation who are guilty of violating the law?” The prosecutor could not supply one name. She claimed, though, that the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses incites religious enmity. To prove her point, she read from the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and other publications (see above). When asked in what way these publications cause enmity, she said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that they have the true religion.”
A lawyer, one of our brothers, handed a copy of the Bible to the judge and a copy to the prosecutor and read Ephesians 4:5: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Before long, the judge, the prosecutor, and the lawyer
THE PROSECUTION FALTERS
In accusing the Witnesses of destroying families, the prosecutor stated that they do not celebrate such holidays as Christmas. However, she later admitted that Russian law does not require citizens to celebrate Christmas. Russians
The prosecution presented a professor of psychiatry as an expert witness. He alleged that reading our literature causes mental problems. When a defense lawyer noted that the professor’s written statement to the court was identical to a document prepared by the Moscow Patriarchate, the professor admitted that some parts were the same, word for word. “We work from one diskette,” he said. Further questioning revealed that he had never treated one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In contrast, another professor of psychiatry testified in court that he had studied more than 100 Witnesses in Moscow. He found that the group possessed normal mental health, adding that the members of the group had grown more tolerant of other religions since they had become Witnesses.
On March 12, 1999, the judge appointed five academics to study the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she suspended the trial. Unrelated to the Moscow trial, the Justice Ministry of Russia’s federal government had already ordered a panel of academics to study our literature. This panel commissioned by the Ministry reported on April 15, 1999, that they had found nothing harmful in our publications. So on April 29, 1999, the Justice Ministry renewed the national registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even with this new positive study in hand, the Moscow court insisted that a new panel examine our literature. This caused a strange situation
Nearly two years passed before the trial resumed, and on February 23, 2001, Judge Yelena Prokhorycheva reached a verdict. After considering the findings of the panel that she had appointed, she ruled: “There is no basis for the liquidation and banning of the activity of the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.” Finally, it was legally established that our brothers were innocent of all accusations leveled against them! However, the prosecutor rejected the verdict and appealed to the Moscow City Court. Three months later, on May 30, 2001, that court annulled the decision of Judge Prokhorycheva. It ordered a retrial to be handled by the same prosecutor but presided over by a different judge. Stage three was about to begin.
On October 30, 2001, Judge Vera Dubinskaya began the retrial.* Prosecutor Kondratyeva rehashed the charge that Jehovah’s Witnesses promote hatred, but then she added that banning the legal community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was a means to protect the rights of the Witnesses in Moscow! In response to that outlandish claim, all 10,000 Witnesses in Moscow immediately signed a petition asking the court to reject the prosecutor’s offer of “protection.”
The prosecutor stated that there was no need for her to provide evidence to prove that the Witnesses were guilty of wrongdoing. The trial, she said, was about the literature and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not their activities. She announced that she would present a spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church as an expert witness. Of course, that announcement confirmed that members of the clergy were indeed deeply involved in the drive to ban the Witnesses. On May 22, 2003, the judge ordered that a panel of experts study the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses
On February 17, 2004, the trial resumed to review the results of the panel’s study. The experts found that our publications encourage readers to “preserve the family and the marriage arrangement” and that the claim that our literature promotes hatred was “unsupported.” Other scholars agreed. A professor of religious history was asked: “Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses preach?” He answered the court: “The preaching work is a must for a Christian. That is what the Gospel states and that is what Christ commissioned his disciples to do
How did the brothers react to the ban? Much like Nehemiah of old. In his day, when enemies of God’s people opposed his efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, Nehemiah and his people did not let themselves become sidetracked by any form of opposition. Instead, they “kept building” and “continued to have a heart for working.” (Neh. 4:1-6) Similarly, our brothers in Moscow did not let opposers sidetrack them from the work that is to be carried out today
INCREASE IN HOSTILITY
On August 25, 2004, our brothers delivered a petition to the Kremlin addressed to Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia. The petition, expressing deep concern about the ban, consisted of 76 volumes and contained over 315,000 signatures. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox clergy showed their true colors. A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy declared: “We are very much against the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” A Muslim leader said that the ruling on the ban was “a milestone and positive event.”
Not surprisingly, deluded elements of Russian society felt emboldened to attack Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some Witnesses sharing in the preaching work in Moscow were punched and kicked by opposers. An enraged man chased a sister out of a building and kicked her so violently in the spine that she fell and hit her head. She required medical help; yet, the police took no action against her attacker. Other Witnesses were arrested by the police, fingerprinted, photographed, and held in custody overnight. Managers of meeting places in Moscow were threatened with dismissal if they continued to rent their halls to the Witnesses. Before long, numerous congregations lost their rented meeting places. Forty congregations have had to share the same Kingdom Hall complex of four halls. One congregation using that facility had to hold the Public Meeting at half past seven in the morning. “To attend, the publishers had to get up at five o’clock,” related a traveling overseer, “but they did so willingly for more than a year.”
