Russian Police Tortured Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut with Stun Guns

stun master 100-sA stun gun like the Stun Master S-100 could have been used by Russian police on recalcitrant Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut. The Stun Master delivers an electric shock of 100,000 volts and sells for a mere $22 at diyhomeprotection.com.

Forensic Examination Confirms Surgut Jehovah’s Witnesses Tortured with Stun Gun
OVD Info
March 28, 2019

Defense lawyers commissioned an independent forensic examination of the wounds on the bodies of six Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut. The Stealth Forensic Research Institute concluded five of the men could have been tortured with stun guns. OVD Info has a copy of the institute’s findings.

Burns from stun guns were found on Vyacheslav Boronos, Yevgeny Kairyak, Kirill Severinchik, Alexei Plekhov, and Artyom Kim.

The forensic examiners concluded the wounds on the bodies of the arrested men were consistent with wounds they could have received if they had been shocked with stun guns. The examiners arrived at the findings after analyzing medical files and considering the opinions of experts on the wounds and the photographic and video documentation of the wounds.

In mid February, numerous police raids and searches were carried out in the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut. At least seven of the men detained during the raids complained they were beaten, humiliated, and tortured with stun guns. OVD Info published an account of these events, as provided by the victims’ lawyer.

On March 27, the Russian Investigative Committee reported the Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during the raids in Surgut had not been tortured with stun guns. But they had been subjected to physical force due to the fact that they, allegedly, had resisted arrest. The Investigative Committee thus explained why there had been bruises and abrasions of the legs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia was an extremist group and banned its work nationwide. In August 2017, all Jehovah’s Witness congregations in Russia were placed on the list of officially banned “extremist” groups.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Here is a list of the articles I have previously published about the new campaign of persecution of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses:

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Source: DIY Home Protection

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Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions or limitations on this right.

Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Russian Federation signed the European Convention on Human Rights on February 28, 1996, and ratified it on May 5, 1998.

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Alexander Verkhovsky: Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism”

yaltinskoe_delo_hizb_ut_tahrir_1.jpgRussia has used its official ban on the Muslim movement Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, such as these six men, charged in the so-called Yalta Case. The fact that the defendants are neither terrorists nor members of Hizb ut-Tahrir has not stopped Russian authorities from prosecuting them for these imaginary crimes. Courtesy of Crimean Tatar Resource Center

Russia’s Campaign Against “Religious Extremism” Has Been Expanding: It Should Be Reined In
Alexander Verkhovsky
Nezavisimaya Gazeta
March 5, 2019

The dramatic events of recent weeks surrounding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the harsh prison sentence handed down to Dennis Christensen, and the torture of detained believers in Surgut, make us wonder how unique what has been happening to them has been.

First, we should recall the bare facts. The Russian authorities have banned numerous texts published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including their translation of the Bible into Russian. All their local branches have been banned and their property confiscated. More than forty criminal cases are underway, cases in which 120 people, aged 23 to 84, have been charged. Twenty-five of those charged have been remanded in custody. All of them have been charged with going on with the work of a banned “extremist” organization (punishable under Article 282.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code), although this amounted only to holding prayer meetings and group discussions

The Russian Supreme Court decided to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses completely on April 20, 2017. Criminal cases based on the ban were launched a year later, that is, over a hundred suspects were charged in a matter of ten months, and yet not a single case has gone to court yet.

In fact, Christensen was convicted on the basis of an earlier ban of a local Jehovah’s Witness branch. There were eight such bans of local branches. Unlike his co-religionists, convicted earlier under the same ban, Christensen was sentenced to actual prison time. After the so-called Yarovaya package was adopted by the Russian parliament, he had to be sentenced to no less than six years in prison, and this was what happened. It should make us extremely concerned about what will happen to current and future suspects, especially the ones now jailed in remand prisons.

But what has happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is not unique. In exactly the same way, the peaceable followers of the fundamentalist movement Tablighi Jamaat and the peaceable followers of the quite moderate Turkish theologian Said Nursi have been banned in Russia and persecuted under the same law in the Russian Criminal Code.

The pattern was the same. First, the texts published by the groups were banned because, allegedly, they claimed the superiority of their religious doctrines to others and contained hostile descriptions of non-believers. Then, the organizations themselves were banned for the same reasons, including using the banned texts in their worship services. Finally, the Russian authorities prosecuted believers for “going on with the work” of their now-banned organizations. Moreover, the courts usually gave defendants probation sentences at first. Subsequently, however, people convicted on the same charges were sent to prison and the sentences handed down were harsher.

