Tuesday 16 February


by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

The Jehovah's Witnesses should be legally suppressed because they decline to celebrate holidays such as Christmas, a lawyer for the Moscow public prosecutor's office told a city court hearing on 15 June. The prosecuting lawyer, TATYANA KONDRATYEVA, said that the Jehovah's Witnesses should take part in the ceremonial observance of such Christian holidays 'because they live on Russian territory. In Russia religious holidays have partly lost their religious content and are now inextricable parts of the age-old culture of the Russian people, just like the main holidays of the Muslims and Jews.�

In a development which has surprised many observers, Judge YELENA PROKHORYCHEVA of the Golovinsky court of Moscow's northern administrative district has positioned herself during the trial's last few days as an impartial arbiter, closely questioning both sides, demanding clear and precise answers, and rejecting the prosecutor's request to let an attorney for the anti-cult Committee for the Salvation of Youth take formal part in the proceedings Prosecutor Kondratyeva has reacted by demanding repeatedly that the judge remove herself from the case, a demand which Prokhorycheva has rejected.

Another striking aspect of the case has been the attempt to discredit the Jehovah's Witnesses through the mass media. On 9 February, Russian radio and television stations gave prominent coverage to the joint suicide of three teenage girls in a Moscow suburb, going out of their way to associate this tragedy with the Jehovah's Witnesses despite the lack of any concrete evidence linking the two. Viewers were even told that a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses had visited the girls not long before their deaths, a tale which the girls' families denied. The Jehovah's Witnesses attorney ARTUR LEONTYEV accused the media, especially the huge ORT television network, of deliberately inflaming social tension.

The trial began in the autumn, when the Moscow public prosecutor's office filed for a court order closing the Moscow branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses and banning its activities. But Judge Prokhorycheva recessed the trial's first session after only two days and postponed it to February, apparently because the prosecutor was not well prepared. The trial's latest round began on 9 February, with the public prosecutor's office represented by Kondratyeva and the Jehovah's Witnesses by lawyers Leontyev, GALINA KRYLOVA, and JOHN BURNS from Canada. A Keston News Service representative has personally observed the proceedings.

No representative of Russia's Ministry of Justice is taking part in the trial, a fact which some of the Jehovah's Witnesses interpret as an encouraging sign that the national government is now trying to distance itself from the case. In a telephone interview with Keston, adviser to the Prime Minister on church-state relations GENRIKH MIKHAILOV denied that the government was trying to influence the trial.

At some points in the proceedings, prosecuting attorney Kondratyeva has had difficulty answering questions without the expert help of the anticult committee. The committee's YELENA RYABINKINA sat next to Kondratyeva and tried to prompt her with loud whispers, only to be rebuked by the judge.

The prosecutor's case has also suffered from a shortage of concrete evidence other than old quotations from publications both supporting and opposing the Jehovah's Witnesses. Almost all the accusations have been based on citations from the periodical 'The Watchtower' and other literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Last week the prosecutor offered some 55 such quotations, together with hostile comments on them from critics of the Jehovah's Witnesses such as FYODOR KONDRATYEV of the Serbsky Institute and FYODOR OVSIYENKO of the Academy of State Service, in order to support charges that the confession ignites religious dissension, promotes the dissolution of families, encourages the refusal of medical aid in life-threatening situations, and recruits minors without their parents' consent. She presented several case histories of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses who had refused blood transfusions, but did not bring forward any relatives of such members as co-plaintiffs or witnesses.

Prosecutor Kondratyeva denied that she was trying to criminalise theological disagreements. 'I suggest that it is impossible to speak of a confessional quarrel', she said. 'It is a matter of statements from their own literature, statements which violate the laws of the Russian Federation and international pacts, as we shall prove.' The defence lawyers questioned her closely on this point, challenging her to specify the alleged violations. 'Is it a case about the activities of individual members or elders?' 'No.' 'Of the religious doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses?' 'No.' 'Of any individual extracts which have come to the attention of the public prosecutor's office?' 'No, about all the texts of the journals and brochures.' 'Do you know about the decisions of three European courts on the affair of the Greek Jehovah's Witnesses, which recognised the rights of the Jehovah's Witnesses to conduct their gatherings and distribute their literature?' 'In the decisions of the European courts there is not the word 'organisation' of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and our brief has to do with the liquidation of the organisation.' (This is indeed correct; thoroughly examining the decisions of the courts, the lawyers did not find any such phrase, since it is a typical term in the legal system of Russian Federation but not in Greece.) 'Can the prosecutor explain precisely how these texts ignite religious dissension and compel the dissolution of families?' 'I am not a theologian or historian, I do not know the Bible, I am not a politician, not a specialist and cannot make judgements on such topics.'

At this point the Canadian lawyer John Burns tried to call upon the prosecutor 'to be logical', but received in reply only a triumphant smile. Later he remarked to Keston that 'the only thing which one can predict in this trial is its complete unpredictability.'

