RUSSIA: Landmark Constitutional Court Decision Vindicates Salvation Army.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 4 March 2002

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has ruled that a religious organisation registered prior to the adoption of the country's 1997 law on religion may not be liquidated purely for failing to re-register by that law's deadline of 31 December 2000. Legal rulings made in relation to the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army which follow a divergent interpretation, stipulates the Court, are now "subject to reconsideration."

Made public by the church's lawyers on 28 February, the 7 February ruling comes in response to a complaint lodged with the Constitutional Court by the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army on 10 September 2001. By stating that a religious organisation must be liquidated by court order for failing to re-register by 31 December 2000, argued the church, Article 27, Part 4 of the 1997 law on religion is in violation of Article 28 (the right to freedom of conscience), Article 30 (the right to assembly) and Article 55, Part 3 (prohibiting the limitation of rights by law except in exceptional circumstances) of Russia's 1993 Constitution.

This disputed provision of the 1997 law currently threatens the existence of the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, which failed to re-register by the end of 2000. Although the church attempted to re-register on 18 February 1999, its application was rejected by Moscow's Municipal Department of Justice for including a charter which had allegedly not been brought into line with the new law. A 12 September 2001 liquidation ruling by a local city court came into force on 6 December 2001, when the church's appeal against it was rejected by the Russian capital's Municipal Court. To date no subsequent measures have been taken, however.

While upholding the Salvation Army's complaint, the 7 February ruling is not limited to the church's case. The Court's previous rulings (23 November 1999 and 13 April 2000) regarding the 1997 law determined that certain of its provisions - such as the 15-year "probationary period" for religious organisations - did not have retroactive force. The new ruling similarly stipulates that the 1997 law's changes to the procedure for founding a religious organisation "may not in themselves act as an obstacle to the re-registration of religious organisations which were founded earlier, as these are already in possession of legal personality status, full legal capability and function on a legal basis." Since re-registration concerns only those religious organisations registered prior to the law's adoption, this provision loses its legal sense now that it has been declared to be without retroactive force.

A religious organisation may now be liquidated, states the Court, only if "properly proven to have ceased its activities" or to be in violation of its constitutional obligations as a legal personality. Specifically, the ruling continues, judges moving to liquidate a religious organisation for not having re-registered - even if it is defunct - may not confine themselves to the formal grounds for liquidation stipulated by Article 27, Part 4 (not having re-registered within the allotted period) and Article 8, Part 9 (not having submitted necessary information).

Speaking to Keston on 26 February, lawyer to the Salvation Army Vladimir Ryakhovsky described the Constitutional Court ruling as "very positive," since, he said, it meant that a religious organisation could now be liquidated only if it no longer existed or was found to be in violation of Article 14 of the 1997 law (for example, caused harm to the health of its members, incited religious hatred). On 4 March public relations officer for the Moscow branch of the Salvation Army, Galina Drozdov, commented to Keston News Service that her church was heartened by the Court's ruling: "It gives us hope that there is justice." (END)