The Muslim activists were also tortured by Russian law enforcement. The current shock over events in Surgut can be put down to the fact that Russian society is in some sense inured to the torture of Muslims suspected of “radicalism.”

The Russian Supreme Court banned all three groups: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the followers of Said Nusri, and Tablighi Jamaat. For some reason, it paid no mind to the fuzzy definition of “extremism” to which it resorted in all three rulings. It is true that all three religious doctrines claim only their way is the true way and that all other ways are false, and their texts occasionally contain rather harsh descriptions of non-believers. The current Russian legal definition of “extremism” is such that these things can be considered evidence of “extremism,” but you could find more or less the same things in nearly all religious doctrines. Such claims are typical of confessions of faith, and, as such, they are protected by the Russian Constitution.

With regard to criminal cases of incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of religious convictions, religious rituals, and religious groups is not a criminal offense. For some reason, however, this ruling has not been applied in civil cases banning religious literature and organizations, although the conflict between the procedure for banning religious “extremism” and Russia’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of conscience is striking. Perhaps unraveling this conflict is a job for the Russian Constitutional Court?

Returning to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we should again pay attention to the scale of their persecution. The number of accused Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of one calendar year has been much greater than the numbers of the two Muslim groups mentioned. It is more comparable to the persecution of the radical movement Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islaami.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in 2003 as a terrorist group, although it has not been implicated in terrorism. The Russian authorities were clearly in a hurry to ban it, so the actual danger it posed or did not pose to the constitution was not even at issue. Members of the movement have been charged under the anti-terrorist laws in the criminal code, and so their prison sentences have been even harsher. But there are similarities with the other religious groups we have been discussing: participating in group gatherings and reading the same texts were offered as evidence of their criminal deeds.

Another serious conflict emerges in this case between the Russian Constitution and the articles in the Russian Criminal Code dealing with “extremist” (Article 282.2) and “terrorist” (Article 205.5) groups. Let us assume for simplicity’s sake that a group has been banned altogether legitimately. When this happens, the group’s formal and informal members are obliged to honor the court’s ban. But they have not changed their views, and they still associate with the same group of people. It is likely they would want to discuss what to do in the circumstances: perhaps, for example, establishing a new group based on slightly different principles. If we are dealing with a dangerous group that has been rightfully outlawed, such discussions and meetings could not help but interest the police and security services, but they are hardly criminal in their own right, for these people have not been deprived of their basic civic rights, including the right to assemble. Besides, not only active members could take part in these meetings but also outsiders, and yet law enforcement does not especially distinguish between the two groups of people in practice.

These problems are more apparent when we speak of religious communities. The Russian Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion both alone and in the company of others. The work of any religious organization mainly consists in praying together and other joint activities, such as confessing and preaching as part of religious services. If a religious association has been banned, its members are in effect barred from exercising their constitutional right. If Russia’s current anti-“extremist” laws are meant to enact such severe restrictions of a fundamental human right, this have never been explicitly stated. So, again, one would like the Russian Constitutional Court to issue a clarification. It is, after all, a matter of tens of thousands of Russian nationals potentially facing criminal charges.

Since there have not been any clarifications, and the current crackdown has only been picking up steam, many have wondered how it happened. There is hardly a single, simple answer to this question. We might say that in their campaign against potentially dangerous movements, the Russian authorities have gone much too far and made a considerable number of mistakes. One of the reasons is that they listened to politically and religiously biased “experts,” and they continue to heed their advice, judging by the way the anti-“extremist” campaign has progressed in the religious realm. Our many years of experience with these cases have shown that counterarguments by religious studies scholars and legal experts rarely reverse the current tendency. They prove useful only when the authorities are willing to listen to them for reasons of their own.

The growing campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been horrifying, but there is also the chance that this time someone in the elite will finally come to their senses and change their mind. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly pose no threat whatsoever to Russian national security. Moreover, it is clearly just as impossible to eradicate their religion in Russia, since it would be wrong to jail or force over 100,000 people to emigrate, especially since Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses did not give up their faith in the worst of times.

