MOLDOVA: "Khruschevite Smell" from New Criminal Code Article

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 June 2002

Some religious leaders and human rights activists have criticised an article in the new Moldovan criminal code lifted almost word for word from an article introduced into the Soviet criminal codes at the time of the anti-religious persecution unleashed by Nikita Khrushchev at the beginning of the 1960s. The Pentecostals and the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were unaware of the new article until Keston News Service sought their comments, are particularly concerned. "I grew up with this - I know what it means," Bishop Pyotr Borshch, head of the Pentecostal Union, told Keston from the Moldovan capital Chisinau on 20 June. "I don't trust them." His colleague, Bishop Viktor Pavlovsky, agreed. "This smells of the Khrushchev era." Their concerns were shared by Serghei Ostaf, chairman of the Moldovan Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. "This is a backward step," he told Keston.

The new code - adopted by the Moldovan parliament on 18 April - comes into force only next 1 January, as the Criminal Procedure Code needs to be adopted as well.

Article 186 of the new code punishes "an offence against the person or the rights of citizens under the guise of the fulfilment of religious rituals". The new article declares in full: "The organisation, conducting or active participation in a group whose activity, carried out under the guise of the preaching of religious beliefs or the fulfilment of religious rituals, if it is accompanied by the causing of harm to the health of citizens or the instigation of citizens to refuse to participate in public life or the fulfilment of citizens' obligations, is to be punished by a fine of 300-700 units or imprisonment of up to 5 years."

The only substantial difference from part 1 of Article 143 of the criminal code of the Moldovan SSR is that reference to "enticing minors into such a group" has been deleted and that there is no longer the possibility of being sent into internal exile for this offence.

During the Soviet period this article was widely used against believers, including Pentecostals ("singing in tongues" or prophesying was deemed to harm health) and Hare Krishna devotees (chanting was likewise deemed to harm health). Jehovah's Witnesses suffered under this article because of their rejection of blood transfusions and their refusal to vote or perform military service.

Many other former Soviet republics abolished this article in the early 1990s as a relic of the Soviet totalitarian past. Article 227 of Russia's Soviet-era Criminal Code was repealed in 1991 by the law on exonerating victims of political persecution. However, the similar article in the Armenian criminal code, Article 244, has not yet been abolished and was used last year to attempt to send to prison a Jehovah's Witness, Levon Markaryan, who was not finally cleared until April of this year (see KNS 19 April 2002). The Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) complained that Armenian Article 244 contained "outdated concepts" and should be abolished, although attempts have been made to bring it back in under a new guise.

Ostaf has so far produced the most detailed critique of Article 186. He complains that the article does not specify that any actions must have been carried out against an individual's will, that the article is too broadly formulated and that the article is aimed solely at religious activity. "Religious values and ideas are discriminated against in comparison with non-religious values, as they are required to meet far stricter requirements," he told Keston. He argues that the article directly attacks religions' core activity, not any specific harm that such activity might have caused based on firm evidence. He also fears that the article could be deployed not only against religious groups, but against non-governmental organisations that disseminate religious beliefs.

Citing case law of the European Court of Human Rights, Ostaf complains that the notions of "citizens' obligations" and "participation in public life" are "clearly outdated" and "cannot be considered as legitimate reasons for limitations of any rights, including religious rights".

Bishop Pavlovsky also complained about what he believed was the article's "very general formulation". "You could easily get five years under it!" he told Keston. "Whoever controls the interpretation of the article will be right." He feared that the provision over "citizens' obligations" could cause problems for the Pentecostals. "We don't take any oaths," he noted. "If alternative service is abolished, we would have a choice of going to prison or renouncing our faith. We had just such problems in the past." He argued that there are some "dangerous sects" in Moldova which harm health, but said that other articles of the criminal code already cover that. "Why should there be a specific law just for religious believers? Are religions more dangerous than anything else?"

Equally unhappy is the Jehovah's Witness community. "The article is not good," Ion Rusu, a Jehovah's Witness leader, told Keston from Chisinau on 20 June. "It could be used against us." He pointed out that various Jehovah's Witness practices, such as preaching from door to door, refusing to vote in elections and rejecting blood transfusions could fall foul of the article. "Our people were sentenced under this provision in the Soviet era - this could happen again," Rusu warned.

However, Angelina Zaporojan-Pirgari, human rights assistant at the OSCE mission to Moldova, made no direct criticism of Article 186. "The OSCE does not have an official position on the new article on religion," she told Keston from Chisinau on 13 June. "I think that the article does not exceed the margin of appreciation afforded to states to limit the right to freedom of religion." However, she stressed that the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights concerning article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European human rights convention was also relevant to any application of this article. (END)