The headlines are full of stories about threats to democracy around the world and in the United States. Despots are multiplying, endangering freedom of expression, assembly and religion. But what is it really like to live in such conditions? A new ruling from the European Court of Human Rights paints a depressing picture of the experiences of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, who have been harshly punished for their beliefs.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian religion in which believers submit to the authority of a single God and avoid military service. They have existed in Russia since 1891 and have been criminally prosecuted for practicing their faith during Soviet times. After the Soviet collapse, they worshiped openly and were registered under Russian laws, reaching around 400 local congregations and 175,000 members. The Russian Constitution of 1993 guarantees freedom of religion.
In 2007, a shadow began to fall over them. A deputy attorney general has sent a circular letter to regional prosecutors identifying Jehovah’s Witnesses as one of several foreign religious groups that “quite often contribute to the escalation of tensions in society” and “engage in activities detrimental to moral, mental and physical integrity”. the health of their members. A cascade of persecutions, interrogations, disruptions, surveillance, arrests and sham lawsuits followed. Much of the pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses was based on a sweeping law approved in 2002 against extremism. Hundreds of believers have been sentenced to pre-trial detention or imprisonment for “extremism,” and as of May 24, 88 were imprisoned. In 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia banned the group. After losing numerous court cases in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses turned to the European Court, which is part of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization to which Russia had joined in 1996.
The court’s 194-page ruling, issued on June 7, is filled with egregious examples of unjust persecution using the anti-extremism law. In a first case in Taganrog, Russia, the European Court found that a text prohibited to Jehovah’s Witnesses “did not insult, ridicule or slander” those who did not belong to the religion, nor encouraged violence, hatred or intolerance. The European Court ruled that “it is highly significant that no evidence of violence, hatred or coercion has been adduced” in the government’s case against the Taganrog congregation. Their religious activity and publications “appear to have been peaceful in accordance with their professed doctrine of non-violence”. Throughout this time, Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced legal proceedings against them. For example, the Russian Supreme Court did not allow them to present arguments in their defense; in other cases, congregations were not even informed of the charges against them.
The European Court’s decision will probably only have a symbolic impact; Russia was expelled from the council following the invasion of Ukraine, although it remains bound by the European Convention on Human Rights until September 16. The Russian parliament passed a law ending the Court’s jurisdiction. But the decision bears witness to what happens when innocent people are deprived of their rights and dignity by a police state.