KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 6, Article 9, 5 June 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Monday 5 June 2000
LEGAL VICTORY DOES NOT END REGISTRATION BATTLE FOR
LIPETSK JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

In May the Jehovah's Witnesses in the town of Lipetsk south east of Moscow
again applied for registration with the local justice department, a month after
the Lipetsk regional court overturned an earlier ruling and instructed the justice
department to register the group. However, the local justice department official
in charge of registering religious organisations remains reluctant to register the
group, telling Keston News Service that her office has still not received the
court ruling. She indicated that a further legal challenge to the latest ruling in
the long-running legal battle may be in the offing.

On 24 April the Lipetsk regional court, presided over by the court's assistant
judge, GALINA BRIK, heard the appeal lodged by VIKTOR BACHURIN, the
leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Lipetsk, against the decision of the court
of the Soviet district of Lipetsk of 10 February. The regional court repealed the
February ruling and instructed the Justice Department of the Lipetsk regional
administration to register the Jehovah's Witnesses in the town.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyer ARTUR LEONTYEV declared that they were
not expecting such a favourable decision. `The court has taken a new decision,'
he told Keston in the wake of the court ruling, `although everyone expected
that at best it would simply repeal the decision of the Lipetsk district court or
send back the case.' In addition to Leontyev, who had already represented the
congregation at the first court hearing, the Lipetsk Jehovah's Witnesses had
also invited the Canadian lawyer JOHN BURNS to appear for them at the
regional court. His appearance in this remote province surprised the judges.
`Each of us spoke for about 30 minutes,' said Leontyev, `so that they had to
spend over an hour listening to us, instead of the usual 10 minutes. At our
request, a representative of the Regional Procurator's Office was present and, to
everyone's surprise, he suddenly spoke out, saying the decision should be
repealed, but asked that the case should be sent for further examination - "to
find out if the appeal had been made in time, why it had been only in the name
of Viktor Bachurin and how the decision had violated his constitutional
rights".'

In the wake of the Jehovah's Witness victory in the April appeal, Bachurin
lodged the registration application with the Lipetsk Justice Department and was
now awaiting a reply, Leontyev told Keston on 31 May. However, the same
day IRINA KONOVALOVA, the official responsible for registering religious
organisations at the Justice Department of Lipetsk region, informed Keston that
they had not yet received the decision of the Lipetsk regional court. `We have
received the letter from the Jehovah's Witnesses, but as yet we are taking no
further steps - we are waiting for the Procurator's reaction to the decision of the
regional court.' Konovalova reported that the Procurator was preparing to
protest against this decision, `if he plucks up enough courage'.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have been seeking registration in Lipetsk since 1997,
but have encountered implacable hostility from local officials. On 12 July
1999, the Lipetsk regional Commission of Experts recommended that the legal
section of the Lipetsk regional Justice Department should refuse them
registration. As the Commission of Experts admitted in its own concluding
statement, its information on the doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses was
derived, not from the documents submitted to it by the congregation, but from
`various published sources, both from abroad and in our own country.'

Following the Commission's advice, the Lipetsk Justice Department issued its
refusal on 14 October 1999. The court hearing that took place on 10 February
of this year upheld this decision (see KNS 22 March 2000). The refusal was
based on the traditional activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses, as laid down in
the organisation's rules: disseminating and professing their faith in public
places and among private dwellings, also on the conclusions of the commission
of experts on religion, organised by the Justice Department despite the fact that
the local religious organisation had confirmed its membership of the
centralised religious organisation of the same denomination - the
Administrative Centre of the regional religious organisation of Jehovah's
Witnesses, registered at the Ministry of Justice.

However, comments by several senior Russian officials have helped the
Jehovah's Witness case. On 17 January of this year, OLEG MIRONOV, the
Russian Federation's Human Rights Representative, wrote to MIKHAIL
LESIN at the Ministry of the Press, Television, Radio and the Mass Media
about articles in the Russian press devoted to the Jehovah's Witnesses,
commenting that `we find in them a definite prejudice against this religious
organisation, impolite expressions, a lack of accuracy in setting out facts, the
use of information that has not been verified or that has already been legally
refuted, incorrect interpretation of Russian legislation on freedom of
conscience, and so on'. Mironov complained that this `can create the
impression that an atmosphere of suspicion is deliberately being created around
this religious organisation, which operates on a legal basis, and hostility is
being whipped up against its members and the religious beliefs they hold. This
can provoke discrimination against citizens on religious grounds, as well as
unlawful restrictions on the activities of religious associations founded by
them.'

In preparing the appeal, Leontyev sent an inquiry to SERGEI KOVALYOV,a
deputy in the lower house of the Russian parliament the State Duma, a member
of the Duma Committee on voluntary associations and religious organisations,
and a member of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, asking him
to investigate how far the decision of the court of the Soviet district of Lipetsk
was in accordance with Russia's 1997 law on religion and international legal
standards. `The statute [of the Lipetsk Jehovah's Witnesses] is fully in
accordance with the requirements of the law,' Kovalyov replied. `After
receiving confirmation that the local religious organisation had joined the
central religious organisation, the Justice Department was obliged to register it.
Consequently, the decision of the Lipetsk district court of 10 February 2000
should be repealed and the appeal should be allowed.' The Jehovah's Witnesses
attached Kovalyov's reply, together with a number of other documents, to their
appeal.

Leontyev reports that the letters written by Kovalyov and Mironov, as well as a
decision of the Judicial Chamber under the Russian President covering disputes
over information dating back to 1998 (which criticised a newspaper article
attacking the Jehovah's Witnesses), were submitted to the Lipetsk regional
court and had an impact on the judges. `They realised it was a serious matter,'
Leontyev told Keston, `that they would really have to examine the case.'

Asked by Keston on 22 May about the position of new religious movements,
such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, in Lipetsk, Bachurin replied: `They're in a
difficult situation. Our problems are probably similar to those in other Russian
provinces - people think everybody should be Orthodox.' He was unwilling to
say any more on the telephone. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.