April 19, 2017 – Fifth day of the Russia Supreme Court case brought by the Justice Ministry to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation.
The content below is a direct translation of the text found on jw-russia.org. As the site is run by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, the organisation behind Jehovah’s Witnesses, the content is biased towards their cause.
In the morning’s proceedings, there were some interesting subjects discussed.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses were suspected of ulterior motives for helping out cities in Russia. Representatives of the Administrative Center didn’t outright deny such claims but instead said that “it cannot be so”. Former Jehovah’s Witnesses know only too well that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ primary goal is to make their organization look appealing to potential converts. There is always ulterior motives to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ actions.
- A quote from the Watchtower publication “Mankind’s Search for God” is read out to the court. The exact quote is found on page 8, paragraph 11 of the book. What is interesting about this quote is that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not tolerate former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have “a different view point”. They are labelled as “apostate”, disfellowshipped, shunned and treated as if they were “children of the devil”.
- For former members who have serious issues with the blood policy, they will find Watchtower’s frustration with the court’s inquiries into this matter quite interesting.
- The court was also interested in who owns jw-russia.org.
In the afternoon’s proceedings, there were further subjects of interest.
- The format of the meeting minutes for the various LROs seemed to be almost identical, as if there was formal guidance on the approach.
- The videos relating to the planting of extremist materials were discussed but were not viewed by the court.
- Documents from various domestic and international organisations who condemn the possible banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses was discussed.
- Documents relating to blood transfusion cases were not admitted into case materials.
- Jehovah’s Witness representatives admitted that a letter (see here and here) found on a Russian media website alleged to be issued by the Administrative Center was authentic.
- The properties alleged to be owned by the Administrative Center and the LROs were examined. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that such properties were no longer theirs. This claim might be true based on recent attempts to legally transfer ownership to individual members rather than the administrative entities per the above letter.
9:00 More people than ever had formed a crowd at the front of the Supreme Court. The line started to form at night time. Many from different cities throughout Russia, came especially for the occasion. As the weather in Moscow was cold, most were dressed in winter gear. At times, some came with coffee and cakes for those standing in line. Police officers worked professionally and in harmony to ensure the safety of those who are there to attend the court hearing.
10:05 Chenkov made a motion to admit new documents. Referring to the ongoing process, he reported that in March/April 2017, law enforcement agencies throughout Russia invaded their religious buildings, demanded that they stop, questioned believers, and rewrote their passport data. Prosecutors issued warnings of criminal liability relating to extremism because of holding meetings to study the Bible. The Ministry of Justice objected to the motion. The court determined that such documents should be attached to the case materials.
10:15 The Ministry of Justice representative requested that copies of the decisions of the Administrative Center’s Steering Committee on the appointment of the LRO committees be attached to the case materials. According to the Ministry of Justice, these documents testify to the leading role of the Center. Representatives of the Administrative Center are left to the discretion of the court. In their opinion, this is untenable evidence. Watchtower’s attorney’s direct attention to the fact that some documents are dated 1998 and earlier (that is, before registration of the Administrative Center under the new law). In addition, the contents of the certificates fully comply with the Charter of the Administrative Center. Certificates were issued based on the fact that the Charter of the LROs was changing, so the certificates were issued to confirm that the persons indicated in them were still members of the LRO committees. The court determined that such documents should be attached to the case materials, with the exception of those that applied prior to the re-registration of the Administrative Center.
10:25 The court proceeded to examine the case materials. The first document was the statement of claim from the Ministry of Justice. The court consulted with the Ministry of Justice representative to clarify on what grounds the department had asked to liquidate all LROs together with the Administrative Center. He asked whether the Ministry of Justice intended to clarify the complaint. The Ministry of Justice did not intend to. Watchtower’s lawyers drew attention to the property listed in the complaint and stated that it did not belong to the Administrative Center.
10:35 The court examined the document, “The Fundamentals of the Doctrine and the Practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Lawyer’s drew attention to the provisions of love for neighbor and tolerance (which directly contradicts the notion of extremism). They were also asked to read out the provisions where it said that Jehovah’s Witnesses were trying to give their children a good education.
10:40 The Charter of the Administrative Center is investigated. The court is interested in the question of whether the religious groups are part of the structure of the LROs. They wanted to know how many groups were unregistered. The lawyers explained that unregistered groups are part of the Administrative Center’s structure: The concept of “structure” in the “Law on Freedom of Conscience” is associated with the separation of religion from the state. Religions exist in accordance with their internal hierarchical institutional structure, to which the state does not delve. In this regard, the lawyers believe that the Administrative Center does not have to maintain legal documentation related to the activities of unregistered groups, and therefore cannot provide the court with official information.
10:47 The court announces a 10-minute technical break.
