RUSSIA: Moscow's Jehovah's Witnesses Go Back to Court Again.

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 15 June 2001

On 30 May the Moscow City Court set aside the ruling of the Golovinsky Intermunicipal Court of 23 February 2001 rejecting the application of the procuracy of the Northern Administrative District of Moscow for “the dissolution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious organisation in Moscow and the banning of its activity”. This latest ruling followed a 4 May submission by the procuracy asking for the ruling to be set aside. The City Court has now sent the case back for fresh examination under different judges. Artur Leontiev, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyer, forecasts that this fresh examination will take place no earlier than September. If, as is likely, another panel of expert witnesses is appointed the case could be delayed yet again. Until a definitive ruling is reached, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow will be without registration and unable to profess their faith without hindrance.

The procuracy’s submission claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ in Moscow violate international laws on human rights as well as Russian laws, since the literature it distributes contains signs of inciting religious strife and the demands prescribed in this literature, which are binding on members, cause the destruction of the family, infringe the person, rights and freedoms of citizens, promote suicide and draw children into the organisation’s activities. Yet the procuracy’s own appeal admits that “no specific instances of crimes committed by members of the organisation have been uncovered”.

The procuracy’s appeal was granted on 30 May by the Moscow City Court under the presidency of judge Lyudmila Sherstnyakova. The Lyubertsy court under her presidency had on 14 April 1998 gave custody of Natalya Nikishina’s child to the child’s father because the mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. That ruling was set aside only after Nikishina’s lawyers sent the case to the European Court of Human Rights (see KNS 9 February 1999).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ St Petersburg lawyer told Keston on 4 June that the procuracy’s appeal confirms the main finding of the Golovinsky Court that the violations listed are not founded on any facts, whilst the dissolution of a religious organisation or a ban on its activity can be based only on specific actions which are in violation of the law and attack rights and interests protected by the law. “Thoughts should not be punished; punishment is possible only for illegal actions,” insists lawyer Leontiev. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyers are waiting for the court’s detailed ruling, promised within a month, before submitting a complaint to the president of the Moscow City Court. The resumption of the hearing in the Golovinsky Court, possibly with the appointment of a new panel of expert witnesses, is to be expected no earlier than September.

Lawyer Leontiev told Keston that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are considering presenting a complaint at such an extended judicial examination to the European Court, since under articles 6 and 12 of the Convention everyone has the right to a fair judicial examination within a reasonable time. The length of the judicial examination in this case has led to violations of the rights of the Moscow religious congregation.

This court case has also been used to justify the refusal to reregister the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow as a religious organisation. Yaroslav Sivulsky, head of the public relations department of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in St Petersburg, told Keston on 30 April that when the leaders of the Moscow congregation submitted documents for reregistration the head of the Main Administration for Moscow of the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice, V. N. Zhbankov, told them: “Bring me the ruling of the Golovinsky Court when it comes into force and we will reregister you .” Since the ruling of the Golovinsky Court was appealed against by prosecutor Viktorov it has not come into force. Mr Sivulsky said that a number of lawsuits against the Moscow Administration of Justice for its failure to reregister were before the Moscow courts, but the hearings were constantly being deferred by the courts.

Vladimir Zhbankov, questioned by Keston, said that unfortunately he could not remember precisely for what reason the Moscow Jehovah’s Witnesses had been refused reregistration, as very many religious organisations in Moscow had been refused reregistration. Mr Zhbankov disagreed with Mr Sivulsky’s claim that the refusal was connected with the court case. “It wasn’t us who initiated the case against the Jehovists, it was the procuracy. Our Administration of Justice is involved in the case only as a third party,” he said.

Sergei Vasiliev, the head of the Moscow congregation, reports that the Moscow Land Committee has halted the processing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal documentation for the plot of land on which the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ only place of worship in Moscow is built and that rental agreements of premises for religious meetings in Moscow have been. (END)