The problem, however, is whether the officials who make key decisions about large-scale crackdowns could find acceptable means for reconsidering their earlier decisions. If this does happen, it matters, given the constitutional conflicts described above, whether anti-“extremist” policies will be reconsidered, if only in the religious realm.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center. Thanks to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia without Putin

1211505Vladimir Putin playing hockey Moscow’s Red Square on December 29, 2018. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharufulin/TASS and RA’s Daily News Blast

Yana Teplitskaya
Facebook
December 27, 2018

Police officers usually realize that, whatever they do, they are breaking the law or disobeying standing orders, and since they are afraid of being found out, they definitely don’t talk to the press. Here we have a different story, which I don’t know how to explain. Petersburg opposition activists are well aware of a police officer from the “Third Department” by the name of Ruslan Sentemov, while other people have not heard of him, likely as not. For some reason, Sentemov operates quite openly, going so far as to give the local news website Fontanka.ru a detailed interview about his work.

I don’t knowwhat happened to Petersburg opposition activist Shakhnaz Shitik at the Yabloko Party’s Petersburg office, but this is what happened at the police precinct, as related by Shakhnaz. It has been corroborated by one police officer, nor has it been refuted by the other officers who were present. According to the shift commander, during the incident, all or nearly all the officers at the 78th Police Precinct were in the duty room and were separated from the incident by a glass door. I also understand that Shakhnaz’s account is borne out by the videotape that civil rights activist Dinar Idrisov and Petersburg city councilman Boris Vishnevsky have seen.

Sentemov and two of his colleagues (their names are also known) used force on Shakhnaz. They pressed her head hard to her chest, causing her agonizing pain. Consequently, in the incident report, according to the social defender, in addition to the injuries she suffered at the Yabloko office, damage to her cervical vertebrae was caused at the police station.

Moreover, the officers grabbed Shakhnaz’s telephone by sticking their hands down her painties. No public witnesses or female police officers were present during this search, nor was an incident report filed. Taken from her but not officially confiscated, her telephone lay in the police department, along with her blouse and other clothing, prior to the Public Monitoring Commission’s visit. During the incident, Shakhnaz was wearing a bra. The blouse was returned to her only at the hospital.

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Concerning the sadistic tendencies of our police investigators and judges, I would argue this is an allegory, artistic embellishment. Otherwise, what kind of judicial system do we have? These were your words: judicial system. The system includes the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. Are they sadists, too? We should choose our words more carefully. I realize you wanted to rouse us, you wanted to get our attention. You did what you set out to do. Thank you.

The courts and law enforcement agencies are staffed by our fellow Russian citizens. They live in the places we live. They [were] raised in the same families in which we were raised. They are part of our society. There are probably all kinds of different people everywhere, in all large organizations. If you have a look at the percentage of law enforcement officers convicted of crimes, it has recently increased, and increased considerably.

This suggests the work of housecleaning has not stood still. It has intensified and produced certain results. In order to minimize this, however, we do not need trepressive actions against the justice or judicial system. We need serious, multi-pronged, multi-facted work. That is what we have been trying to do on this Council.

Source: Vladimir Putin, Meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, The Kremlin, Moscow, December 11, 2018. Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for the heads-up.

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Open Russia Activist Whom Police Assaulted in October Detained in Lipetsk
OVD Info
December 12, 2018

Alexander Kiselevich, the Open Russia activist assaulted by four police officers in October, has been detained in Lipetsk. He has reported the incident to OVD Info.

Kiselevich was stopped near his home by traffic police. After checking his papers, they asked Kiselevich to follow them to the Izmalkovo District Police Department, where he was charged with breaking Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code (disobeying a police officer’s lawful orders). The policemen told Kiselevich he would be taken to court from the police station.

In October, on the eve of an election to choose the head of the Izmalkovo District Council, Kiselevich was beaten by police officers before being taken to a psychiatric hospital for a compulsory examination. Kiselevich was thus unable to present himself to the competition committee, and his name was struck from the ballot

Kiselevich was charged with breaking Article 19.3 after the incident in October. The police claimed Kiselevich resisted them when they were forcibly delivering him to the psychiatric hospital.

Kiselevich is a well-known opposition activist in Lipetsk Region. In 2016, he was elected head of the Afanasyevo Village Council, but shortly thereafter the majority of council members voted to dismiss him. Kiselevich was charged with embezzlement (Article 160 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code).

