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Russia’s suspension of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been condemned by UN and USCIRF.

On March 24, 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Justice suspended Jehovah’s Witnesses with the allegation that their religious activities are in violation of Russian law and fighting extremism. The Russian government, under the authority of their extremism law, has harassed the religious group, which has a population of about 200,000 in the country. The extremism law does not require the existence of violence for any activity to banned as extremist.

The move has been condemned as a threat and “extremely worrying” by three United Nations human rights experts, including Mr. David Kaye from the U.S., Mr. Maina Kiai from Kenya, and Mr. Ahmed Shaheed from the Maldives.  “This lawsuit is a threat not only to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but to individual freedom in general in the Russian Federation. The use of counter-extremism legislation in this way to confine freedom of opinion, including religious belief, expression and association to that which is state-approved is unlawful and dangerous, and signals a dark future for all religious freedom in Russia,” they asserted.

The claim was filed by the Russian Supreme Court on March 15, with the intention of declaring the Witnesses as extremist and liquidating the group to stop its activity. When the suspension took effect, it prevented the Administrative Centre and its associated religious centers from using media, and from organized public religious activity, including assemblies and rallies. A full court hearing is scheduled on April 5. Several local Jehovah’s Witnesses have already been dissolved, with raids in their facilities and literature being seized.

“We urge the authorities to drop the lawsuit in compliance with their obligations under international human rights law, and to revise the counter-extremism legislation and its implementation to avoid fundamental human rights abuses,” said the UN experts.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also condemned Russia’s actions. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said, “The Russian government’s latest actions appear designed to eliminate the legal existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. If the Supreme Court rules in April that this group is ‘extremist’ it would mark the first time that Russia legally has banned a centrally-administered religious organization and would effectively criminalize all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity nationwide. USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”

According to a press release issued by the USCIRF, the way the Russian government is treating the group is reflective of “the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability.” The approach is seen to date back to the Soviet period and is also seen to affect other religious groups, including Christians and Muslims.

The governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses has invited over 8 million witnesses to participate in a global letter-writing campaign. The religious body has directly appealed to the Kremlin and the Russian Supreme court through writing letters. “The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses wants to heighten attention to this critical situation. Prosecuting non-violent, law-abiding citizens as if they were terrorists is clearly a misapplication of anti-extremist laws. Such prosecution is based on completely false grounds,” says David A. Semonian, a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman.

This is not the first time Jehovah’s Witnesses are undertaking such a campaign. About 20 years ago, they did something similar as a response to a smear campaign by some individuals in Russian government. Similar letter-writing campaigns have been done to motivate governments to end persecution of Witnesses in various countries.

“Reading the Bible, singing, and praying with fellow worshippers is clearly not criminal. We hope that our global letter-writing campaign will motivate Russian officials to stop this unjustifiable action against our fellow worshippers,” says Semonian.

Today, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation began consideration of a claim from the Ministry of Justice to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The Court announced a recess, and the hearing will resume Thursday, April 6, 2017, at 2:00 p.m.

The Witnesses had filed a counterclaim with the Court on March 30, 2017, against the Ministry of Justice. Today, however, the counterclaim was dismissed by the Court prior to the recess of the hearing. The Court also refused to allow experts to testify about the basis for the claim of the Ministry of Justice and refused to allow those who witnessed the falsification of evidence against local religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to testify.

The high-profile nature of the case is sparking coverage by international news outlets, including an article in Time magazine posted online on April 4 (“Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah’s Witness Worship”) and a front-page article in the print edition of The New York Times (“Pacifist, Christian and Threatened by Russian Ban as ‘Extremist’”) on April 5.

“We certainly hope that Russia’s Supreme Court will uphold the rights of our fellow believers in Russia to freely carry out their peaceful worship,” adds David A. Semonian, a spokesman at the Witnesses’ world headquarters in New York. “Millions of people around the world will be watching carefully to see how the case progresses and if Russia acts to protect its own law-abiding citizens who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

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