RUSSIA: Court Authorises Use of Secret Filming in Churches.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 18 July 2002

The lawyer for a Protestant church in the town of Kostroma, 370 kilometres (230 miles) north east of Moscow, has condemned a court ruling which has once again given the go-ahead for a suit to liquidate the church based on secretly-filmed footage of a religious service. The regional public prosecutor has been seeking to have the Kostroma Christian Centre closed down for what he claims is the use of hypnosis during services. "This is a dangerous precedent," the director of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, who is representing the church, told Keston News Service in Moscow on 12 July.

On 29 June the Kostroma regional court under Judge V. Ivanov, having considered a protest from the regional public prosecutor N. Kondrat, overturned a November 2000 decision by a lower court - which ruled that the demand of the regional justice department that the Kostroma Christian Centre be liquidated was unfounded - and directed that the case be reopened. The secret recording of a worship service in the church, which was the main evidence of the alleged "hypnotic effect" of the pastor on church members, has once again been admitted as evidence in the case. "The videotape, as a piece of evidence which supports legal facts relating to the case in question, should be submitted for scrutiny along with other evidence," the court declared.

At the 16 November 2000 hearing at the court of Kostroma's Lenin district, the Kostroma regional justice department used the video recording presented by the public prosecutor's office to argue that the church should be liquidated because of its alleged use of hypnosis, which harmed people's health. But the video recording was removed as admissible evidence during the course of the proceedings at the insistence of the church's lawyer. The court then rejected the suit and criticised the prosecutor's office for presenting a video of unconfirmed origin (see KNS 21 November 2000).

In its ruling, the Kostroma regional court repeated the conclusions reached by the prosecutor's office; while noting that the Constitution guarantees non-interference in citizens' private lives, it insists that the Textile Workers' Palace of Culture, where the church's services were held, is a "public place". "In the section of the rental agreement for 'special conditions', no restrictions on video filming are allowed for". The ruling interprets "private life" as including "the sphere of personal, intimate, family and everyday relations with one's surroundings, unconnected with the carrying-out of work or official obligations. The elements which compose private life are the inviolability of the home, and the privacy of written correspondence, telephone calls, etc." The prosecutor, followed by the court, held that "making a video recording of the church service does not, in this case, constitute interference in citizens' private lives".

Setting out its objections in court, the church insisted that information about a person's religious adherence, participation in worship services and prayer is a strictly private matter. The church had rented the hall to hold services and for this reason they could not be considered to be public or mass events. The church argued that prayer was a deeply private matter for those taking part in the service and could contain elements of confession before God and neighbour. The videotape of a service came from the regional public prosecutor's office, but not a single piece of evidence that it had been acquired legally had been presented. The church had not given permission for the recording to be made. It pointed out that according to Article 24 of the Constitution, the collection, retention and distribution of information about a person's private life, without his or her agreement, is not allowed.

Ryakhovsky noted that similar cases of secret video recording of services had taken place in Magadan and Kirov. He said his Slavic Centre for Law and Justice intended to lodge a complaint in the Russian Supreme Court against the decision to declare secret recordings of services admissible as "a scandalous violation of citizens' privacy". He pointed out that the Kostroma recording had been shown on local television, even after the November 2000 ruling in favour of the church. When church members tried to defend their privacy at the general prosecutor's office, their complaints were directed to the regional prosecutor's office.

An official of the Kostroma justice department, Svetlana Rumyantseva, confirmed to Keston on 12 July that "an extract from the videotape - 20 seconds or so" had been shown on local television. She agreed that the accusation of hypnosis was mainly based on this recording, but advised that all enquiries relating to the recording should be addressed to the prosecutor's office. The case was due to be considered within the next two months, she reported.

Officials of the Kostroma regional prosecutor's office told Keston on 15 July that the press service telephone was out of order, that the only press officer was on holiday and that no-one else was authorised to discuss the Kostroma Christian Centre case. (END)