UPDATE. Kiselevich has reported to MBKh Media that a court in Lipetsk has found him guilt of disobeying a policeman’s lawful orders and fined him 500 rubles. Kiselevich plans to appeal the sentence.

Translated by the Russian Reader

One Good Turn Deserves Another

Media Identify Prigozhin Firms as Developers of Judicial Quarter in Petersburg
According to Kommersant, Firms Affiliated with Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Concord Management and Consulting Are Project Subcontractors
Grigory Dubov
RBC
December 26, 2018

755458040463897Judicial district construction site in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Stanislav Zaburdayev/TASS and RBC

Firms affiliated with businessman and restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin will build the judicial quarter in Petersburg, a project costing 35.7 billion rubles [approx. 455 million euros] that will include residential buildings for the Russian Supreme Court and Boris Eifman’s Dance Palace, report sources quoted by Kommersant newspaper familiar with the project, which has been designed by the Russian Presidential Property Management Department and construction industry insiders.

The sources say the subcontractor was selected in the summer of 2018 without tendering. The newspaper’s sources claim firms affiliated with Prigozhin have launched the process of awarding commercial tenders and have been requesting bids from major construction companies for the construction of individual buildings without advance payment. One of the Prigozhin-affiliated companies engaged in sending out bid and tender requests is Lizena, a firm founded in 2014.

In 2016, the Russian Presidential Property Management Department pledged it would build two office buildings for the Supreme Court and Judicial Department, the Dance Palance, and four residential buildings containing a total of 600 apartments within four years in Petersburg. Construction was supposed to have begun in 2017, and the opening of the facility was scheduled for 2020. In May 2017, the Presidential Property Management Department declared the project top secret and obliged future contractors to maintain secrecy.

judicial quarterThe future judicial quarter in Petersburg is currently a giant sandbox. Photo courtesy of Alexander Koryakov/Kommersant

Construction was not begun, however. In September 2018, the Presidential Property Management Department acknowledged the deadlines it had set would be missed. As Kommersant wrote, the department failed to spend the 22.3 billion rubles allocated on the project. The funds were reallocated for 2021, when completion of construction has been planned. As transpired in December, an advance payment in the amount of more then 9.2 billion rubles was postponed from 2018 to 2021; no advances are envisaged in 2019 and 2020. As of December 1, according to the Federal Targeted Investment Program, builders in Petersburg had started to dig foundation pits for the residential complex. There was no information about the Supreme Court’s residence and the Dance Palace.

In March, the US Department of Justice imposed sanctions against Prigozhin and his companies Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering. In February, Prigozhin and twelve other Russian nationals, as well as a number of legal entities, were indicted for interfering in the 2016 US elections. Included in the indictment was Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, which was abolished [sic] in 2016. RBC’s sources identified the IRA as the “troll factory” that, according to the US Department of Justice, had tried to influence US voters since 2014. President Putin called the charges made against Prigozhin by US officials “laughable.”

prigozhinYevgeny Prigozhin. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Metzel/TASS and RBC

A number of media outlets have also identified Prigozhin as “Putin’s chef.”

At his press conference on December 20, Putin said, “All my chefs are officers of the Federal Protection Service (FSO). All of them are military men. I have no other chefs.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Judgement Day: Russia’s Rabid Crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses

yuri zalipayevIs Russian Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipayev an “extremist”? Should he be imprisoned for five years for exercising his right to freedom of conscience, as guaranteed by the Russian Constitution? Photo courtesy of jw-russia.org

Not Everyone Shall Be Guaranteed the Freedom of Conscience: How Russia Has Been Persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses
Marina Muratova
OVD Info
August 23, 2018

Believe what you will, but do not do it openly is how the freedom of religion should now be interpreted in Russia. The authorities have sent over fifty people to court for praying and reading the Bible together. Jehovah’s Witnesses have had their homes searched and been arrested like people suspected of grave offenses. The grounds for these actions is the argument that the practice of their faith is a “continuation of the activities of an extremist organization.” OVD Info investigated the charges.

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with others any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views, and act according to them.
—Article 28, Constitution of the Russian Federation

Russia vs. the Jehovah’s Witnesses
23 criminal cases in 18 regions of Russia, 53 people charged, 13 suspects. 31 people released on their own recognizance, 9 people under house arrest, 26 people in remand prisons. Several people assaulted by police during searches of their homes, the doors of those homes kicked down in nearly all cases. Nighttime interrogations, confiscated electronic devices, papers, and money, blocked bank accounts.

