Report by Is the government persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Vera Vasilyeva, 07/11/11


· Freedom of Conscience  · Ombudsmen  · Moscow City & Moscow Region 

On 3 October 2011, Aleksander Kalistratov, head of the Altaisk branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was convicted under Article 282 of the Penal Code of the Russian Federation (“incitement of hatred or enmity”) by the Gorno-Altaisk city court. He was sentenced to 100 hours of compulsory community service. A press-conference dedicated to this event was held at the Independent Press-Centre in Moscow.

The charges on which Aleksandr Kalistratov was brought to trial are related to articles in religious magazines distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses considered by the judicial investigation to incite religious hatred and humiliate the faith and dignity of people of different religious beliefs.

The press-conference was led by Aleksander Kalistratov’s lawyer Viktor Zhenkov, Mikhail Odintsov, a staff member of the Ombudsman’s Office of the Russian Federation, and Aleksei Nagovitsyn, a psychologist.

As reported earlier by, in 1994 Aleksander Kalistratov was baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness and has been practising the religion ever since. His professional background is in practical school psychology, and he worked at a secondary school for about two years. However, due to an increasingly negative attitude towards Jehovah’s Witnesses, the head teacher strongly recommended that Aleksandr Kalistratov convert to the Orthodox Church. Following this conversation, he had no choice but to start looking for a new job.

In 2000 Aleksandr Kalistratov applied to do alternative civil service instead of compulsory military service on the grounds of his religious beliefs. He was then detained and held in a pre-trial detention centre for 21 days, until the measure of restraint was changed from detention to a written undertaking not to leave the place. Later on, the court quashed the charges and confirmed his entitlement to alternative civil service.

On 22 December 2008, the Public Prosecutor of Gorno-Altaisk filed a lawsuit in Gorno-Altaisk city court calling for a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications to be recognized as extremist. In this civil case Aleksandr Kalistratov represented the interests of the community.

Analysing the court decision, Viktor Zhenkov, the first speaker at the press-conference, highlighted two moments which were most crucial in his opinion:

“Firstly, it is unfortunate but in Russia justice is an arbitrary concept. One of the witnesses in the case addressed the defence right in the courtroom saying: “There is no point in defending Kalistratov, you are just wasting your time. Despite being innocent, he will be convicted anyway”. Nowadays many people do not believe in judicial justice.

At first, Aleksandr Kalistratov was found ‘not guilty’, but this verdict was overturned straight away by the Supreme Court of the Altai Republic. And now the court has given the opposite ruling.

Such an approach to the justice system is unacceptable for a state that considers itself democratic and promotes freedom of thought and religion”, Aleksandr Kalistratov’s lawyer said.

“Secondly, in Russia there is a well-planned and large-scale campaign of persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses”, Viktor Zhenkov said.

He said that the case against Aleksandr Kalistratov was the first such case to come to court, but there are several cases involving similar charges in Russia at the moment.

This was confirmed by Mikhail Odintsov who added that Jehovah’s Witnesses are subject to harassment in Kemerovo, Taganrog, Chelyabinsk, Mary-El, Chuvash and Komi Republics.

It should be noted that Kemerovo State University is the only institution that finds their literature extremist. However, as Viktor Zhenkov pointed out, this institution does not have adequate expertise.

“Police investigators in Yoshkar-Ola are looking into a case and have sent literature for expert evaluation not to Moscow, where experts say that there are no signs of inciting hatred, but to a region located four times further away from Yoshkar-Ola than Moscow. Moreover, Kemerovo State University does not have adequate expertise, but evaluation is carried out at this institution because it has experts who would definitely find the literature contains an element of incitement to hatred,” Viktor Zhenkov noted.

The lawyer mentioned other facts, validating the unlawfulness and discrimination of state repression against Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“In early September this year in Cheboksary, three Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained for two days for sharing their religious beliefs with others. The state authorities perceive some kind of religious intolerance in their actions”.

Yet, at the same time, in another district of the Irkutsk Region the head of the local administration came to a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ service in a state of drunkenness and for 40 minutes insulted them in violent language, threatening to exterminate all Jehovah’s Witnesses in the village and to burn down their houses. He then took out a gun and shot into the ceiling. He went on to put the gun to the head of one of the church members and threatened to kill him.

