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Legal Victories

ECHR Considered Why Jehovah's Witnesses Were Declared Extremists and Explained Why This Was Illegal. Key Quotes

Rostov Region,   Moscow,   France

The inclusion of Jehovah's Witnesses publications in the extremist list was the foundation for the subsequent ban of activities and criminal prosecution of believers. In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling in which it thoroughly analyzed all the logical and legal errors made by Russian courts.

Is it allowed to consider one's religion to be the only true one? According to the Russian government's explanation to the ECHR, "a local religious organization in Taganrog was engaged in illegal activities, including the distribution of printed materials proclaiming the superiority of their religion over others" (paragraph 144 of the ruling). This is the court assessment of the ECHR:

  • Paragraph 153: "... Preference for one's own religion, "perception" of it as unique and the only true one... is the cornerstone of almost any religious system, as is the evaluation of other faiths as 'false,' 'wrong,' or 'unsaving.'" ("... Preference for one's own religion, the perception of it as unique and the only true one... is a cornerstone of almost any religious system, as is the assessment of the other faiths as "false", "wrong" or "not conducive to salvation.")

  • Paragraph 153: "In the absence of expressions that seek to incite or justify violence or hatred based on religious intolerance, any religious entity or individual believers have the right to proclaim and defend their doctrine as the true and superior one and to engage in religious disputes and criticism seeking to prove the truth of one's own and the falsity of others' dogmas or beliefs.

  • Paragraph 156: "Even accepting that the texts promoted the idea that it was better to be a Jehovah's Witness than a member of another Christian denomination, it is significant that the texts did not insult, hold up to ridicule or slander non-Witnesses."

  • Paragraph 200: "...No elements of violence, hatred, abuse, insults, ridicule or calls for anyone's exclusion or discrimination have been identified in any of the publications.”

Is it correct to regard criticism as "incitement to hatred"? "The Regional Court [in Russia] referred to statements by two Orthodox priests and five Orthodox believers who claimed to have been offended by the Witnesses' criticism of Orthodoxy" (par 18). The ECHR assessed this situation as follows:

  • Paragraph 154: “Religious people may be genuinely offended by claims of the superiority of another's religion over their own. However, the fact that individuals or groups of people may perceive criticism as an insult does not mean that it constitutes ‘hate speech’

  • Paragraph 156: "Peacefully seeking to convince others of the superiority of one's own religion and urging them to abandon 'false religions' and join the 'true one' is a legitimate form of exercise of the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression which enjoys the protection under Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention."

"Incitement to hatred" - in whom and to whom? The European Court considered the allegations of incitement to religious hatred to be speculative and unsubstantiated. This is the conclusion reached by the ECHR:

  • Paragraph 200: "Although the Jehovah's Witnesses' publications have been widely available in many countries for decades, including in Russia, the Government has not submitted any evidence that they have caused interreligious tensions or led to any harmful consequences or violence, in Russia or elsewhere.”

  • Paragraph 157: “Both the applicants’ religious activities and the content of their publications appear to have been peaceful in line with their professed doctrine of non-violence.”

  • Paragraph 200: "There is no indication that the domestic courts perceived the texts in question as capable of leading to public disturbances or unrest.”

What was wrong with the expertise on which the court relied? The Russian courts based their decisions on the conclusions of experts invited by the prosecution. How did the European Court regard this?

  • Paragraph 203: "Expert conclusions ... go beyond addressing purely specialist issues, such as clarifying the import or meaning of particular words and expressions, and provide what is in effect a legal assessment of publications. The Court has found that situation unacceptable and stressed that all issues of law should be determined exclusively by judges."

  • Paragraph 204: "The courts limited their analysis to reproducing a summary of findings by expert witnesses which they endorsed in their entirety without drawing any legal conclusions from them, stating simply that they had no reason to doubt them."

  • Paragraph 204: "It is apparent from the judgments that it was not the court that made the decisive findings as to the 'extremist' nature of the Jehovah's Witnesses publications but the experts selected by the prosecutors and police."

Did the believers have an opportunity to defend their publications in court? After examining the applicants' complaints ECHR concluded as follows:

  • Paragraph 205: "They also failed to uphold the adversarial nature of the proceedings. Some applicants were unable to effectively put forward arguments in defence of their position, as the courts rejected their evidence, including alternative expert opinions."

  • Paragraph 205: "Other applicants had not been even informed of the banning proceedings and denied the possibility to challenge the first-instance judgment by way of appeal."

Is it possible to predict that the publication will or will not be recognized as extremist in Russia?" ... Decisions to classify Jehovah's Witnesses publications as "extremist"... were based on an arbitrarily broad definition of 'extremist activity' in Russian law" (par. 270). This is the problem, according to the ECHR, that this creates in society:

  • Paragraph 158: "This is a broad definition of 'extremism'... deprived individuals or organizations of the opportunity to foresee that their behavior, however peaceful and devoid of hatred or hostility, could be classified as 'extremist' and subject to restrictions". ("That broad definition of "extremism"... prevented individuals or organisations from being able to anticipate that their conduct, however peaceful and devoid of hatred or animosity it was, could be categorised as "extremist" and censured with restrictive measures.")

  • Paragraph 201: "This sweeping definition enabled the Russian authorities to restrict the distribution of non-violent religious publications but also prevented publishers and users of the publications to anticipate, on account of its lacking the necessary precision, which publications could be categorized as 'extremist' and banned on that account.”

The only grounds for liquidation and prohibition of all Jehovah's Witnesses organizations in Russia, confiscation of their property, criminal prosecution of over 600 believers and sentences of up to eight years in prison were the inclusion of their publications in the list of extremist materials. The fact that the European Court deemed this inclusion unlawful deprives all the persecution of the followers of this religion that has been unfolding in Russia of grounds.