My Attempt to Understand Court Proceedings of Case to Ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

The website of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia has a live blog of the Supreme Court case on whether to liquidate and ban Witnesses in the country. Unless you read Russian, view it in Google Chrome and use Google Translate. It’s not great, but you’ll get the gist. This post is my attempt to clarify it for myself; I’ll do my best to leave out things I am unsure about.

The court refused the Witnesses’ counterclaim for recognition of acts of political repression, on the grounds that the Supreme Court is not the correct court for such a claim, and that making objections in the current case is adequate protection.

Under Russian law, local religious organizations (LROs) are separate legal entities. However, the Ministry of Justice is trying to act as though they are organizational units connected to one another and the Administrative Center. In other words, Russian law does not allow banning/liquidating all 395 LROs just because the Administrative Center is liquidated. The Ministry of Justice has not warned all 395 LROs in writing and provided time to correct deficiencies, as it is required to do by law.

Notification from the Ministry of Justice arrived to the Administrative Center only on 28 March 2017, nearly 2 weeks after the claim was filed – only 1 week before it was to be heard by the court.

The court refused the defendant’s request to bring in experts on whether Witness publications have extremist langauge. The court refused the participation of foreign organizations that have property at stake in this hearing.

Calling the LROs extremist arises from their connection to publications that have been deemed “extremist” by the Russian government; the court was unwilling to review whether such publications actually met such a standard.

Court adjourned, to resume on 6 April 2017 at 14:00 Moscow time.


After presenting its argument against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, the Ministry of Justice requested the immediate liquidation and ban of the religion and its legal entities. The judge asked, ‘How can you ask to both legally eliminate and ban them? How can you ban something that does not exist?’

The court felt that cases against other LROs did not affect the Administrative Center, as it is a separate legal entity.

The Ministry of Justice claims that LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses violate the rights of citizens. This prompted a line of questioning from the judge.

  • What kinds of citizens’ rights are violated? (Receiving medical treatment.)
  • What proof do you have that LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses prevent citizens from receiving medical treatment? (None.)
  • In light of your recent large investigation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, how is it that you are unable to provide proof for such a claim?
  • What threat to public safety exists because of Jehovah’s Witnesses? (Unspecified.)
  • If Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, would they be prosecuted if gathered for prayer? (Yes.)
  • Is the Ministry of Justice reviewing the Federal List of Extremist Materials (FSEM)? (This list may be revised from time to time.)

Defendant was allowed to proceed with questioning. It was clarified that the court case on medical treatment the MoJ was referring to made no mention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This caused the judge to ask MoJ why it was included in case materials.

Defendant line of questioning:

  • What offenses were committed under the influence of Witness literature listed on the FSEM? (None.)
  • Does your claim boil down to the following 3 points: 1) the import of “extremist” literature, 2) financing MPO, 3) failure to take effective measures to prevent extremist activity? (Yes, with the addition of 4) threat of violating human rights and civil rights. MoJ is unable to expound on what human rights violations they have in mind.)
  • Regarding “failure to take preventive measures”, is MoJ aware of letters sent to LROs regarding material on the FSEM? (Yes.)
  • Would the MoJ consider such letters to be an effective measure? (We don’t know.)
  • Is there a criterion of inaction toward extremist activity? (Answer indicates no such criterion.)
  • Is the MoJ aware that “extremist” material comprises 0.1% of all Witness literature? (No. It is pointed out that Rsotov Regional Court refused to admit dozens of Witness publications to the list.)
  • Is the MoJ aware that such “extremist” literature has not been imported for 2 years now? (Yes.)
  • Then why, in 2017, is the MoJ bringing up the issue of liquidation? (MoJ cannot provide evidence that “extremist” literature has been distributed over the last 12 months. Further, the list does not specify when items were added to the list.)

Judge interjects to ask, ‘Can a claim be made against an organization for previously importing something that is added to the FSEM in the future?’ (This only applies to FSEM.)

Defense continues:

  • Is a ‘global organization’ a legal entity? (This is a canonical concept.)
  • Is a ‘structural unit’ a legal concept? (No, this is also a canonical connection.)
  • In what sense is the MoJ saying that LROs are ‘structural units of the Administrative Center’: canonical or legal? (The MoJ considers these to be identical.)
  • Can extremism law be applied to an LRO that was not notified even if a ‘structural unit’ was notified? (Warning should be made to each LRO.)
  • If the warning is issued to an LRO and not the Administrative Center, is the LRO a ‘structural unit’? (No answer.)

MoJ indicate that what is not forbidden by law is allowed. Judge asks if notice was sent to the Administrative Center? No evidence exists of this.

Defense:
– Is the MoJ able to answer when an item was added to the FSEM? (This answer can probably be given through judicial reqeust.)
– How do different parts of the MoJ come to opposite conclusions about presence or absence of extremism? (We do not know.)
– Why does the MoJ only support conclusions of presence? (We do not know.)
– Does the MoJ review cases with such a contradiction?

Court reminded by defense that the MoJ has not intiated a revision of the FSEM after amendments to the law.

Court adjourned until 7 April 2017 at 10:00 Moscow time. This post will be updated accordingly.