This man did not spend a single day in detention. So far, no criminal case has been initiated against him, although six months have passed since the incident. A house-check has not been carried out, and only the gun he was shooting with has been confiscated”.

According to Viktor Zhenkov, later the same person approached another church member and also threatened him with the gun.

“Two weeks have passed, no charges have been brought against this man, nobody is searching for the gun”, the lawyer said. “The offender’s gun has not been confiscated but the Bible of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been confiscated. This is discrimination.”

“This sentence is just another small link in a long, disgraceful chain of persecution of law-abiding citizens in Russia. Of course, it will be appealed in the Supreme Court of the Altai Republic and after that in the European Court of Human Rights,” Viktor Zhenkov concluded.

According to Aleksei Nagovitsyn, “This verdict shows that the Republic of Gorny Altai is de facto not part of the Russian justice system, as a number of provisions have been breached there, including the right to freedom of conscience, the Russian Constitution and the ruling of the Plenum of the Supreme Court”.

Aleksei Nagovitsyn pointed out that there are reports by a number of expert commissions according to which “many types of literature by Jehovah’s Witnesses are not deemed dangerous for anybody”.

“I have not been able to find any similar case in international legal practice for the last 4-5 thousand years where a judicial body arbitrarily chooses a suitable expert opinion with no reference to any other sources”, Aleksei Nagovitsyn noted.

Moreover, he believes that “any linguistic analysis of this report would show that it has been written by one person, and the other two have only signed it.”

Aleksei Nagovitsyn found it surprising that one of the charges against Aleksandr Kalistratov, according to his defence, was that he had cited the Bible.

“Even under the most oppressive regimes no one has ever been found guilty for citing the Bible. There have not been any other actions by Kalistratov here,” Aleksei Nagovitsyn emphasized.

In conclusion he said he considers it necessary to appeal the verdict to the Constitutional Court of Russia, “because basic provisions of the Constitution were breached during the investigation and trial.”

In turn Mikhail Odintsov stressed: “Being law-abiding citizens, we accept the ruling. But as citizens we have the right to assess to what extent a ruling conforms with the Constitution and international legal provisions, to which Russia is a signatory. We have a lot to think about so that we can ensure that the court of appeal makes a correct judgment.”

Lev Levinson, Expert of the Human Rights Institute:

Aleksandr Kalistratov’s case is not over yet. The sentence has not yet taken legal effect, and if a cassation appeal does not lead to a positive result, we will have to turn to the Court in Strasbourg, which will not be for the first time. The European Court of Human Rights has defended Jehovah’s Witnesses from persecution by the Russian authorities twice – the case of a community in Chelyabinsk (ruling of 11 July, 2007) and the case of a community in Moscow (ruling of 1 June, 2010).

This trial, which has all the features of an inquisition, is not going smoothly. The first verdict of acquittal pronounced on 14 April this year, could not have happened during similar Soviet repressions against Jehovah’s Witnesses which took place between the 1930s and 1980s. The judge of the Gorno-Altaisk city court, Marina Sokolovskaya, who issued the verdict of acquittal for Kalistratov, proved that in Russian courts even politically motivated cases (Kalistratov’s case definitely falls into that category) can receive an independent and impartial judicial judgment.

I would also like to draw attention to the courageous stance taken by Russian human rights Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, who identified the violation of the rights of the believers of “non-traditional denominations” as one of the central problems in the sphere of human rights. Professor Mikhail Odintsov, the head of the department for religious rights at the Ombudsman’s Office, has made a brilliant contribution to the defence during both of Kalistratov’s trials.

Both Judge Sokolovskaya and Mikhail Ivanovich Odintsov (though the latter formally took part in the trials as a private person) were representing the authorities, and this is a significant factor. In effect, the prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern-day Russia amounts to a combination of Soviet anti-religious rhetoric and the anti-sectarian fabrications of “professor” Aleksandr Dvorkin, whose studious disciple is Aleksandr Konovalov, the Minister of Justice. Thanks to these individuals, the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been unjustly recognised as extremist. This capacious term has replaced the labels of “fanatic” and “anti-Soviet sect” given to the organisation during Soviet times.

Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis:

The unlawful application of Russian anti-extremism legislation has become a universal instrument of repression.
Rights in Russia,
7 Dec 2011, 10:49