Months after Putin calls Jehovah's Witnesses persecution ‘nonsense,’ another member gets six years in prison
Vladimir Putin: Turning to the Jehovah's Witnesses: [...] We must treat all religions equally — that’s a fact. But we also need to consider the country and the society in which we live. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should be counting the representatives of religious communities among the various destructive or even terrorist organizations.
Jehovah's Witnesses are also Christians, and I don’t really understand why they’re persecuted. So we just need to analyze this. That’s what we need to do. I will speak to [Supreme Court Chief Justice] Vyacheslav Mikhailovich [Lebedev], and we will try to do this.
Verdict by Oryol’s Zheleznodorozhny District Court: The court finds that Dennis Christensen, knowingly aware that the type of activity by the local religious organization the Oryol Jehovah's Witnesses and that, in relation to this organization, a court order to liquidate this group for extremist activity had entered force, resided in the city of Oryol and deliberately committed actions from January 18, 2017, to May 25, 2017, of an organized nature intended to continue the group’s illegal activities.
The court finds Dennis Christensen guilty of violating Section One of Federal Criminal Code 282.2 and sentences him to six years imprisonment in a general penal colony.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: We don’t have the right to comment on the court ruling that recognized this organization as extremist.
As for what you call the president’s “parting instructions” at the conclusion of the Human Rights Council session, which took place at the Kremlin on December 11, 2018: There’s a quite extensive list, and one of the provisions concerns this topic. So something will be done here, and the issue will be worked out. But we don’t know yet in what way.
Question: The president said quite clearly that this doesn’t mean we should count religious community representatives among destructive, terrorist organizations. He called this complete nonsense, and promised to give it his attention and deal with it. Now a man has been sentenced to six years in prison. Has there been a careful study of the issue?
Peskov: There will be. It’s a process. The issue is complicated, but it’s still on the agenda.
Question: In terms of common sense, are the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization or a religious group?
Peskov: We can’t operate with common-sense concepts for state purposes. First and foremost, we operate with concepts of legality and illegality. In this case, the activity of this religious organization is illegal.
Vladimir Putin recommends that the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation work toward generalizing judicial practices regarding violations of Russia’s laws on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and the formation of religious groups.
Despite the fact that the Presidential Council on Human Rights had met to discuss these issues and others in December 2018, Putin did not issue any other orders or recommendations related to the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
The Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation: In fulfillment of point 5 of Presidential Recommendation No. Pr-233, issued February 20, 2019 according to the conclusions reached at a hearing of the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has studied judicial practices applied in administrative cases covered by Article 5.26 of the Codex of Administrative Violations of the Russian Federation between 2016 and 2018.
The Supreme Court’s conclusions on the topic do not mention the criminal extremism cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Oktyabrsky Court of Tomsk convicts Sergey Klimov of extremism and sentences him to six years in a prison colony. Investigators had argued that Klimov led a Tomsk-based religious organization called Northern and used the group to recruit new Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Agence France-Presse: Today, in Tomsk, the Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Klimov was issued a six-year sentence. Less than a year ago, our president said this organization should not be prosecuted because its members are not terrorists or extremists. He called this kind of criminal prosecution total nonsense. How can that be reconciled with today’s sentence?
Dmitry Peskov: You know that at this point, it all aligns with current law. There have been no adjustments made to that legislation. A judicial decision was made on the basis of current law. We can’t and won’t comment on that decision. At present, there are no new elements in our approach to current law.
Meduza: We already discussed this topic with you in February, and back then, you said that this issue was being processed according to the discussions held at the last Human Rights Council meeting — there were recommendations made. And then, over the summer, the Supreme Court reported that it had fulfilled the president’s recommendation and generalized judicial practices for administrative cases on freedom of religion. The problem is that in the report published by the Supreme Court, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses isn’t mentioned at all. Given all that, here’s my question: What conclusions has the Kremlin reached based on the practices that the Supreme Court generalized following the presidential mandate?
Peskov: I just told you that there have been no new elements in our legislation regarding these sects at this point in time. Therefore, a decision was made based on that very body of law. There have been no new elements so far, so I can’t tell you anything.
Meduza: So one could say that the topic of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which the president himself raised last year, is closed in terms of the prospects for new orders or other actions on the part of the Kremlin?
Peskov: No, it simply has not developed. There are various perspectives out there on this point.
Meduza: But it might develop in the future?
Peskov: We can’t rule anything out, certainly.
Bloomberg: Then why did the president call the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses total nonsense? Was he out of the loop when it comes to the legislative issues concerning this sect?
Peskov: I’ve said everything on this issue that I wanted to say. I have nothing to add at this time.
Translation by Hilah Kohen