Experts slam baseless charges in recessed Jehovah's Witnesses’ trial
Justice set trial to resume tomorrow. Government lawyers fail to answer questions, appear unprepared. Defence lawyers challenge charges of extremism.
Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The second hearing on charges of extremism levelled by the Russian Justice Ministry against the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Centre will be heard tomorrow at 10 am following postponement by Russian Supreme Court Justice Yury Ivanenko on 7 April. The defence is expected to present four witnesses and written evidence.
The court case began on 15 March. If the prosecution gets its way, Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be able to engage in religious activities anywhere in Russia, and their administrative centre will be seized by the state. Jehovah’s Witnesses assemblies will no longer be able to meet, and violators could be sued for engaging in “extremist activities”.
The courtroom last Friday was crowded with many spectators unable to get in. One hour before the start of the session, there was a 50-metre line-up, including many Jehovah's Witnesses and journalists.
The Justice Ministry’s main accusation is that Jehovah's Witnesses are a threat to rights, society, and public safety. In particular, a government lawyer cited as evidence publications included in the federal list of extremist material, the Witnesses’ belief in the "exceptionalism" of their religion, and their refusal of blood transfusions.
In the first hearing, Justice Ivanenko questioned government lawyers, causing a bit of a stir when he asked them why the Ministry accused the Witnesses of importing extremist material if the latter was added to the list of banned literature after it was brought in.
Many of the people in the courthouse applauded when he accepted a petition by the defence to enter as evidence excerpts from Rossiiskaia Gazeta, indicating the date when some of the texts were added to the list.
The emotional statement by Vasily Kalin, chairman of the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Centre had a different effect. Having survived exile in Siberia, Kalin showed the court the certification of a rehabilitated victim of political repressions. In deathly silence, the elderly man put the question to the Justice Ministry's lawyer: "What kind of certification does the Ministry want to present to people whom it declares to be extremists?"
Defence lawyer Viktor Zhenkov slammed the charges of extremism, stressing that despite the extremist label on the Witnesses’ material, there is nothing extremist about their activities. He added that if the extremist label applied to the Witnesses’ publications was applied to other publications, “Russia could quickly be left entirely without books.”
As an example, he cited the Ministry’s ban on the Witnesses’ Bible. "Taken as a book, the Bible ceases to be the Bible, which it is only in the Church." This provoked laughter among spectators, forcing the justice to call them to order.
The defence also pointed out that the Ministry had failed to produce a single victim of the Witnesses’ “extremist activity”.
As for the community’s sense of exceptionalism, this is something shared by many religions, and represents a normal and reasonable view in any monotheistic creed, said Mikhail Roshchin, senior fellow of the Centre for the Study of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Urals-Volga Region at the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Indeed, the Justice Ministry “is unable to articulate specifically which actions are regarded as extremism,” Roshchin added. By contrast, “One gets the impression that the ministry is not prepared for the trial”. In fact, he pointed out that no expert of religion has been called to testify.
Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA rights advocacy centre, criticised the prosecution's notion of "religious exceptionalism" since it “is inherent to the overwhelming majority of world religions”. In fact, “This aspect was not considered in the drafting of the law about extremism.”
The idea of exceptionalism comes from old laws that were carelessly drafted when the aim was to ban national exceptionalisms. But race and religion are not the same thing. “There is an enormous difference between the assertion that some people are better than others by their innate properties and the claim that they are exceptional by virtue of their views.”
The court’s refusal to involve religious studies specialists in the trial does not seem normal, but it is typical, Verkhovsky noted. In fact, in most cases of extremist legislation, “if the issue is about religious organisations, the expert analyses are not done by religious studies scholars. Such a system is, of course, perverse".
For Lev Levinson, a human rights expert, Justice Ivanenko is conducting the trial objectively, asking “interesting questions to Justice Ministry's lawyers, specifically just what kind of consequences have been caused by the distribution of printed materials (subsequently ruled to be extremist)”.
And yet, "one gets the feeling that the trial will not end in the Jehovah's Witnesses' favour,” he added. If this were the case, he plans to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights. Not that it will do much good since he believes that such a move “will not stop the repressive measures,".
At the same time, it is not inconceivable that a decision in favour of the Justice Ministry could worsen the already strained relations with the United States, where traditionally every action against those who preach the Gospel is deemed "persecution of Christians."
Russia is home to about 172,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. When they commemorate Jesus’ death each year, that number can swell to 300,000. They have 397 registered organisations, plus 2,500 more that do not have government approval.