On April 20, 2017,  the Russian Supreme Court shut down the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia for violating the law against “extremism.” All 395 official chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia were banned. The EU’s mission to Russia said the ruling could lead to arrests. That is what has happened.

The Charges
Believers gather to pray and read the Bible, meaning they continue the work of a banned organization, according to Russian police investigators. There are few exceptions: nearly all the Jehovah’s Witness who have been detained have been charged with violating Russian Criminal Code Article 282.2 (“organization of and involvement in the work of an extremist organization”).

Danish national and Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen was, among other things, charged with financing extremist activities. The prosecutor submitted to the court records,  allegedly showing that money was transferred from the account of the Jehovah’s Witnesses after the church was shut down. It transpired the transactions in question had been executed by the bank itself after the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been dissolved as a legal entity. Another Jehovah’s Witness, Yuri Zalipayev, stands accused of inciting assaults on Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Zalipayev’s defense attorney is sure police investigators cooked up their evidence and then tried to conceal the frame-up.  Arkadya Akopyan, a 70-year-old tailor, has also been charged with insulting Muslims and |Russian Orthodox Christians. There is no audio or video evidence, only a witness’s testimony.

arkadya akopyanIs Russian Jehovah’s Witness Arkadya Akopyan an extremist? Photo by Diana Khachatryan. Courtesy of Takie Dela

Police Searches of Homes
Russian law enforcement authorities usually conduct searches simultaneously in the flats of several Jehovah’s Witnesses early in the morning. Jehovah’s Witness have often reported violations on the part of police during these searches. In the case of the Polyakov family in Omsk, the security services busted down the door to their flat, prevented the Polyakovs from telephoning relatives, and smashed Mr. Polyakov’s face. (Doctors recorded his injuries only two days later.) When the Polyakovs attempted to voice their disagreement with the actions of police  in the official search report, police wrested the form from their grasp.  During searches and interrogations in Penza, a police investigator forced six female Jehovah’s Witness detainees to strip naked.  In Saratov Region, the security forces mistakenly sawed off the door of the wrong flat. In another flat the same day, the police discovered banned literature in the sleeve of a child’s overcoat. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the police planted it there.

In the city of Shuya, Ivanovo Region, police interrogated a 10-year-old girl, and the list of items confiscated during the police search of her family’s flat included sheet music and a pupil’s grade book from a music school. In Kabardino-Balkaria, one group of security officers stormed a flat through the balcony, although the flat’s female occupant had opened the front door to another group of security officers. In Birobidzhan, 150 law enforcement officers took part in numerous searches carried out on the same day: the operation was codenamed “Judgement Day.” Police have seized digital gear, books, Bibles, diaries, photographs, and bank cards during the raids. The raids and subsequent interrogations have lasted several hours.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have not only been detained in their homes. Police caught up with Andrei Stupnikov of Krasnoyarsk at an airport at four in the morning as he and his wife were checking into a flight to Germany. A court later jailed Stupnikov, since he could have received political asylum, as the judge put it. Alexander Solovyov was detained when he stepped off a train after returning to Perm from holiday.

Custodial Measures
Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been charged with criminal offenses have been incarcerated in remand prisons.  The defense attorney representing Sergei Klimov of Tomsk told OVD Info that Klimov spent two months in a solitary confinement cell measuring 1.7 meters by 2.8 meters, allegedly, because it was impossible to find room for him in an ordinary cell. On August 8, at an appeals hearing, Klimov was left in police custody, but he was transferred out of solitary into gen pop.

After time spent in remand prisons, several Jehovah’s Witnesses have been released and placed under house arrest. Konstantin Petrov of Magadan spent 64 days in jail, while several Jehovah’s Witnesses in Orenburg spent 78 days in jail each.

Vitaly Arsenyuk, a resident of the town of Dzhankoy in northern Crimea, was charged with engaging in illegal missionary work, a violation of Article 5.25 Part 4 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code. After the first hearing in his case, in June 2017, Arsenyuk died of a heart attack.

Some Jehovah’s Witnesses have spent months in pretrial custody. Danish national Dennis Christensen has spent over a year in a remand prison. No one has yet been sentenced to hard prison time, but the courts have been indulgent to Jehovah’s Witnesses only on rare occassions. In 2017, a court acquitted Vyacheslav Stepanov and Andrei Sivak of Sergiev Posad, who had been charged with inciting hatred or enmity on the strength of a video recording of worship services. In May, an appellate court freed 55-year-old Alam Aliyev. On August 9 and 10, a court in Kamchatka overturned earlier decisions remanding Mikhail Popov in custody and placing his wife Yelena under house arrest.

