The building of the European Court of Human Rights. Photo source: Sfisek / CC BY-SA 3.0

Legal Victories

European Court of Human Rights Acquits Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia

Moscow,   Moscow Region,   Rostov Region,   France

On June 7, 2022, the ECHR declared illegal liquidation of the administrative center and another 395 legal entities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, the ban on their activities and the seizure of property; prohibition of printed publications and the official website; In addition, the court decided to stop the criminal prosecution of believers, and to release the prisoners.

The decision was issued in the case “Taganrog LRO and others v. Russia”, in which a total of 20 complaints filed by Jehovah's Witnesses from 2010 to 2019 were combined. The total number of applicants is 1444, of which 1014 are individuals and 430 are legal entities (some applicants appear in more than one complaint). According to the ruling, in total, Russian Federation is obliged to pay the applicants EUR 3,447,250 in respect of non-pecuniary damage and to return the seized property (or pay EUR 59,617,458).

By its actions, Russia violated the provisions of several articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: right of personal freedom (Article 5), freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9), freedom of expression (Article 10) and freedom of assembly and association (Article 11). In addition, Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (the right to respect for property) was violated.

Yaroslav Sivulsky of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses said: “We are grateful to the Strasbourg Court for its authoritative qualified legal understanding of the unprecedented situation that has developed in Russia with Jehovah's Witnesses. We hope that today's ruling will help the Russian authorities to restore the rule of law and rights in relation to more than 175,000 believers of our religion in the near future."

The following is a brief history of all 20 complaints on which this ruling was made.

  • Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia (complaint 32401/10). In January 2007, by order of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, the Rostov Regional Prosecutor's Office in cooperation with the FSB initiated shutdown of the Jehovah's Witnesses LRO in Taganrog (Rostov region). As a result, on September 11, 2009, the Rostov Regional Court ruled to liquidate the LRO, ban its activities, declare 34 publications extremist and confiscate its property. On December 8, 2009, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal in a summary fashion. On June 1, 2010, the case was filed with the ECHR.

  • Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and Kalin v. Russia (Complaint 10188/17). On March 2, 2016, the Deputy Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation issued an official warning to the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" with the requirement to stop "extremist" activities under threat of liquidation. Relying on the opinion that the Administrative Center had "systematically violated" the law on extremism by importing, storing, and distributing banned literature, the Ministry of Justice asked the Russian Supreme Court to liquidate the Administrative Center and 395 local religious organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout Russia, as well as to confiscate their property. On July 17, 2017, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld the liquidation decision. The Administrative Center and its representative Vasily Kalin filed a complaint with the ECHR against the Russian Federation.

  • Glazov LRO and Others v. Russia (Complaint 3215/18). On January 15, 2018, 395 local religious organizations (LRO) of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia filed a complaint with the ECHR against the discriminatory decision of the Russian Supreme Court of April 20, 2017. All Jehovah's Witnesses organizations in the country were automatically declared extremist, liquidated, and property confiscated. (See Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and Kalin v. Russia.) The applicants also pointed to the failure of the national courts to ensure their effective participation in the proceedings.

  • Samara LRO and Others v. Russia (Complaint 15962/15). In January 2014, police officers, under the guise of checking the electric grid, inspected a building rented by Jehovah's Witnesses in Samara for worship meetings. When they returned unmasked, they went straight to the dressing room they had previously inspected and "found" several books deemed extremist. On March 7, 2014, the Sovetskiy District Court fined the local religious organization (LRO) with 50 thousand rubles for "possession" of these publications. The Samara Regional Court approved this decision, and then on May 29, 2014, recognized the LRO as an extremist organization and liquidated it. On November 12, 2014, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation concisely considered the believers' appeal and upheld the decision. Representatives of the LRO appealed to the ECHR on March 31, 2015.