On 10 February the judge asked the prosecutor to explain how the teachings of the Witnesses about Armageddon promoted the dissolution of families. Holding a Bible in her hands apparently for the first time in her life, prosecutor Kondratyeva proved unable to explain what Armageddon was. For the rest of that day's session she refused to discuss specific Biblical texts, even those appearing in the published literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses which she herself had presented to the court as evidence. Asked by the defendants' lawyer Leontyev to comment on texts quoted by the anti-sectarian catechism published by the Moscow Patriarchate, Kondratyeva replied that she had not had time to study Orthodox literature. Judge Prokhorycheva then requested that she study the relevant publications before the next session on 11 February.

The 11 February session then brought more surprises. When it opened the prosecutor again requested that a representative from the anti-cult committee be allowed to take formal part in the proceedings. The judge again rejected this request, whereupon Kondratyeva accused her of having a personal interest in the trial's outcome and demanded that she remove herself from the case. That demand, for which the prosecutor presented no concrete evidence or arguments, was also rejected. Kondratyeva then stated that the participation of a foreign lawyer in the trial was illegal and moved that John Burns be removed. When Judge Prokhorycheva rejected this motion as well, the prosecutor repeated her earlier motion that the judge remove herself; the judge repeated her rejection of that motion.

The 12 February session began with an announcement by the prosecutor that she did not feel well and a request, which was granted, that the session be postponed. When proceedings were resumed on 15 February, it appeared that Kondratyeva had done some studying over the weekend and was better prepared to answer questions.

Unlike other 'American' religious movements such as the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses have had a massive presence in Russia for many decades. Tens of thousands of the confession's members suffered persecution during the soviet period, including forced resettlement in Siberia. In the current efforts to suppress the movement a leading role has been played by the Committee for the Salvation of Youth, which has received taxpayer-financed subsidies voted by the legislative assembly of St Petersburg under a programme called 'The Family, the Child and the Future'. (END)

Tuesday 16 February


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Despite assertions in the `explanatory note' attached to last December's draft for a revised Kazakh law on freedom of religious confession and religious associations that religious groups had been consulted in drawing up the text (see Keston News Service KAZAKHSTAN SEEKS TO INCREASE LEGISLATIVE CONTROLS ON RELIGION, 10 February 1999), senior figures in several Christian Churches in Kazakhstan have told Keston News Service that they have not received the draft text officially from the Ministry of Information and Social Accord, which is behind the attempt to adopt revisions to the 1992 law.

ARCHPRIEST SERGEI, the secretary to Archbishop ALEKSI of Almaty and Semipalatinsk, told Keston on 11 February that the Russian Orthodox Church had not been given the text by the Ministry. `We cannot comment on the text - it's only a draft and we haven't been given it officially. No-one has invited us to comment on it,' Archpriest Sergei declared from Almaty, the former Kazakh capital. `We had a letter from the Ministry about a month and a half ago inviting us to be involved in the process, but we have had nothing since then. When we are given the text and asked for our comments, we will give them then.' Pressed by Keston, he admitted that his office had seen a copy of the December draft, drawn up by S. AMIRGAZIN, apparently an official of the Ministry of Information and Social Accord, but stressed that `no-one gave it to us officially'.

Senior Catholic officials, based in the northern Kazakh town of Karaganda, have even less information about the drafting process. Bishop JAN PAWEL LENGA, the Roman Catholic Apostolic Administrator for Kazakhstan, told Keston on 9 February that although he had heard of plans to introduce a new law on religion, his Church had not yet been involved or consulted. `The Catholic Church has not received such a draft up till today, and therefore cannot comment at all,' he told Keston from Karaganda. `Likewise I do not know who and which commission is preparing the draft of the law.' Bishop Lenga stressed that his Church did not currently have any problems. `At the moment we live normally: we can pray, build churches, open charitable pharmacies and canteens. The old law on religion is pretty good, and it is only that our difficulties of serving the people are limited by the lack of priests and religious.'

Although some other Christian and human rights organisations in Kazakhstan appear to have acquired a copy of the December 1998 draft text, it seems that the government has not yet handed the text to religious groups officially. Although senior Orthodox and Catholic clergy have declined to offer comment on the draft text, even if they have seen it, others have already condemned what they consider to be its restrictive provisions. ZHEMIS TURMAGAMBETOVA of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, an NGO based in Almaty, told Keston on 10 February that the current draft represented `discrimination against all religious confessions' and if passed into law `would not lead to social accord'. She protested in particular at the clause requiring that religious groups prove that they have existed for ten years before being eligible to apply for registration, maintaining that this violated freedom of conscience as well as provisions of the law guaranteeing the equality of different religious groups. `The draft may be directed against certain "sects", but it will enforce control over all religious activity. The state should not be allowed to have such control,' she declared. On behalf of the Bureau for Human Rights, Turmagambetova has prepared a detailed list of objections to various provisions of the draft bill. (END)

CORRECTION: Keston News Service reported in �European Court to Review Russia's Treatment of Jehovah's Witness� the following: �the European Court has agreed to review a Russian court's decision . . . �. In fact the European Court has not notified the applicant yet as to whether or not the case will be heard; it has simply acknowledged receipt of the Application and has advised of its being processed, by letter of 26 January 1998 to counsel for the Applicant.