Обзор событий

Seizure of foreign property by Russian authorities

St. Petersburg

On December 7, 2017, the Sestroretsky District Court of St. Petersburg made an unprecedented decision to seize a large real estate complex in St. Petersburg from a foreign organization, recognizing the 17-year-old transaction as invalid.

"We are talking about 14 buildings with an area of 33,000 square meters," says Yaroslav Sivulsky of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses.- They are located on 10 hectares of beautiful, landscaped territory in the village of Solnechnoye, this is the Kurortny district of St. Petersburg. And this complex was transferred to the possession of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania in 2000.

During the 4-hour court session, exhaustive evidence was presented confirming the legality of the transfer of the complex to a foreign owner.

Attorney Victor Shipilov explained, "For example, in the 2000's, in 2007, the transfer of property to the ownership of the Watch Tower Bible and Tracts Society of Pennsylvania was carefully checked, and no violations by the prosecutor's office were found, no claims were made."

"The Watch Tower Society had to pay taxes, even though the Administrative Center, as a religious organization registered under Russian law, was exempt from paying taxes on land and real estate," lawyer Artur Leontiev explained. This amount amounted to about three million dollars. It is clear that making an imaginary deal purely for the sake of appearance or on paper, no one would spend that kind of money.

Notably, the Watch Tower Society was not allowed to participate in the April 2017 hearings before the Russian Supreme Court. Then the Supreme Court refused to involve the "Society" in the case, arguing that the interests of this organization were not affected in any way.

Artur Leontiev: "In simple terms, this situation can be compared with the fact that I, for example, am the owner of the apartment in which my relative lives, and some law enforcement agencies make claims to this relative on far-fetched, perhaps, grounds and say that he violated something. Representatives of the state come to me and say: "Give me an apartment!" I say: "Why?" - "Well, because your relative, in our opinion, violated the law." I said: "I'm sorry, I didn't break the law, they didn't make any claims against me. Why do you want to take my property?" but nevertheless they say, 'Yes, we want to take it.'"

It is worth noting that the Russian Federation did not finance the construction of the complex. An abandoned pioneer camp located on this territory was purchased commercially by Jehovah's Witnesses from one of the Russian enterprises.

Yaroslav Sivulsky: "This complex was built at the expense of foreign religious organizations and exclusively by the believers themselves. So there is nothing illogical in the fact that these buildings were subsequently donated to the Watch Tower Society, at whose request the construction was carried out.

Alexander Blokhin recalls: "We saw with what enthusiasm, dedication, desire, joy fellow believers from many countries take part in this. They came with trailers, they lived there, in these trailers. That is, people made specific sacrifices. Today, seeing that what was built with such love, with such sacrifices, with such dedication, is simply taken away. It's just humanly very sad and painful." His wife Olga shares her feelings: "It seems that a part of your heart was torn off from you, because smells, plants, everything that was there, as if it were all with your own hands, and a lot of soul was put into it."

Recall that this happened in Russia only once, namely 100 years ago, in 1918. Then, by the Decree of the Council of People's Commissars, all the property of the Russian Orthodox Church was taken away. The decision of the Sestroretsky District Court has no analogues in the history of modern Russia.

Mikhail Sitnikov, journalist: "If we proceed from normal human understanding, then this is a robbery. Actually, the same violence, the other side of the same violence, which was expressed in discrimination against religion and believers, was expressed in insults when they broke in during worship. It is expressed now in the fact that they are trying to take everything to the skin.

Gerhard Bézier, religious scholar: "Such a step surprised me, because it harms the image of Russia in certain circles. In my opinion, there is no benefit for Russia in this. We must not give up trying to convey to the public what is happening, and especially to reach out to thinking people around the world."

Roman Lunkin, religious scholar: "I think that the time will come when the Russian state will have to carry out the same partial restitution of religious property that has been taking place since 2010 in relation to the Russian Orthodox Church and, of course, the state will sooner or later have to return to the principles of religious freedom, which means returning to Jehovah's Witnesses what is now being confiscated."

"If the case is considered purely according to the law, then we believe that the decision of the Sestroretsky District Court should be canceled and the prosecutor's claim should be denied," said lawyer Artur Leontiev. If any other considerations prevail, well, then we will continue the appeal further.

"Jehovah's Witnesses have dedicated all the property that can be seized to Jehovah God," says Yaroslav Sivulsky. Therefore, we believe that it belongs to God and is taken away from God. And the Bible teaches us to put all our worries on Him."