  • Kravchuk and Others v. Russia (Complaint 2861/15). In August 2013, the Tsentralny District Court of Tver declared Jehovah's Witnesses’ website, jw.org, extremist. The owner of the site, the Watchtower, Bible and Tract Society (New York), was not involved in the trial, which violated his rights. In January 2014, Tver Regional Court overturned the decision of the lower court. However, on an appeal by the deputy prosecutor general, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to ban the site. Internet service providers across the country blocked access to the site. Russia is the only country in the world where jw.org is banned. In January 2015, the Administration Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, as well as Oleg Kravchuk and nine other believers who are readers of the site, filed a complaint with the ECHR.

  • Gorno-Altaysk LRO and Others v. Russia (complaint 44285/10). On December 22, 2008, the prosecutor filed a petition with the Gorno-Altaisk City Court to declare 27 religious publications by Jehovah's Witnesses extremist. The court ordered a comprehensive psycholinguistic religious examination of these publications, without any expert in the field of religious studies taking part in the study. As a result, on October 1, 2009, the court declared 18 publications extremist. Earlier in June of the same year law enforcement officers searched Jehovah's Witnesses place of worship in Gorno-Altaisk as well as believers' homes. During the searches, religious literature and personal possessions were confiscated. Gorno-Altaisk Jehovah's Witnesses LRO appealed, but on January 27, 2010, the Altai Republic Supreme Court rejected the appeal, upholding the decision of the city court. Later, on July 23 of the same year, the case was filed with the ECHR.

  • Chukan and Others v. Russia (complaint 2269/12) . On March 11, 2009, the prosecutor of Krasnodar Territory applied to court with the requirement to declare extremist four publications of Jehovah's Witnesses that were allegedly found in the city park as. Linguist from Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia for Krasnodar Territory considered the content of publications to be inadmissible, and on April 22, 2011, Pervomaiskiy District Court of Krasnodar acknowledged four publications to be extremist. This happened despite the fact that Rostov Regional Court had earlier ruled three of them not to contain any extremist elements in the text. In August 2011 the Krasnodar regional court rejected the believers' appeal, upholding the decision. Vasiliy Chukan and Aleksandr Tkachenko, Jehovah's Witnesses from Krasnodar, as well as the local religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Krasnodar, the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, and German and American publishers filed a complaint with the ECHR.

  • Zinich and Others v. Russia (complaint 74387/13). In 2012, FSB requested the prosecutor office to file a petition to a court to declare the book What Does the Bible Really Teach (2009) extremist. The court granted that request. On May 20, 2013, the Krasnoyarsk Territory Court rejected the appeal of the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia against this decision. In this regard, a believer from Krasnoyarsk, Maria Zinich, as well as the German publishing house that issued the publication and the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia filed a complaint with the ECHR.

  • Verish and Others v. Russia (complaint 79240/13). The Prosecutor of the Sovetskiy District of Krasnoyarsk went to court, asking to declare one of brochures extremist. On January 24, 2013, the Sovetskiy District Court satisfied this demand. Aleksey Verish and six other believers were denied the appeal, as they were not interested parties. The court also rejected an appeal from the publishing house, considering the ownership of copyright unproven. In July 2013, Administration Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia managed to appeal the decision, but the Krasnoyarsk Territory Court and then the cassation instance upheld the original verdict. On December 11, 2013, the believers appealed to the ECHR.

  • Novikov and Others v. Russia (Complaint 28108/14). On November 2, 2011, the prosecutor appealed to the Uspenskiy District Court of Krasnodar Territory to declare the religious book of Jehovah's Witnesses extremist. Psychological and linguistic expertise found no signs of extremism in the book. However, at the request of the prosecutor, the publication was sent for reexamination to other experts who found signs of extremism in it. On June 19, 2013, the District Court satisfied the prosecutor's request and decided to confiscate the book. In doing so, it relied solely on the findings of the second expert report and the opinion of an Orthodox priest heard at the prosecutor's request. The LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Uspenskiy District, the German and American publishers of Jehovah's Witness literature, and three believers Novikov, Baylo, and Kalinin from Krasnodar Territory and Nizhny Novgorod filed an appeal. On October 8, 2013, the Krasnodar Territory Court rejected it, and the case went to the ECHR on April 4, 2014.