Community Property
In all regions of Russia, buildings constructed or purchased by Jehovah’s Witnesses have generally been seized and turned over to the state. In Petersburg’s Resort District, the state took possession of a complex valued at around two billion rubles [approx. 25 million euros], a complex from which the authorities had received hefty tax payments for many years. Over the course of seventeen years, state inspectors never found a single violation at the complex, but now the local courts refuse to recognize the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the property or the official deeds to the complex.

Reactions
The EU delegation to the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, and human rights activists have spoken out against Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Dennis Christensen’s arrest led to the initiation of legal proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. On May 15, 2015, the Kingdom of Denmark was admitted as a third party to the case of Christensen v. Russian Federation.

In response to the complaint filed with the ECHR, Russian envoys at the ECHR and UN claimed Jehovah’s Witnesses still had the right to practice their religion despite the dissolution of their congregations. It was at this same time, in the spring of this year, that the number of arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia went through the roof.

The International Memorial Society has already recognized 29 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses as political prisoners. A total of fifty Jehovah’s Witnesses have been subjected to persecution by the authorities.

  • Oryol: Dennis Christensen, Sergei Skrynnikov
  • Omsk: Sergei and Anastasia Polyakov
  • Penza: Vladimir Alushkin, Vladimir Kulyasov, Denis Timoshin, Andrei Magliv, and four more unnamed people
  • Tomsk: Sergei Klimov
  • Saratov: Konstantin Bazhenov, Felix Makhammadiyev
  • Village of Shirokoye, Saratov Region: Alexei Budenchuk
  • Magadan: Sergei Yerkin, Yevgeny Zyablov, Konstantin Petrov
  • Khabarovsk: Ivan Puyda, Vladimir Moskalenko
  • Naberezhnye Chelny: Ilkham Karimov, Konstantin Matrashov, Vladimir Myakushin, Aidar Yulmetiev
  • Orenburg: Vladimir Kochnev, Alexander Suvorov, Vyacheslav Kolbanov
  • Polyarny, Murmansk Region: Roman Markin, Viktor Trofimov
  • Shuya, Ivanovo Region, Dmitry and Yelena Mikhaylov, Svetlana Shishina, Alexei A., Svetlana P.
  • Vladivostok: Valentin Osadchuk
  • Nakhodka: Dmitry and Yelena Barmakin
  • Krasnoyarsk: Andrei Stupnikov
  • Perm: Alexander Solovyov
  • Sol-Iletsk, Orenburg Region: Boris Andreyev
  • Village of Perevolotsky, Orenburg Region: Anatoly Vichkitov
  • Kostroma: Sergei and Valeria Rayman
  • Vilyuchinsk, Kamchatka Territory: Mikhail and Yelena Popov
  • Beryozovsky, Keremovo Region: Sergei Britvin, Vadim Levchuk
  • Maysky, Kabardina-Balkaria: Arkadya Akopyan
  • Lensk, Yakutia: Igor  Ivashin
  • Pskov: Gennady Shpakovsky
  • Birobidzhan: Alam Aliyev
  • Yelizovo, Kamchatka Territory: Konstantin Bazhenov
  • Belgorod: Anatoly Shalyapin, Sergei Voykov

This list was supplied to us by the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses and defense attorney Artur Leontiev.

Freedom of Conscience
OVD Info asked attorney Artur Leontiev, who has been handling the defense of Sergei Klimov and Andrei Stupnikov, as well as the case of the property owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, to comment on the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Law enforcement agencies have been criminally prosecuting believers for ordinary, peaceful professions of faith, as when they gather in small groups to read and discuss the Bible, watch videos on biblical topics, and so forth. The security forces got it into their heads that this constituted a continuation of the activities of an organization dissolved by the court. However, the believers who have been charged with these crimes had nothing to do with the legal entities that were dissolved and were not parties to the proceedings in the Russian Supreme Court.

