Legal Victories

The ECHR Issued Two Rulings in Favor of 14 Jehovah's Witnesses. They Complained About Searches and Detentions in 2010-2012

Karelia,   Ryazan Region,   Tambov Region,   Moscow Region,   France

On February 22, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights published two rulings in which it found that Russian authorities had violated the believers' right to freedom of religion when they detained them while discussing the Bible or conducting searches or inspections of their homes and places of worship.

The judgments are titled: “ Cheprunovs and Others v. Russia ” (complaint 74320/10) and “ Zharinova v. Russia ” (complaint 17715/12). In total, the ECHR ordered to pay the faithful about 100,000 euros in just compensation, damages to property and court costs. In both cases, the ECHR found that Russia had violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of thought, conscience and religion). All the episodes refer to a time long before the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that all legal entities of this religion should be liquidated in the country. Below are the details of each of the 2 cases.

Cheprunovy and Others v. Russia (complaint 74320/10). In the 1st of 2 judgments, the ECHR decided to bring together 5 complaints submitted on behalf of 13 Jehovah's Witnesses from Ryazan and Tambov regions and Karelia.

Spouses Mikhail and Larisa Cheprunov, who lived in Tambov in 2010, had their home searched. The search warrant stated that they may be in possession of "items, literature, and electronic media that promote religious hatred and enmity, as well as other records of the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group. As a result, a Bible, religious literature, a laptop and a number of other personal items were seized from them. The Cheprunovs appealed the search order to a higher court. On 10 June 2010 their appeal was rejected by the Tambov regional court. Having exhausted all the domestic remedies, the believers turned to the ECHR, claiming that Article 9 of the Convention had been violated in their case. The ECHR sided with them and ordered Russia to pay the Cheprunovs 7,500 euro in just satisfaction.

Together with the complaint of the Cheprunovs, the ECHR considered the complaints of Elena Chavychalova (Chavychalova v. Russia, complaint 74329/10) and Elena Novakovskaya (Novakovskaya v. Russia, complaint 74339/10), who lived in the town of Rybnoe (Ryazan region). An operative search operation (ORM) "inspection of the premises" was conducted in Chavichalova's home on the basis of allegations that she was the leader of an unregistered group of Jehovah's Witnesses and suspicions of crimes under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. They confiscated her Bible, issues of Watchtower and Awaken! magazines, and other religious literature. As a result, she was fined 1500 rubles for allegedly keeping nine items from her home for "mass distribution. On 16 June 2010 the Rybnovskiy District Court rejected her appeal against the administrative fine, and on 28 June 2010 the Russian Supreme Court rejected her appeal against the judge's decision to authorize the raid on her home. As a result, the ECHR awarded Chavichalova 7,500 euros in compensation, as well as 37 euros in material damages. Novakowskaya's home was also raided, which resulted in the seizure of a Bible, issues of the magazines "Watchtower" and "Awaken!", as well as other religious literature. The raid was sanctioned by the regional court. The believer attempted to appeal the decision, but on September 28, 2010, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dismissed her appeal on the pretext of missing the deadline. The ECHR also awarded her compensation in the amount of 7,500 euros.

Another complaint (Pekshuev and Others v. Russia, complaint 60771/13) was filed on behalf of six Jehovah's Witnesses from Kostomuksha and Kalevala (Karelia). The complaint concerns a raid on the homes of believers conducted in 2012 by armed Federal Security Service officers in balaclavas. Bibles, magazines and books, a computer, videos and other personal items were also seized from believers. The applicants challenged the legality of the "premises inspection" operational-search measures. The Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia dismissed their appeals in March and April 2013. In total, the ECHR awarded 38,000 euros in compensation to the applicants on this complaint.

Finally, the last of the complaints considered in this case (Ogorodnikov and Others v. Russia, complaint 29295/14) was filed on behalf of four believers and one local religious organization (LRO), namely the LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses "Kostomuksha" (liquidated in 2017). This complaint relates to the "inspection of premises" in the worship building and houses of believers, conducted in 2012 by the Federal Security Service (FSB). The complainants were actually detained by FSB officers and religious literature, including Bibles, magazines and books on biblical themes, computers, videos, and paper notebooks were seized from them. The believers filed complaints, protesting against the conducted ORM and the illegal actions of the FSB officers. On October 17, 2013, the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karelia dismissed the applicants' appeals. In total, the ECHR awarded the applicants 22,500 euros in compensation on this complaint.

Zharinova v. Russia (complaint 17715/12). This is the 2nd judgment of the ECHR, issued on February 22, 2022. The complaint was filed by Yekaterina Zharinova, a resident of Ivanteevka (Moscow region). In 2011, Zharinova was approached by two police officers as she, accompanied by her friend, was talking about the Bible with local residents. The policemen took the women to the station, where they interrogated them and then subjected them to a body search. The women were stripped to their underwear in the presence of two witnesses. They were also ordered to remove their shoes and insoles. The female officer then shook out the contents of the women's bags and confiscated personal belongings and religious literature, including Bibles. The women were finally released after about four and a half hours. Zharinova complained about the actions of the police to the prosecutor's office and to Ivanteevsky city court. All of her complaints were dismissed. On 20 September 2011, the Moscow Regional Court also dismissed her appeal. In the case, the ECHR found that the Russian authorities had violated Zharinova's rights to liberty and security of person (Article 5, paragraph 1) of the Convention and to freedom of religion (Article 9 of the Convention). As a result, the ECHR awarded her €10,000 in just satisfaction and €1,000 in legal costs.

Although these ECHR judgments do not directly address the repression of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses that has unfolded since 2017, the ECHR reaffirmed its well-established practice, consistently recognizing that the peaceful religious activities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are protected by Article 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Some 60 other complaints by believers are pending before the ECHR, including the Supreme Court's decision to liquidate all legal entities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. Since 2017, Russian authorities have conducted some 1,700 searches of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Both judgments are final and cannot be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.