  • "LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in Birobidzhan and Aliyev v. Russian Federation", (Birobidzhan LRO and Aliyev v. Russia). In October 2013, the Leninskiy District Court of Vladimir declared two publications of Jehovah's Witnesses extremist without notifying the representatives of the religious organization. A similar decision on one of these publications 2 months earlier was made by the Birobidzhan District Court of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Alam Aliyev and the LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in Birobidzhan successfully appealed against it in the court of the Autonomous Region. But a month later, in May 2014, the deputy prosecutor of Birobidzhan made an official demand to stop distributing the brochure, referring to the decision of the Vladimir court. Believers in Birobidzhan tried to appeal because they were not notified of the decision and could not challenge it in a timely manner. The Leninsky District Court of Vladimir refused to restore the terms of the appeal. In October 2014, the Vladimir Regional Court upheld this decision. On April 7, 2015, a complaint was sent to the ECHR.

  • "Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and Wachtturm Bibel-Und Traktat-Gesellschaft v Russia, application 76162/12. On July 24, 1997, the Russian State Press Committee authorized the Watch Tower, Bible, and Tract Society (a branch in Germany) to distribute The Watchtower and Awake! magazines in Russia. The Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia was a distributor. On April 26, 2010, Roskomnadzor revoked the permission to distribute the journals in Russia. On 6 October 2011 the Moscow Arbitration Court ruled in favour of the applicants, finding that the order had been unlawful. However, on January 25, 2012, the Ninth Arbitration Court ruled that the use of mass media to promote extremism was prohibited by the Law of the Russian Federation "On Mass Media" and the order of Roskomnadzor was legalized. The believers filed a complaint with the ECHR.

  • Trotsyuk and Others v. Russia, (Trotsyuk and Others v. Russia) v. Russia. In September 2009, the Rostov Regional Court recognized the LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog as an extremist organization. In 2011, a criminal case was opened against Nikolai Trotsyuk and later against 15 other local Jehovah's Witnesses for organizing the activities of an extremist organization, involving in it and continuing the activities of the liquidated LRO. A written undertaking not to leave was taken from all believers. Since 2013, the Taganrog City Court has considered this case twice (after the first conviction, the appeal sent it for a new trial in a different composition of the court). As a result, all believers were found guilty. Four of them received a 5.5-year suspended sentence and a fine of 100,000 rubles, the rest were fined from 70,000 to 200,000 rubles. In March 2016, the Rostov Regional Court overturned the fines, upholding the rest of the conviction. This was the first time in modern Russia that Jehovah's Witnesses were criminally punished solely for their faith. On April 28, 2016, the believers filed a complaint with the ECHR.

  • Christensen v. Russian Federation, application 44386/19 (Christensen v. Russia). Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, has lived in Russia since 1995. On the evening of May 25, 2017, armed FSB officers disrupted a worship service of Jehovah's Witnesses in Oryol. The believers were subjected to a personal search and interrogation, which lasted 10 hours, until 5:30 in the morning. Christensen was arrested and charged with continuing the activities of an extremist organization. After more than 50 hearings, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court found Christensen guilty and sentenced him to 6 years in prison. On February 18, 2019, the believer filed an appeal. He stressed that he had been discriminated against only because he was one of Jehovah's Witnesses. On May 23, 2019, the Oryol Regional Court rejected Christensen's arguments and upheld the decision of the lower court. However, the court could not explain how Dennis could coordinate the actions of a legal entity of Jehovah's Witnesses without being a member of it. The believer filed a complaint with the ECHR on August 20, 2019. (See also Christensen v. Russian Federation, complaint 39417/17.)

  • Christensen v. Russian Federation, application 39417/17 (Christensen v. Russia). On May 25, 2017, police and FSB officers searched the home of Danish citizen Dennis Christensen and his wife, Irina. He was detained and accused of continuing the activities of the LRO of Jehovah's Witnesses in Oryol (liquidated by the decision of the Oryol Regional Court of June 14, 2016). The next day, the Sovetsky District Court ruled to detain the believer in a pre-trial detention center. Considering this a violation of his freedom of religion, Christensen appealed to the ECHR on June 2, 2017. He also filed a complaint with the Oryol Regional Court, which on June 21, 2017 upheld the measure of restraint without discussing the arguments of the defense. (See also Christensen v. Russia, complaint 44386/19.)

