The Bazhenovs and Vera Zolotova together with a lawyer in the courtroom. 31 January 2023

Unjust Verdicts

A Suspended Sentence Instead of an Acquittal. As a Result of the Third Appeal, Believers From Kamchatka Were Found Guilty of Extremism

Kamchatka Territory

On January 31, 2023, the Kamchatka Territorial Court for the third time considered the case of the Bazhenovs, a married couple, and pensioner Vera Zolotova, who were previously acquitted, and found them guilty of extremism, imposing a suspended sentence of two years.

All three are residents of Yelizovo, a town in Kamchatka with a population of just over 36,000. The Bazhenovs are a friendly and social couple who are teachers with a close-knit family. Vera Zolotova is a 77-year-old pensioner, who has lived in her hometown all her life and has earned a reputation as a law-abiding person. Each of them has been practicing the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses for more than fifteen years. Like other representatives of this religion, who live in hundreds of other countries, they went to meetings with other believers, read and discussed the Bible, and sang religious songs. It was this activity, and not any actual crimes, that became the reason for their criminal prosecution, which has been going on for more than four years.

During this time, the case of these believers has been at many stages: at first it was returned to the prosecutor's office due to shortcomings on the part of the prosecution; later it reached a verdict—the court found the believers guilty and gave them two-year suspended sentences. The appellate court recognized the verdict as fair, but the subsequent cassation court overturned it and sent the case back to the stage of appeal. In January 2022, the Kamchatka Territorial Court acquitted the believers. The Court of Cassation upheld this decision, but the prosecutor's office appealed to the Supreme Court of Russia, which overturned the acquittal on  December 2022 and sent the case back to the appeal stage.

Snezhana Bazhenova, recalling years of litigation, noted: “In court, it became clear that the charges against us were fabricated. For example, when the testimony of an elderly woman, a witness for the prosecution [who had discussed the Bible with Jehovah's Witnesses], was read out, she could not help but shout out the whole time: 'You've misinterpreted everything! That's a lie!' And the judge saw and heard that the prosecution's witness never really said that. Moreover, when asked if she knew us, she said: “No, I don’t know them at all.” Snezhana assessed her unjust persecution as follows: “This is the usual course of a Christian; many Christians before me have endured it with dignity.”

Reflecting on the possibility of ending up in a penal colony, Konstantin Bazhenov said that it would cause serious hardship for his family but added: "We are among our dear friends, and my family will definitely be taken care of."

The believers still consider themselves innocent. It should be noted that according to the clarifications of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of Russia, the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in itself does not constitute corpus delicti. In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights fully acquitted Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, pointing to "indications of a policy of intolerance by the Russian authorities . . . designed to cause Jehovah's Witnesses to abandon their faith and to prevent others from joining it" (§ 254).

Case of the Bazhenovs and Others in Yelizovo

Case history
In 2018, in Yelizovo, Snezhana and Konstantin Bazhenov, both teachers, as well as widowed pensioner Vera Zolotova, were detained, their houses were searched, and a few days later they had to sign a recognizance agreement. The Investigative Committee equated the holding of joint meetings for worship to illegal activity. In September 2020, the court gave each of them a 2-year suspended sentence. The court of appeal upheld this decision, but the court of cassation returned the case for retrial to the territory court. In January 2022, it acquitted the believers, but the prosecutor’s office achieved that the verdict was overturned in the RF Supreme Court, and the case was returned to the appeal stage, and later the courts of cassation supported the verdict of a 2-year suspended sentence.
Timeline

Persons in case

Criminal case

Region:
Kamchatka Territory
Locality:
Yelizovo
Suspected of:
according to the investigation, together with others he conducted religious services, which is interpreted as “organising the activity of an extremist organisation” (with reference to the decision of the Russian Supreme Court on the liquidation of all 396 registered organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Court case number:
11802300004000052
Initiated:
August 17, 2018
Current case stage:
The verdict entered into force
Investigating:
Investigative Department of the city of Yelizovo of the Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for the Kamchatka Region
Articles of Criminal Code of Russian Federation:
282.2 (2)
Court case number:
1-78/2020
Court:
Елизовский районный суд Камчатского края
Judge:
Юлия Пискун
Background