RUSSIA: Regional targeting of religious “sects”
New amendments in Kostroma Region ban and punish “propaganda of religious sects among minors”. An official order in Arkhangelsk Region banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from renting municipally-owned property. A deputy Education Minister in Bashkortostan warned educational leaders – using FSB security service information – against “destructive religions”, such as Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Health Department of Kurgan Region warned health institutions that Baptist leaders intend to “use the technology of hidden influence on the psychic state of citizens to increase the number of parishioners through the involvement of specialist doctors in the area of psychology and psychiatry”. Although many of these official texts – seen by Forum 18 News Service – were subsequently revoked, religious communities say they reflect the attitudes of many local officials. “Such views are not just those of one official – many think like that,” the regional Baptist presbyter in Bashkortostan told Forum 18.
A series of local laws, instructions and court decisions across Russia aim to restrict the rights of religious communities the local authorities do not like, Forum 18 News Service has found. A new regional law has been adopted in Kostroma Region north-east of Moscow banning and punishing “propaganda of religious sects among minors”. Other official orders and letters banned rental of municipal property in the northern Arkhangelsk Region to Jehovah’s Witnesses or warned heads of educational institutions in the Republic of Bashkortostan in the Urals of the dangers of “destructive religions”, such as Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These were withdrawn only with the help of Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson.
Such official dislike – often couched in vague terminology – of religious communities that function perfectly legally comes as the Russian authorities are using anti-”extremism” laws to target specific religious communities. Individuals can face criminal prosecution, while prosecutors also attempt to ban through the courts publications of those communities. The main victims have been Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who read the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Prosecutors also tried – but have so far failed – to ban a leading Hare Krishna book (see F18News 28 March 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1685).
Amendments to Kostroma’s regional law on Guarantees of the Rights of the Child and the Regional Code of Administrative Violations ban and punish “propaganda of religious sects among minors”. The laws were adopted by the Regional Duma on 2 February, signed by Governor Igor Slyunyaev on 15 February and published on 17 February in the legislative supplement to the region’s official newspaper Severnaya Pravda. The amendments – which also included a ban on “propaganda” of homosexuality and paedophilia among minors – came into force ten days after their official publication.
The new Article 19.4 of the Guarantee of the Rights of the Child Law bans the “propaganda of religious sects among minors”. The new punishment for such “propaganda” comes in Article 20.3 of the Code. This prescribes a punishment of 5,000 Roubles (977 Norwegian Kroner, 130 Euros or 170 US Dollars) on individuals, 50,000 Roubles on officials and 100,000 on legal entities.
Defending the amendments
Tatyana Telezhkina, chair of the Regional Duma’s Labour, Social Policy and Health Committee which prepared the amendments, said the Governor’s administration initiated the moves. “The Prosecutor’s Office, the justice Department and Regional deputies all approved this law and the governor signed it,” she told Forum 18 from Kostroma on 3 April.
Telezhkina dismissed suggestions that the provision was vaguely worded. She defended the ban on “propaganda of religious sects among minors”, claiming that it only covered those who “drag young people into a religious sect not allowed by law”. Although she admitted that no such incidents have been reported in 2012, she insisted the law was necessary as a warning to those who might wish to do so.
Asked who such “religious sects” are, she responded: “Baptists, no not them, I don’t know, Jehovah’s Witnesses, those that are not official, maybe I’m not very well informed on this issue. Those that are functioning illegally.” She rejected suggestions that “religious sect” is pejorative and not a term defined in Russian law.
Telezhkina, who volunteered to Forum 18 that she is Russian Orthodox, insisted that Russian Orthodox priests would “certainly not” be eligible for punishment under these amendments. She was unable to explain why they might be treated differently to members of other religious communities.
A number of Regional Administrative Violations Codes include punishments for unauthorised “missionary activity”, often reflecting provisions in regional laws. Such punishments appear to be only rarely used (see F18News 24 March 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1555).
Human Rights Ombudsperson intervenes
After many complaints from religious organisations, Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Lukin wrote to Russia’s General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika declaring that Surin’s letter violated the Constitution, the Religion Law and the Anti-Extremism Law. In the letter, published on the Ombudsperson’s website on 19 January 2012, he pointed out that the named religious organisations are local, not foreign, and are registered in the Russian Federation.
Lukin rejected attempts to characterise any religious communities as “non-traditional” or “destructive”, insisting that the Constitution establishes the equality of all religious communities. He rejected the accusations against these religious organisations as “unfounded” and called for such accusations to stop. Lukin asked General Prosecutor Chaika to investigate the legality of Surin’s letter.
In his response on behalf of Chaika, also published on 19 January, Russia’s Deputy General Prosecutor Viktor Grin defended the Deputy Minister’s warnings as part of the required task of countering extremism. However, he admitted that including the list of named religious organisations “in the context of the letter could serve as the basis for the possible interpretation” that these organisations are linked to breaking up families, “infringing on the personality of individuals” and harming national security.
Grin told Lukin that Bashkortostan’s Education Ministry had withdrawn Surin’s letter on 29 December 2011 and announced this through its press service. Forum 18 could find no record of any announcement of this on the Ministry’s website.
“Not great freedom” in Bashkortostan
Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in a rented House of Culture in Ufa on 2 December 2011 were visited by two plain-clothes officials, Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18. One turned out to be from the Prosecutor’s Office. He insisted that the elder, Ildar Shaimukhametov, immediately leave the meeting to answer questions. The official wanted to know about what they study at the meetings, how many people attend and whether the authorities had been informed. Shaimukhametov was forced to write down all his contact details.
Arkhangelsk rental ban
Attempts by the local authorities in the northern Arkhangelsk Region to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from renting publicly-owned property were finally overturned in December 2011 after the involvement of Ombudsperson Lukin, according to correspondence posted on the Ombudsperson’s website.
Arkhangelsk Region’s Regional Policy Minister Aleksandr Belyaev had issued an order in June 2010, with a follow-up letter on 15 September 2011, instructing managers of municipally-owned property not to rent to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Belyaev cited as justification information he had received from Arkhangelsk Regional FSB security service.
Lukin wrote to the Regional FSB, which claimed to him that “no recommendations on the unacceptability of allowing the convoking of a Jehovah’s Witness congress had been sent to the government of Arkhangelsk Region”.
Lukin wrote to Belyaev on 11 November 2011 warning that he therefore blamed the regional administration – and the Regional Policy Ministry in particular – for the “illegal” ban on such rentals. The Ombudsperson noted that his ban violated the Constitution – as the Jehovah’s Witnesses function legally – and the rights of individuals guaranteed in the Constitution and the Religion Law. He added that Article 15, Part 3 of Russia’s Constitution specifies that laws and legal acts restricting individuals’ rights are only valid if published.
Lukin stressed that religious organisations need no permission to hold meetings, adding that no law prevents municipal property being rented to religious organisations. “Current legislation contains no ban on concluding such [rental] agreements with religious organisations,” he told Belyaev. Lukin warned him that those obstructing religious activity face prosecution under Criminal Code Article 148 and Code of Administrative Violations Article 5.26.
Lukin instructed Belyaev that any Jehovah’s Witness attempts to rent municipal property should not be obstructed.
In his 30 November 2011 response, Belyaev told Lukin that his views on the approach to the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been noted. He added that an announcement has gone out that “if representatives of the given religious organisation appeal to them to rent premises, the legal activity of registered religious organisations is not to be obstructed”.