“Believers’ phones were tapped, their letters were vetted, and they were followed. The security service thus amassed a fair amount of operational material. I think the heads of the various agencies decided to use it to improve their conviction rates, all the more so since the peaceable Jehovah’s Witnesses were easy targets. They have always tried to be law-abiding. Even now they do not regard themselves as criminals. They evince no aggression, imagining the injustice that has befallen them is a misunderstanding that will soon be cleared up. Actually, they are faced with a choice: refuse to practice their religion or be prepared to endure all the delights of criminal prosecution. However, the law enforcers doing the dirty work in the locales often understand what is really going on, but they are guided by the principle of ‘I have my orders, and I have a family to feed.’

“The complaint (Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and Kalin v. Russian Federation, Case No. 10188/17) has been filed with the ECHR and accepted for review, the parties have exchanged comments, and the case has been expedited. Complaints have also been filed with the ECHR for each particular instance of criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“It is vital, however, the Russian legal system kicked into gear and operated not on the basis of expediency, but according to the law. Whatever you feel about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they have the same right to their beliefs and the same right to a fair trial as other Russians.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Everyone Wants to Like and Be Liked

Mail.ru Group Speaks Out against Punishments for Likes and Reposts
Company Proposes Changing the Law and Law Enforcement Practice
Olga Churakova and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
August 6, 2018

Mail.ru Group не раз критиковала громкие законодательные инициативы, касающиеся интернетаMail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile law bills and laws affecting the internet. Photo by Yevgeny Yegorov. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Mail.ru Group, which owns the largest social networks in Russia, VK and Odnoklassniki [“Classmates”], has harshly condemned the practice of filing criminal charges against social media users for likes and reposts on social networks.

“Often the actions of law enforcement authorities have been clearly disproportionate to the potential danger, and their reaction to comments and memes in news feeds are inordinately severe,” reads a statement on the company’s website. “We are convinced laws and law enforcement practices must be changed. We believe it necessary to grant amnesty to people who have been wrongly convicted and decriminalize such cases in the future.”

Recently, the number of convictions for posts and reposts on social networks has reached a critical mass, explained a Mail.ru Group employee. Most of the convicitions are not only unjust but also absurd. He would not explain what specific corrections the company was going to propose.

“We believe current laws need to be adjusted, and we are going to make pertinent proposals,” VK’s press service told Vedomosti.

Mail.ru Group has repeatedly criticized high-profile laws and law bills affecting the internet. In 2013, for example, the company opposed an anti-piracy law. In 2015, it teamed up with Yandex to criticize the “right to be forgotten” law. In 2016, it opposed a law bill that proposed regulating messengers and search engines.  But punishing people for likes and reposts has become a political issue. Members of the opposition and social activists have often been the victims of Criminal Code Article 282, amended in 2014 to allow prosecution of people for incitment to hatred or enmity while using the internet.

Communist Party MP Sergei Shargunov addressed the problem during the President’s Direct Line in June of this year.

“If Article 282 were taken literally, certain zealots would have to convict Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Mayakovsky, and have their works removed,” he said.

Putin agreed it was wrong to reduce such cases to absurdity. Subsequently, he tasked the Russian People’s Front (ONF) and the Prosecutor General’s Office with analyzing how the notions of “extremist community” and “extremist crime” were employed practically in law enforcement.

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“Prosecutions for Incitement to Enmity (Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) in Russia. Numbers of People Convicted, 2009–2017. Source: Trials Department, Russian Supreme Court.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

An Agenda for the Autumn
On June 25, Shargunov and Alexei Zhuravlyov, leader of the Rodina [“Motherland”] party, tabled draft amendments in the Duma that would decriminalize “extremist” likes and reposts. The MPs proposed transferring the violation described in Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1 to the Administrative Offenses Code, where infractions would be punishable by a fine of up to 20,000 rubles or 15 days in jail, while leaving only Part 2 of Article 282 in the Criminal Code. Part 2 stipulates a punishment of up to six years in prison for the same actions when they are committed with violence, by a public official or by an organized group. The government, the Supreme Court, and the State Duma’s legal department gave the draft amendments negative reviews, pointing out that the grounds for adopting them were insufficient. A spokesman for Pavel Krasheninnikov, chair of the Duma’s Committee on Legislation, informed us the committee would start working on the amendments when MPs returned from summer recess.

The ONF, which held a meeting of experts in July, has begun drafting a report for the president. The legal community, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the Russian Supreme Court must send their proposals to the Kremlin’s control directorate before September 15.

