RUSSIA: Jehovah's Witnesses: Prosecutor Calls for Country-wide Ban.

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 16 February 2001

At the court hearings in Moscow - which have resumed after a two-year break - over whether the Jehovah's Witnesses should be allowed to function the prosecutor insisted she was seeking not only the closure of the group in the Russian capital but a countrywide ban on its activity. However, one of the Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyers attacked the whole essence of the case. `The prosecutor's action is a blatant example of infringement of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Russian citizens, whose rights the prosecutor's office is supposed to defend,' Galina Krylova told the court. `The prosecutor is seeking to establish the precedence of the court over faith, which is dangerous in our multi-confessional country.' Krylova told Keston News Service on 13 February that the case was `part of the federal authorities' campaign against new religious movements'.

The civil case against the Jehovah's Witnesses - which resumed at the Golovinsky intermunicipal court on 6 February - was launched by the prosecutor of Moscow's Northern Administrative district in September 1998. It was suspended on 12 March 1999 to allow expert opinions on the group's literature to be gathered (see KNS 26 March 1999). Of the five specialists in religion, psychology and linguistics consulted, four supported the prosecutor's accusations, while the fifth rejected them. Jehovah's Witness lawyer Artur Leontiev argues this `takes the court proceedings back to square one'.

The Moscow justice administration, which is a third party in the case, supports the prosecutor. On 9 February Yelena Serebchuk of the justice administration admitted the experts had not cited a single illegal action, but stressed the Jehovah's Witnesses are a strong organisation with a well organised system of preaching and attracting new members. `Imagine what would happen if everybody in the country became Jehovah's Witnesses,' Serebchuk appealed to the judges in an apparent reference to the group's rejection of military service. `Who would defend the motherland?'

Prosecutor Tatyana Kondratyeva called for the ban on the group's activity across Russia in response to a question from the judge, Yelena Prokhorycheva. Over 360 Jehovah's Witness congregations have official registration in the country and on 29 April 1999 the Ministry of Justice re-registered the group's Administrative Centre, citing the expert opinion of the state religious studies commission, which Prokhorycheva refused to admit as evidence.

Prokhorycheva also rejected the defence petition to admit as evidence a survey of some 1000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow by the department of sociology of the family at Moscow State University, which discovered the faith had a positive influence on the stability of marriage. Jehovah's Witnesses were tolerant towards those who do not share their convictions, the survey found, and have a higher level of education than the city average. The court also rejected an investigation of their literature by the Institute of Russian Language of the Academy of Sciences, which refuted the prosecutor's accusations.

On 13 February expert witness Mariya Gromyko, a chief scientific worker of the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences, who belongs to the Orthodox Church, claimed that Jehovah's Witnesses' critical comments about Christian denominations kindle religious discord. She argued that a minority cannot criticise the majority as this leads to social destabilisation. However, Gromyko confirmed that the expert opinion was based on extracts from Jehovah's Witness publications and admitted the experts had not included positive statements encouraging tolerance of all regardless of their religious views.

Expert witness, Viktor Belyanin, a doctor of philology, insisted the group's doctrine does not correspond to that of the traditional faiths listed in the preamble to Russia's controversial 1997 religion law (which specifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism). He added that `Jehovah' does not appear in the Bible as a name of God, but conceded he had not read the whole Bible. After conducting a linguistic analysis of Jehovah's Witness texts, Belyanin discovered they contain 22% `light' vocabulary and 22% `dark' vocabulary – the remainder being neutral - concluding that overall their literature has a `negative effect' on the psyche.

On 14 February three more expert witnesses appeared. Sergei Nebolsin, a sector head at the Institute of World Literature of the Academy of Sciences, and Dmitri Leontiev, of the psychology faculty of Moscow State University, echoed the earlier expert witnesses. But Sergei Ivanenko, a religion specialist and consultant to the Federation Council, disagreed with the prosecutor, claiming the other four expert witnesses went beyond the bounds of science and expressed their own personal views. (END)