RUSSIA: Moscow Jehovah's Witness Trial Resumes.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 1 November 2001

The repeat hearing of the case initiated by the procuracy of the Northern Administrative District of Moscow 'to dissolve the Jehovah's Witness religious organisation in Moscow and to ban its activity' opened in the Golovinsky intermunicipal court in Moscow on 30 October. As at the previous hearing, the case is based on the organisation's literature which the procuracy argues 'inflames religious discord, destroys families and disposes to suicide', as does the organisation, but not the ordinary members, who could apparently profess their faith even after the organisation is closed down.

The Golovinsky court under judge Yelena Prokhorycheva rejected the procuracy's case on 23 February 2000, but this decision was set aside by the Moscow City Court on 30 May 2001 and the case returned for a new hearing under a different judge (see KNS 15 June). This time the judge is Vera Dubinskaya. The procuracy is again represented by Tatyana Kondratieva. The defence is represented by lawyers Galina Krylova, Artur Leontiev and John Burns as well as Drew Holiner from the congregation. The Moscow justice department is again represented as a third party by Yelena Fillipchuk.

The hearing promises to be just as long as the first, which lasted 45 days. Thirty witnesses have already been listed. There was no space in the small court-room even for the elders of the Moscow Jehovah's Witness congregation. However, Kondratieva objected to moving to a larger room: 'From our side Orthodox Christians are even more, but we are not asking for all to be present.' The procuracy also listed a 'representative of the Orthodox Church', Aleksandr Dvorkin, in addition to witnesses and experts in religion and psychology, casting doubt on Kondratieva's claim that the case is not about faith.Kondratieva admitted that there have been no cases of law-breaking by Jehovah's Witness members: 'it is a question of dissolving a legal entity in consequence of its violations of the laws of Russia'. As well as citing as evidence the group's literature, the procuracy also referred to Russia's national security concept requiring that the 'negative influence of foreign religious organisations and missionaries' be countered. For the justice department Fillipchuk also insisted the case was not about preventing believers from professing their faith but about the organisation itself. Burns countered that the procuracy and the justice department were trying to demonstrate that they were not affecting people but only papers or office furniture, which maybe in their view was what an organisation consisted of.

Krylova argued that the case had no legal basis, but was a dispute about doctrine. The leaders and members of the organisation had already been acquitted in respect of the matters on which the case was based as criminal charges against them had been dropped four times. 'No-one can be charged twice with the same offence, and under article 4 of protocol 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights this case is a criminal one since criminal sanctions are stipulated,' She announced that the organisation's lawyers had sent a complaint about the violation of its rights by the procuracy on 25 September to the Russian Supreme Court and on 26 October to the European Court of Human Rights.

Asked by Keston on 30 October whether the procuracy considers Jehovah's Witness activity to be dangerous for Moscow's citizens and in what way, Kondratieva said it represented a 'serious danger' about which the public was constantly complaining. The danger, she claimed, is in the Jehovah's Witnesses imposing their literature on people, going door to door and recruiting children. Fillipchuk expressed similar concerns to Keston: 'They withdraw good people from society and replace the world-view which people have acquired over the years with their own. People stop associating with old friends and relatives.' She alleged that the organisation constantly changes its doctrine and name, like the financial pyramids that have proliferated. 'It's a typical destructive sect like Aum Shinrikyo, the White Brotherhood and Scientology.' Asked by Keston why the Jehovah's Witnesses were registered at the national level, Fillipchuk said that it was a result of high politics: registration was linked with the visit of former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. 'Russia was not strong enough then.'

On 30 October in court Fillipchuk put forward an interesting proposition: 'If the decision is taken to dissolve the Jehovah's Witnesses' organisation, nobody will prevent them from existing as a religious group' (i.e. without being a legal entity). Kondratieva declined to reply to Keston's question whether the procuracy would object to the Jehovah's Witnesses existing in Moscow as a group. However, the defence's response was negative. Krylova said they would have little chance of this in Moscow, where there is a local procedure for the registration of religious groups which is almost as stringent as the registration of organisations.Vasili Kalin, the head of the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses, said that he was reminded of the old Soviet days: 'Freedom of conscience was guaranteed in the constitution, but when you began to preach they imprisoned you because your organisation was not registered by the state.' Leontiev told Keston that even now, although the organisation had not been dissolved, they were unable to acquire from the city administration the land under the building they had bought or to rent premises for meetings. (END)