Leonid Levin, chair of the State Duma’s Committee on Information Policy, agreed there was a problem.

“The law is repressive, and there is no misdemeanor offense, although the Supreme Court issued an opinion that different cases should not be treated identically,” he said.

While there has been no lack of proposals, no one is in a hurry to abolish the law completely. A source in the Kremlin said dissemination of prohibited information should be punished. But a way of relaxing the law must be devised and, most important, a means of avoiding random convictions, he added.

A Demand for Liberalization
Recently, VK had been under pressure from the public due to the huge number of criminal prosecutions for posting pictures and reposts, said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. He argued the statement issued by Mail.ru Group was an attempt to defend the company’s reputation. According to the so-called Yarovaya package of amendments and laws, since January 1, 2018, VK has been obliged to provide law enforcement agencies with information about its users upon request, but the question of the legality of providing information having to do with people’s private lives remains open, since under Russian law a court order is required for this, Chikov noted.

Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov argued political decentralization and moderate opposition were now fashionable.

“Even the most cautious players sense the dictates of the age and have been trying to expand the space of freedom. Mail.ru Group is trying to be trendy,” he said.

Gallyamov predicted that, as the regime’s popularity ratings decline, the screws would be loosened, and the number of people advocating liberalization would grow.

Part of the political elite realizes many things have gone askew, agreed political scientist Alexander Kynev. A number of people hoped the circumstances could be exploited to push the idea of moderate liberalization. This could be a way of showing the regime was ready to talk, he argued.

“A lot will depend on what the autumn brings, on the results of regional elections. Now it would appear to be a topic that is up for discussion, but there are no guarantees. There are people in the government interested in having the topic discussed, but this doesn’t mean a decision has been taken,” Kynev said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Valery Rashkin: The Return of the Oprichniki

1024px-0NevrevNV_Oprichniki_BISHNikolai Nevrev, Oprichniki, 1870s. Oil on canvas, 102 cm x 152 cm. Courtesy of the Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pillaging the Opposition
Valery Rashkin
Echo of Moscow
June 21, 2018

The Russian Supreme Court has ruled law enforcement and secret service officers can confiscate without a court order personal property used in the commission of terrorist and “extremist” crimes. The items that can be confiscated include computers, cell phones, and office equipment. This means personal property can be seized without payment of compensation and made the property of the state.

Can you believe it? The times of Ivan the Terrible have resurfaced. Courtesy of the state, Russia’s siloviki have been transformed into oprichniki and robbers. The ruling is completely unlawful, considering what passes for “extremist” crimes. Such criminal cases are usually frame-ups. They are so absurd they make you laugh and shudder at the same time.

The state has mandated law enforcers to hark back to the old system of remuneration (kormlenie, literally, “feeding”): the more “extremism” charges you file, the more iPhones and computers you can get your hands on. It is tantamount to legalized enrichment at the opposition’s expense. Moreover, even if the person who was criminally prosecuted is pardoned, their property will not be returned.

Don’t write nasty things about the regime on the VK social network, my dears, or the regime will fleece the living daylights out of you. Given the importance and high cost of electronic communications devices in our day and age, that is what it amounts to. The top brass, apparently, has decided that if people aren’t afraid of going to jail, they will intimidate them with the threat of robbery. I wonder who hatched this humiliating plan.

The rationale of hitting people in their wallets, enacted several years ago when fines for involvement in “unauthorized” demonstrations were increased precipitously, has gone beyond legal boundaries. Nothing of the sort exists in European countries: after a criminal investigation is wrapped, the accused has their property restored to them, nor are people are tried as felons for writing posts on social networks.

Naturally, the new dispensation is useless when it comes to deterring terrorists. The risks undertaken by an individual who rigs an explosive device and plots a terrorist attack are completely incommensurable with the risks taken by someone who posts a link to a book banned by the Prosecutor General or a satirical picture. In the first case, the criminals knowingly risk their lives and could not care less what happens to their property, while in the second case people do not even realize they are breaking the law.

Considering the vagueness of the anti-“extremist” laws and the way they are liberally interpreted and employed by law enforcement, the confiscation of property belonging to so-called extremists will only exacerbate the confrontation between the security services and ordinary Russians.

The advantages of the new measure are questionable, while the harm it will cause is obvious.

Valery Rashkin is a Communist MP in the Russian State Duma. Thanks to Elena Zaharova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader