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Legal Victories

Russian Supreme Court Rules Jehovah's Witnesses Should Not Be Prosecuted for Joint Worship

Moscow,   Moscow Region

On October 28, 2021, the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that joint worship of Jehovah's Witnesses, their rites, and ceremonies do not constitute a crime under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code, despite the liquidation of the religion’s legal entities.

What is the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation and what influence does it have on the judicial system?

The Plenum consists of all of the Supreme Court judges of the Russian Federation and is presided over by the Chief Justice. The Plenum is responsible for ensuring the uniform application by all courts of the legislation of the Russian Federation. Thus, the Plenum gives explanations on issues arising in judicial practice and interpretation of the current legislation. The Plenum adopts its explanations in the form of resolutions, which are binding for all courts, and as such they are taken into consideration by other courts in the administration of justice. In the case of the October 28 ruling, the Plenum amended a prior resolution.

What is the background of the October 28 ruling?

In December 2018, Vladimir Putin expressed bewilderment at the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses and recommended that the Russian Supreme Court summarize court practice in cases involving violations of legislation on religious associations. Two years later, at a meeting of the Human Rights Council, human rights defender Alexander Verkhovsky again pointed out to the Head of State the absurdity of prosecuting believers whose organizations had been banned; as a result, the President issued new instructions to the Supreme Court to prepare explanations regarding the generalization of court practice in cases related to violations of legislation on religious associations.

Per the president’s instructions, the Plenum addressed the issue and issued new amendments at their October 28 meeting, explains judge-rapporteur Elena Peysikova. In addition, the Plenum revealed that the new clarifications were repeatedly discussed at meetings of the expanded working group with the participation of the FSB. “It appears," the judge-rapporteur concluded, “that this clarification will allow to unify the existing practice of application of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code and avoid cases of unjustified criminal prosecution of persons solely in connection with the external manifestation of their attitude towards religion.”

What did the Plenum clarify regarding joint worship?

Amendments were made to clause 20 of Resolution No. 11 of the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of 28 June 2011, “On judicial practice in cases related to crimes of extremist orientation.” One of these amendments directly concerns the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that liquidated all of the legal entities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and Crimea. Since that ruling, law enforcement officials have wrongly interpreted joint confession of religion by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses as organizing or participating in the activities of their liquidated legal entities. As a result, believers have been sentenced as much as 8 years in prison.

However, the Plenum’s October 28 amendments clarify: “In the event that a court decides to liquidate or ban the activity of a public or religious association or other organization due to extremist activity, the subsequent actions of persons not connected with the perpetuating or renewing the activity of the relevant extremist organization and consisting exclusively in the exercise of their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including through individual or joint profession of religion, performance of religious services or other religious rites and ceremonies, if such do not contain elements of extremism, do not on their own constitute the corpus delicti.” ".

In practice, the amendments pose new challenges for an investigator to initiate a criminal case, conduct a search, or detain a person simply because he or she professes the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses or meets with another at a worship service. Courts should no longer view it a crime to read the Bible or spiritual literature, talk about one's faith, or the like. It is also not a crime to convene fellow believers to peacefully practice Jehovah's Witnesses' religion together, to prepare and perform rituals such as water baptism. Since 2017, such actions have been wrongly prosecuted under Part 1 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code (organization of activities of a banned organization).

What actions then, according to the new amendments, can be considered a crime?

“When considering a criminal case on a crime under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, the court should establish what specific actions have been committed by the perpetrator, what is their significance for the perpetuating or renewing the activity of the organization, against which the court rendered an enforceable decision to liquidate it or ban its activities due to extremism, as well as what motives guided the person in committing these actions.” In other words, investigators will now have to justify the wording often used in indictment papers against Jehovah's Witnesses: “realizing criminal intent”, “acting from extremist motives”, “being aware of the unlawful nature of their actions”, “having entered into criminal collusion”, “as part of a group of persons by prior collusion”, “not voluntarily ceasing participation in activities”, “having the intent to resume activities” and others.

Do these amendments obligate courts to review of the sentences already passed?

When considering appeals and cassation appeals, the courts are obliged to consider the Plenum's amendments.

As October 28, there were 152 convictions of Jehovah's Witnesses. Of these, the sentences of 40 believers are under appeal so have not yet entered into force. The remaining verdicts for the believers have already entered into force, and are currently being appealed in cassation proceedings.

Another 11 believers’ sentences have already been reviewed by the cassation courts, but Russian law affords them the right to file a second cassation appeal to the Supreme Court of Russia. 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya is currently preparing her second cassation appeal to the Supreme Court. Valentina remains in prison despite suffering a stroke while under investigation. The international human rights community, who have repeatedly criticize Russia’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, eagerly anticipates how the Supreme Court of Russia will apply the new amendments and release the woman when considering the Baranovskaya case in the coming months.