RUSSIA: Experts disagree on expectations from Supreme Court directive
Jehovah’s Witness justified by faith – Court distinguished religious confession from extremism (Kommersant)
by Aleksei Chernyshev, Anastasia Kurilova
Russia Religion News (23.11.2021) – https://bit.ly/3dGb1mt – A court in Vladivostok for the first time issued a verdict of acquittal in a case of a Jehovah’s Witness who had been accused of extremism. The decision was based on a recent clarification by the Russian Supreme Court to the effect that courts should not interpret religious practices as participation in extremist activity. Some experts are counting on verdicts of acquittal also in other, similar cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while others are not so optimistic.
Early in the week, the Pervorechka district court of Vladivostok issued an unexpected verdict in the criminal case of Dmitry Barmakin. The man was charged with creating an extremist community (part 1 of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of R.F.). According to the account of the investigation, he supported the activity of the organization “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Vladivostok.” We recall that the Russian Supreme Court in 2017 ruled the legal entity “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses” to be an extremist organization, along with all of its 395 regional affiliates. “The defendant, knowing this for a certainty, regularly conducted meetings where he spread the ideology of the forbidden association, and he also ensured the organizational base for its successful existence,” the investigation department of the S.K.R. [Investigative Committee of Russia] for the Primorie territory asserted.
A criminal case against Mr. Barmakin had been opened in July 2018, and he was subsequently arrested. The believer spent a year and a half in a SIZO [pretrial investigation cell] and then his measure of restriction was mitigated to a ban on certain activities. In late 2020, the Pervorechka district court returned the case to the prosecutor’s office with the indication that from the text of the indictment it was impossible to establish the extremist nature of the defendant’s actions. However the prosecutor’s office managed to return the case to court. In the course of the debates of the parties, the state prosecutor requested for Dmitry Barmakin nine years in a penal colony. The believer himself insisted upon his innocence, maintaining that there was no extremism in his actions. Mr. Barmakin said that he merely professed the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sang songs with other believers, discussed the Bible with them, and prayed.
The trial was nearing its conclusion, but on 28 October a plenum of the Russian Supreme Court issued a “substantive” directive. It clarified that in the event of a prohibition of an organization, its former members may continue individual or group conduct of religious rituals “exclusively in exercising their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession.” In and of themselves, religious practices ought not to be interpreted as participation in an extremist organization.
According to the Supreme Court’s explanation, courts should first establish just which specific socially harmful actions have been committed by believers and in what ways they are significant for the continuation or revival of the activity of the extremist organization.
Also, it is necessary to ascertain the motives for the conduct of these actions.
As a result, Judge Stanislav Salnikov acquitted Dmitry Barmakin because of the absence of elements of a crime. The “OVD-Info” project (listed in the register of foreign agents) quotes the verdict: “. . . conducting the religious rituals of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in residences or commercial premises . . . does not violate the law but is an exercise of the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and religion.” An assistant to the chairman of the district court, Alexander Chukhil, told Kommersant that the acquitted man “has the right to rehabilitation.” It still has been impossible to get a comment from Dmitry Barmakin and his attorneys. Kommersant’s question whether the verdict of acquittal will be appealed was not answered in the territorial prosecutor’s office.
The SOVA Center for News and Analysis (included in the list of foreign agents) emphasizes that the decision of the Pervorechka district court is the first one based on the directive of the plenum of the Supreme Court. A representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yaroslav Sivulsky, declared to Kommersant that the decision of the judge from Vladivostok interrupted “a continuous string of guilty verdicts,” and also linked the judge’s decision with the directive of the plenum of the Russian Supreme Court. “In its verdict the court emphasized the very same thing that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been trying to convey to the public in the course of all these years. The peaceful religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in essence, cannot pose any kind of threat to society and the state. One would like to believe that this verdict is just the first of many similar decisions,” Mr. Sivulsky noted.
We recall that the Memorial Rights Center (included in the register of foreign agents) has calculated that at least 576 Jehovah’s Witnesses have come under criminal prosecution in Russia. Of these, 545 persons have been charged on the basis of the same article 282.2 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code as Mr. Barmakin. Thirty-five believers have already been sentenced to real prison time and 87 to suspended sentences. At least 76 persons are being held in custody in a SIZO and 31 are under house arrest. Two believers have been stripped of their citizenship in the R.F. and deported from the country.
Attorney Viktor Zhenkov, who has defended Jehovah’s Witnesses in courts, told Kommersant that he and his colleagues will now be trying to use the clarification of the Supreme Court’s plenum as an argument in ongoing cases.
However, the attorney doubts that it will be possible, on the basis of this document, to get a review of cases in which a decision has already been rendered.
The director of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, is confident that one should not expect widespread acquittals in the future. After all, each court will decide for itself whether to use the Supreme Court’s recommendation or not. “The problem is that we still have a contradiction. The position of the authorities is as follows: we have banned only the administrative form and believers themselves may profess their religion. But for the police, any meeting of believers in an apartment is a continuation of the activity of the forbidden organization,” Mr. Lunkin stressed. “And so here each policeman, prosecutor, and judge will decide for himself whether to consider that prayer meetings in apartments are individual conduct of religious rituals or a continuation of the activity of the forbidden organization.” (tr. by PDS, posted 26 November 2021)
Photo: Alexander Koryakov, Kommersant