  • Boltnev v. Russian Federation, application 3488/11 (Boltnyev v. Russia). On May 21, 2010, Jehovah's Witness Igor Boltnev and his fellow believer Farhod Mardonov were detained by police officers on a street in the city of Nizhnekamsk. The men's documents were checked and demanded to see the contents of the bags. Having found religious literature there, law enforcement officers took the believers to the police station, photographed them and took their fingerprints, and seized literature, Bibles and personal notes. Administrative cases against the two men were heard by different justices of the peace. On June 9, 2010, each of the believers was found guilty and fined 1,000 rubles due to the fact that a publication recognized as extremist was found among the seized literature. On July 7, 2010, the Nizhnekamsk City Court of the Republic of Tatarstan rejected the appeals of Boltnev and Mardonov. The believers filed complaints with the ECHR. (See also Mardonov v. Russian Federation.)

  • Mardonov v. Russian Federation, application 3492/11 (Mardonov v. Russia). On May 21, 2010, Jehovah's Witness Farhod Mardonov and his fellow believer Igor Boltnev were detained by police officers on a street in the city of Nizhnekamsk. The men's documents were checked and demanded to see the contents of the bags. Having found religious literature there, law enforcement officers took the believers to the police station, photographed them and took their fingerprints, and seized literature, Bibles and personal notes. The police report stated that as a result of comparing the texts of the Bibles seized from believers and the Bible of the Synodal translation, approved by the Russian Orthodox Church, discrepancies were found. Despite the fact that the men were detained at the same time, their cases were considered by different judges. On June 9, 2010, both believers were fined 1,000 rubles due to the fact that a publication recognized as extremist was found among the literature seized from them. On July 7, 2010, the Nizhnekamsk City Court of the Republic of Tatarstan rejected the appeals of Mardonov and Boltnev. The believers filed complaints with the ECHR. (See also Boltnev v. Russian Federation.)

  • Aliyev v. Russian Federation, application 14821/11 (Aliyev v. Russia). On March 31, 2010, police officers and the FSB of Birobidzhan disrupted a worship service at which Alam Aliyev, along with 50 other Jehovah's Witnesses, discussed printed excerpts from a Bible book. A month later, Aliyev was accused of distributing banned literature among fellow believers. In April 2010, the magistrate found him guilty and sentenced him to a fine of 3,000 rubles. The believer's complaint was registered with the ECHR on February 8, 2011.

  • Fedorin and Others v. Russia, (Fedorin and Others v. Russia). In 2010, 85-year-old Aleksey Fedorin and 9 other Jehovah's Witnesses filed a complaint with the ECHR about the violation of their rights as a result of searches conducted by the authorities, confiscation and destruction of religious literature. Aleksey Fedorin, who was imprisoned for 6 years in the 1970s for his faith, was detained again by a police officer in July 2010 and subjected to an 8-hour interrogation because of the distribution of religious literature among fellow villagers. He was denied a break for lunch and rest, despite his advanced age and disability. Although the believer claimed that during the period imputed to him he was ill and could not distribute literature, in July 2010 a judge of the Tselinsky District Court of the Rostov Region imposed a fine of 1,000 rubles on him, and ordered the literature to be confiscated and destroyed. In September 2010, the Tselinsky District Court rejected the believer's appeal. Nine other applicants from different regions of Russia faced similar treatment from the authorities.

  • Gareyev and Others v. Russia, application 5547/12 (Gareyev and Others v. Russia). In the fall of 2010, the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia sent more than a ton of print and audio publications to believers in Kemerovo, none of which were recognized as extremist. On October 26, the police detained the recipients, among them was Vitaly Gareev, and took them to the Investigative Committee for questioning. The entire batch was confiscated as "relevant to the criminal case." In February 2011, the believers appealed to the Zavodsky District Court, but it did not find any violations in the actions of the security forces. 4 months later, the Kemerovo Regional Court took the same position. In January 2012, the believers filed a complaint with the ECHR.