Case of Tsarev in Birobidzhan

Case History

In February 2021, Igor Tsarev, the father of a minor child, was given a 2.5-year suspended sentence. A believer from Birobidzhan was tried for participating in the activities of an extremist organization. The charges were based on video footage obtained by FSB officers during covert filming of a worship service. The criminal case was considered for more than a year by Judge Alexei Ivaschenko in the Birobidzhan District Court of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Most of the court hearings were held behind closed doors, ostensibly with the aim of “securing the participants in the trial so that they do not adopt the religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Although in the debate the prosecutor acknowledged the right to freedom of religion, at the same time he claimed that Tsarev was allowed to believe “only within himself” and recommended a sentence of 4 years in prison. The Court of Appeal and the Court of Cassation upheld the verdict. In June 2022, Judge Yulia Tsykina overturned the current sentence and expunged the conviction of the believer.

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    July 30, 2019

    The Federal Security Service of Russia for the Jewish Autonomous Region is initiating a criminal case for faith under Part 2 of Article 282.2 against 45-year-old Igor Tsarev. According to the investigation, he "in order to spread the doctrine of Jehovah's Witnesses by improving the skills of preaching and other religious activities, he studied ... the publication of Jehovah's Witnesses "Holy Scripture / New World Translation", recognized as extremist.

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    December 23, 2019

    The case goes to the Birobidzhan District Court of the Jewish Autonomous Region and is referred to federal judge Alexei Ivashchenko, who is also hearing the case of Yevgeny Egorov and Konstantin Guzev. The criminal case is assigned the number 1-47/2020.

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    January 27, 2020

    A preliminary hearing is underway. Tsarev submits 3 petitions. The court satisfies the request for familiarization with the materials of the criminal case (pre-investigation check) and rejects the petitions for the disqualification of a lawyer, for the consolidation of 10 criminal cases and their return to the prosecutor's office.

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    February 3, 2020

    The hearing is attended by 17 people.

    During the court session, video materials of some worship services are viewed. The recordings were obtained by FSB officers in the course of secret operational-search activities. There are problems with sound while watching.

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    February 10, 2020

    At the next court session in the Birobidzhan District Court, 19 listeners are present. Everyone is allowed into the hall.

    The accused filed two motions: for the merger of three criminal cases (his, Konstantin Guzev and Yevgeny Egorov) and for the recusal of the judge. Both are rejected. The prosecutor reads excerpts from the volumes of the case. In particular, the fact that earlier state bodies registered LRO. At the next meeting, the video will be viewed.

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    March 16, 2020 Hearing in a court of the first instance

    In violation of the principle of transparency of legal proceedings, the judge satisfies the prosecutor's request for a closed format of hearings. According to the prosecutor, it is necessary to "secure" the participants in the trial so that they do not adopt the religious beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses.

    The court decides that from that day until the end of the trial, the hearings will be held behind closed doors.

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    December 22, 2020 Hearing in a court of the first instance

    The next closed session is being held in the Birobidzhan District Court. Igor Tsarev still maintains a positive attitude. He testifies. Judge Alexei Ivashchenko interrupts the defendant, offering to leave this information for debate. The lawyer stands up for the believer, and the court listens to Tsarev to the end.

    The judge proposes to proceed to the debate. The defense does not object. The prosecutor asks for time to prepare based on what the defendant has said.

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    December 31, 2020 Prosecutor requested punishment Final statement

    Consideration of the criminal case of Igor Tsarev in the Birobidzhan District Court is entering the final stage. During the debate of the parties, the prosecutor recognized the right of citizens enshrined in Article 28 of the Russian Constitution "to profess any religion individually or jointly with others," and at the same time argues that Igor Tsarev is allowed to believe "only within himself", and it is impossible to participate in biblical discussions with fellow believers. The prosecutor requests 4 years of imprisonment and 1 year of restriction of freedom for the believer.

    Igor Tsarev's lawyer, speaking in the debate, states that the accusation is presumptive, built on the "substitution of legally significant concepts and facts", and the evidence has been replaced with "necessary" statements. It is a mistake to assume that court decisions on the liquidation of religious organizations in themselves indicate the guilt of a believer. The lawyer refers to the works of S. I. Ivanenko, Doctor of Philosophy: Jehovah's Witnesses "have a spiritual term religious organization ... is not associated with any secular association (legal entity)", and "the rite of baptism testifies to the inclusion of their followers in the world spiritual family." Further, the lawyer draws the court's attention to the fact that all the evidence collected by the investigation only indicates that his client exercised his constitutional right to religion. He did not commit any illegal actions described in the law as extremism. In this regard, the lawyer asked the court to acquit the believer.

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    February 1, 2021 Final statement

    Igor Tsarev gives his last word.

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    February 2, 2021 Prosecutor requested punishment

    Igor Tsarev's defender speaks in the debate. He draws the court's attention to the fact that the investigation did not prove either the fact of the crime or the existence of intent and motive to commit it. The lawyer explains that certain groups of Birobidzhan believers did not violate any laws by attending worship services. Igor Tsarev was never a member of the LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in Birobidzhan and legally exercised his constitutional right to freedom of religion.

    Judge Alexei Ivashchenko gives the floor to Igor Tsarev. The believer explains: "For me, as a believer, the concept of 'believing within oneself' is unacceptable. Faith, first of all, is confirmed by works. [...] I base my behavior and faith in God on the Bible. And it is a world cultural heritage." The defendant was baptized as a Jehovah's Witness in 1997 and does not understand why, after the decision of the Supreme Court of April 20, 2017 - 20 years later - baptism began to be imputed to him. In addition, the prosecution considers the fact that Igor Tsarev, together with his fellow believers, discussed a passage from the Gospel of Matthew as evidence of extremist activity. The defendant concludes: "The prosecution mistakenly calls the usual religious activities of a believer a crime."

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    February 11, 2021 Final statement

    Igor Tsarev speaks in court with the last word, denying guilt in extremist actions and intentions. He tells the court what and why he believes, emphasizing that his religious beliefs do not pose a threat to the state and society.

    The judge schedules the announcement of the verdict to the believer on February 12, 2021.

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    February 12, 2021 First Instance Sentence

    Referee: Oleksiy Ivashchenko. Birobidzhan District Court of the Jewish Autonomous Region (Birobidzhan, Pionerskaya Street, 32). The verdict is announced: to find Igor Tsarev guilty under Part 2 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, to sentence him to imprisonment for a term of 2.5 years conditionally with restriction of liberty for 1 year and with a probation period of 2 years. Until the verdict comes into force, remain under recognizance not to leave. The believer intends to appeal the verdict.

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    April 29, 2021 Court of Appeal

    The court of the Jewish Autonomous Region upholds the sentence to Igor Tsarev - 2.5 years of suspended sentence, a year of restriction of freedom with a probationary period of 2 years.

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    December 13, 2021

    The Ninth Court of Cassation of General Jurisdiction, located in Vladivostok, leaves the verdict and the decision of the court of appeal against the believer unchanged.

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    June 1, 2022

    Igor Tsarev filed a petition with the court to cancel the suspended sentence and remove the criminal record, since he served more than half of the probationary period.

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    June 30, 2022

    A hearing is being held to consider the petition of Igor Tsarev. The prosecutor and the inspector confirm that there were no violations on the part of the convicted person during the probationary period.

    Judge Yulia Tsykina cancels the punishment and removes Igor Tsarev's criminal record. He is now considered unconvicted.