11:00 The study of documents continued. The court listed various court decisions. When the decision of the Rostov Regional Court of 2009 (regarding the Taganrog LRO) was investigated, Watchtower’s representative, Omelchenko, drew attention to the fact that such a decision was made prior to the decision of the Assembly of the Supreme Court, which determined what was and was not extremism. For example, by this decision, the Taganrog community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as their publications, were recognized for “undermining respect for other religions”, “refusing to use blood for medical purposes”, and “refusing to fulfill civil obligations”. Also, a number of publications were considered extremist when they had absolutely nothing to do with extremism. For example, the brochure, “Jehovah’s Witnesses – Who are they? What do they believe?” was deemed extremist for mentioning that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take up arms. There were other examples.
11:10 Representatives of the Administrative Center drew attention to the fact that the collection of judicial acts were issued without the involvement of the Administrative Center. Therefore, they believed that they could not be served as evidence in this suit.
11:15 The Administrative Center representative, Novakov, drew attention to the fact that at least one court decision, although attached to the case materials by the Ministry of Justice, was quashed by a higher court.
11:20 The Ministry of Justice’s Inspection Report is being discussed. The Administrative Center’s lawyers drew attention to what they believe is the unreliability of the Ministry of Justice’s conclusion that the Administrative Center hides information about imported literature. In fact, having provided more than 70’000 sheets of documents for examination by the Ministry of Justice, the Administrative Center refused to provide information that the Ministry of Justice had requested from the customs authorities in the framework of inter-agency cooperation.
11:30 The Ministry of Justice representative drew attention to the fact that, according to one of the documents, more than 2000 unregistered groups operated under the supervision of the Administrative Center. The Administrative Center’s lawyers explained that this was an internal spiritual structure.
The court asks the Ministry of Justice why the turnover and balance sheets were attached to the case materials. The Ministry of Justice representative explained that the statements may indicate that “money was sent to finance extremist activities.” The court asked for evidence that money was spent on extremist activity and not on ordinary statutory goals. The Ministry of Justice did not have exact data. Administrative Center representative, Toporov, drew attention to the fact that, as part of an audit by the Ministry of Justice, the Administrative Center provided all their donation contracts with the primary purpose of understanding their financial transfers. Toporov’s question was “Why didn’t the Ministry of Justice submit these documents to the court?”
11:40 Administrative Center representative, Omelchenko, asked the Ministry of Justice representative: “Can you specify the amount spent, when it was spent, by whom and for what type of extremist activity it was used for?” The Ministry of Justice had no information.
11:45 The documents that proved the prosecutor’s office collected information about the property of believers was examined. The Administrative Center’s representatives were interested in the Ministry of Justice representative’s response to what purpose this information was collected. Answer: for the purpose of confiscating property in the event that the court adopts an appropriate decision.
11:50 Letters of gratitude for help in the improvement of cities issued by Russian authorities to the Administrative Center and the LROs were reviewed. The Ministry of Justice representative believed that Jehovah’s Witnesses were doing this for the purpose of missionary activity. Chenkov, referring to the Ministry of Justice representative: “Svetlana Konstantinova, when it came to financing the LROs, you suspected extremist goals. When believers participated in helping the city, you again assumed some kind of dirty trick. It cannot be so!”
11:55 Chenkov drew attention to the State Religious Expert Examination of the Ministry of Justice, the basis upon which the Administrative Center was registered in 1999. Conclusions of this expertise were still in effect. Zhenkov believed that an attempt to revise the conclusions of the competent expertise in the court session was unacceptable.
12:00 Court business went on to review expert conclusions of which 70 testified to the absence of extremism in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications. Many such studies were conducted in academic institutions on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. For example, Chenkov, referring to the conclusions of the state academic institution, quotes from the book, “Mankind’s Search for God” (included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials (FLEM)). The book says [on page 8, para 11], “To study different religions need not imply infidelity to one’s own faith, but rather it may be enlarged by seeing how other people have sought for reality and have been enriched by their search. Knowledge leads to understanding and understanding to tolerance of people with a different view point.” Experts found no signs of extremism in the book, but rather the opposite. Nevertheless, the book is included in the FLEM.
12:05 The Ministry of Justice believed that these examinations were carried out on the request of the Administrative Center’s laywers, which means that they contain expert’s biased opinions. Omelchenko explained that this was not true: a significant part of the examinations were carried out at the request of the courts, law enforcement agencies and custom authorities.
12:15 Court decisions and sentences that came into force were being investigated which prove the absence of extremism in the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Believers were prosecuted and some were held up in the courts for up to five years before being acquitted. Now they are again threatened with sanctions in the event that the complaints of the Ministry of Justice are satisfied.