“FOR A WITNESS”
To establish that the Moscow ban was unlawful, in December 2004 our lawyers sought relief from the European Court of Human Rights. (See the box “Why a Russian Verdict Is Reviewed in France,” on page 6.) Six years later, on June 10, 2010, the Court handed down a unanimous decision completely exonerating Jehovah’s Witnesses!* The Court took note of all accusations made against us and found them to be totally groundless. It also stated that Russia had a legal obligation to “put an end to the violation found by the Court and to redress as far as possible the effects.”
The Court’s well-articulated conclusions on how the European Convention on Human Rights protects the practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses are binding not just on Russia but also on the 46 other nations that are members of the Council of Europe. Even more than that, because of the breadth and scope of the analysis of the law and the facts, it will be read with interest by legal scholars, judges, legislators, and human rights specialists around the world. Why is this? In reaching its decision, the Court referred not only to eight decisions it had previously handed down in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses but also to nine victories earlier won by Jehovah’s Witnesses before the highest courts of Argentina, Canada, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These references and the Court’s robust refutations of the accusations made by the Moscow prosecutor provide the worldwide community of Jehovah’s Witnesses with a powerful tool to use in defense of their faith and practices.
Jesus told his followers: “You will be haled before governors and kings for my sake, for a witness to them and the nations.” (Matt. 10:18) The legal struggle that took place during the last decade and a half offered our brothers the opportunity to make Jehovah’s name known as never before in Moscow and beyond. The attention focused on the Witnesses by the investigations, the court cases, and the verdict of an international court has indeed been “for a witness” and has contributed to “the advancement of the good news.” (Phil. 1:12) In fact, when the Witnesses in Moscow share in the preaching work today, many householders react, saying, “But did they not ban you people?” That question often gives our brothers an opportunity to provide the householders with more information about our beliefs. Clearly, no opposing force can stop us from our Kingdom-preaching activity. We pray that Jehovah continues to bless and sustain our beloved and courageous brothers and sisters in Russia.
The complaint was filed on April 20, 1998. Two weeks later, on May 5, Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The law was adopted under strong pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, which is jealously guarding its position in Russia and is eager to see a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Ironically, that same date marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of a law in Russia that recognized Jehovah’s Witnesses as victims of religious oppression under Soviet rule.
The ban liquidated the registered legal entity used by the congregations in Moscow. The opposers hoped that the liquidation would hamper our brothers in carrying out their ministry.
On November 22, 2010, a five-judge panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights rejected Russia’s petition requesting that the case be referred to the Court’s Grand Chamber. In doing so, the June 10, 2010, judgment became final and enforceable.
Why a Russian Verdict Is Reviewed in France
On February 28, 1996, Russia signed the European Convention on Human Rights. (On May 5, 1998, Russia ratified the Convention.) By signing that treaty, Russia’s government declared that its subjects have
‘the right to freedom of religion and the right to practice their religion at home and in public and to change their religion if they want to do so.’
‘the right to say and write in a responsible way what they think and to give information to others.’
‘the right to take part in peaceful meetings.’
Individuals or organizations who are victims of violations of the treaty and who have exhausted all domestic legal avenues can bring their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France (shown above). It is made up of 47 judges
[Box on page 8]
The Court’s Judgment
Here are three brief excerpts from the Court’s judgment.
One charge alleged that Jehovah’s Witnesses break up families. The Court decided otherwise. It stated:
“It is the resistance and unwillingness of non-religious family members to accept and to respect their religious relative’s freedom to manifest and practise his or her religion that is the source of conflict.”
The Court also found no evidence to support the charge of “mind control,” stating:
“The Court finds it remarkable that the [Russian] courts did not cite the name of a single individual whose right to freedom of conscience had allegedly been violated by means of those techniques.”
Another charge stated that by not accepting blood transfusions, Jehovah’s Witnesses damage the health of believers. The Court ruled to the contrary, stating:
“The freedom to accept or refuse specific medical treatment, or to select an alternative form of treatment, is vital to the principles of self-determination and personal autonomy. A competent adult patient is free to decide, for instance, whether or not to undergo surgery or treatment or, by the same token, to have a blood transfusion.”