12:17 Representative Novakov: The planting of extremist materials into Jehovah’s Witnesses’ places of worship is at epidemic proportions in Russia. Novakov described the events of September 20, 2016 in Artse Nezlobnaya (Stavropol region), when law enforcement offices ripped down the doors and planted extremist materials right under the surveillance cameras.
12:19 Omelchenko: The Ministry of Justice did nothing to ensure that the expert conclusions made on the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not differ between those examinations made in the North and the South of the country. As a party to the court cases, the Ministry of Justice didn’t review the court decisions that had come into effect on the recognition of the materials of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist.
12:25 The decisions of the European Court of human Rights (ECHR) were reviewed. Despite the fact that the ECHR gave legal interpretion to the denial of transfusion of blood by believers, the court again developed a discussion with regard to the transfusion of blood. The Ministry of Justice representative referred to a case where a child of Jehovah’s Witnesses died after a terrible accident, and also referred to a case involving the death of a child born with multiple deformities. The court asked the Ministry of Justice representative whethere there was a causal relationship between the non-use of donor blood and the deaths that took place. The Administrative Center’s lawyers inform the court about information the Ministry of Justice representative is leaving out: in both cases, criminal proceedings were initiated against the parents, extensive expert evaluations were carried out to establish the absence of such a causal link. The parents were acquitted due to lack of evidence of a crime.
12:40 Materials proving that believers applied to the appropriate competent authorities with regard to the falsification of facts (planting of evidence) was examined.
12:45 Court decisions on the recognition of literature as extremist materials. It could be seen that neither the Administrative Center or representatives of the publishing corporation (Watchtower), were involved in the cases. Administrative Center representatives talked about double standards of state bodies. When it was necessary to recognize literature as extremist, the Administrative Center was not allowed to take part in the cases, but when there was a move to liquidate the Administrative Center, it was based on the facts that literature had been recognized as extremist.
13:00 In the case materials, there were DVDs with video-recordings. Novakov said that such materials would help understand whether the Administrative Center had brought prohibited materials into their places of worship, or whether any other related person had done so. The discs would allow the court to see the reaction of the believers themselves – how they reacted indignantly at the appearance of prohibited materials in their places of worship.
13:05 The court asked from what time the videos belonged. Novakov: The events in the village of Nezlobnoya date back to September 2016. It was only because of the video recordings that law enforcement officers refused to press charges against the LROs. Novakov described falsifications caught on camera in other Russian cities.
13:10 The court asked the Administrative Center’s representatives whether all these facts were appealed in the established order. And if so, were there any results. The representatives confirmed that they had appealed and are continually appealing, but so far they have been unsuccessful. The court proceeded to examine other evidence without viewing the video recording.
13:20 In total there are at least 43 volumes of evidence in the case materials. So far, the court has examined 24 volumes.
13:25 The court read out the Administrative Center’s public statement that they have nothing to do with extremism. The application was originally posted on the website, jw-russia.org. In this case, the court finds out who is the copyright owner of this site. The representatives of the Administrative Center report that the website belongs to the foreign entity, “Watchtower Society”. The administrative center does not have a website, so the application was posted on the website of another organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
13:30 Several of the volumes of evidence in the case materials consist of LRO inspections by the justice authorities, but no violations of the law have been identified. The Ministry of Justice requests that copies of various warnings and warnings issued to the Administrative Center be attached to the case materials.
13:43 The court announces a break until 14:30.
14:40 The hearing continued. Volume 39, which contains LRO’s meeting minutes from various cities is reviewed. The minutes recorded in detail the events associated with the planting of extremist literature, as well as measures that had been taken against the emergence of extremist literature in the religious buildings.
14:45 The court draws attention to the fact that the form used for the meeting minutes of the various LROs were similar to each other. The court is interested in whether there is an approved form used for these meeting minutes. Omelchenko explains that there is no approved form. The reason for their similarity is explained by the face that believers communicate closely with each other.
14:50 The court again asks the Administrative Center’s representatives whether they intend to challenge the court’s decisions that formed the basis of the complaint. Omelchenko makes it clear that the current court proceedings were not a review of those decisions. In this proceeding, like any other evidence in a case, the court must evaluate the degree of their relevance.
15:02 Color photographs were viewed. They were freeze frames of video materials that prove the planting of extremist materials in religious buildings. Novakov drew attention to a single scheme that was carried out across the country and that was of planting materials.
15:07 Another characteristic of the false planting was that of false witnesses. One example was the notarized certificate of friendship between one of the witnesses and a FSB officer on a social network.
15:08 In the village of Kurdzhinovo (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), there believers were fined on the basis of statements made by false witnesses. Subsequently, these witnesses admitted that they knowingly gave false testimony under pressure from law enforcement. Novakov pointed out that such admissions were available in the case materials.
15:13 Omelchenko drew attention to the court decisions handed down in Voronezh. The court correctly assessed that material found stuck under a carpet on the floor were clearly planted. As the Voronezh court noted in its decision, the fact that the witnesses profess the same religion could be given as grounds to doubt the authenticity of their testimony.
15:16 Omelchenko returns to the question raised earlier at 14:45. He showed the court a number of forms from different LROs. These forms vary greatly. The court asked the Ministry of Justice representative whether her department had doubts that there were forms that differ in design. She didn’t have doubts. Neither did the court have doubts.
15:20 Toporov drew attention to the fact that the decision to liquidate the Birobidzhan LRO was made in a trial involving the same Ministry of Justice representative, S. Borisova. The Administrative Center was not involved in the case, as its rights were not affected. Therefore, Toporov was surprised that in this case, the Ministry of Justice has changed its position and has applied the Briobidzhan’s LRO decision on to the Administrative Center.
15:25 Documents signed by various international and domestic bodies and organizations that expressed concern about the application of anti-extremism legislation to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was examined. Omelchenko read out typical excerpts from those documents, including appeals that were made to the Russian Federation to stop the political persecution of believers.
15:42 The court returns to petitions previously referred to that were deferred. The Ministry of Justice representative asked to attach 12 judgements that gave doctors the right to use donor blood for the treatment of minors to the case materials. The Administrative Center’s representatives did not believe that these decisions were relevant to the case.
- Firstly, the rejection of a blood transfusion is not related to the concept of extremism (the Ministry of Justice has not cited anything else in their suit to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, other than the grounds of extremist activity).
- Secondly, the Administrative Center was not party to those cases and is not even mentioned in any of those decisions.
- Thirdly, the introduction of these decisions affects medical confidentiality. For them to assess the judgments as well as their medical records, the court would need to seek the consent of the patients. In all decisions, without exception, parents would treat their children and treat them in hospitals. With regard to refusal of treatment, it was not a lie.
Chenkov drew attention to that fact that the ECHR ruling, which gives legal interpretation of the refusal of blood transfustions, gave examples of prohibitions in Islam and Orthodoxy that may be potentially hazardous to health. “However, the Ministry of Justice does not come out with a lawsuit to liquidate the centralized organisation of these religions,” noted Chenkov.
15:59 The court refused to include court decisions related to blood transfusion procedures.
16:10 The court decides on whether to attach copies of 28 actions by the prosecutor’s office, namely warnings issued against various LROs. These actions were carried out over many years, not just the last 3 years.
16:20 The court asks why the Ministry of Justice didn’t apply to local courts on these actions. The Ministry of Justice explained that the violations were minor or eliminated. Representatives of the Administrative Center noted that these actions were not connected with extremist activity. The court refused to attach these actions to the case materials.
16:22 The court returned to the question on whether to attached a copy of an internal document of Jehovah’s Witnesses received by the Ministry of Justice from open sources (from NTV‘s website) to the case. The Administrative Center’s representatives confirmed the authenticity of the text. They explain the contents of the letter to the court, which detailed the procedure relating to believer’s voluntary donations. They explain to the court what the “body of elders” are and who are the “district overseers”. Taking into account detailed explanations, the court decides to attach this document to the case materials.
16:35 In response to a statement by the Ministry of Justice representative that the LRO chairmen are appointed upon the decision of the Administrative Center is mandatory, Toporov drew attention to the wording, “recommends as chairman of the LRO”.
16:36 The Ministry of Justice representatives asks that an updated list of property owned by the Administrative Center and LROs extracted from the state register be attached to the case materials. The court gives the defendants 10 minutes to become acquainted with the extract.
16:38 A small technical break is announced.
17:11 The hearing resumed. The representatives of the defendant, having read the extract from the register, comment that the extract is not relevant information because it was property that was once owned by the Administrative Center or the LROs but is no longer. The Ministry of Justice explains that the data contained in this form was provided by Rosreestr (Federal Service for State Registration, Boundaries and Cartography). The court decides to attach.
17:16 The court is interested in the link between the LRO and the Administrative Center in regards to how the LRO’s charter is forumlated. To this end, the judge asks the parties if they have an example of a LRO charter. The Ministry of Justice does not. Omelchenko presents to the court a sample of the Charter of the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The text of the charter states that the LRO is included in the “canonical structure” of the Administrative Center, belongs to the “religious confession of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. There is no wording relating to “structural unit” (a term applied to political parties), of which the plaintiff insists there is.
17:29 The court refused the previously filed motion to watch a video of the planting of extremist materials.
17:30 As there are no more requests, the court announces the continuation of the hearings on Thursday, April 20 2017 at 2pm (Russian time)