The headlines are full of stories about threats to democracy around the world and in the United States. Despots are on the rise, endangering freedom of speech, assembly and religion. But what is it really like to live under such conditions? A new decision by the European Court of Human Rights paints a depressing picture of the experiences of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, who have been severely punished for their beliefs.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian religion in which believers submit to the authority of a single God and eschew military service. They have existed in Russia since 1891 and were criminally prosecuted for practicing their faith in Soviet times. After the Soviet collapse, they worshiped openly and were registered under Russia’s laws, growing to approximately 400 local congregations and 175,000 members. Russia’s 1993 Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion.
In 2007, a shadow began to fall over them. A deputy prosecutor general sent out a circular letter to regional prosecutors identifying the Jehovah’s Witnesses as one of several foreign religious groups that “quite often contribute to the escalation of tensions in society” and “carry out activities harmful to the moral, mental, and physical health of their members.” A cascade of persecution, interrogation, disruption, surveillance, arrests and sham legal proceedings followed. Most of the pressure on the Jehovah’s Witnesses was based on a broad law approved in 2002 against extremism. Hundreds of believers have been sentenced to pretrial detention or imprisonment under the charge of “extremism,” and as of May 24, 88 are imprisoned. In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the group. After losing many court appeals in Russia, the Jehovah’s Witnesses turned to the European court, part of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization that Russia had joined in 1996.
The court’s 194-page decision, handed down June 7, is filled with egregious examples of unjust persecution using the anti-extremism law. In an early case in Taganrog, Russia, the European court found that a banned Jehovah’s Witnesses text “did not insult, hold up to ridicule or slander” those outside the religion, nor promote violence, hatred or intolerance. The European court ruled that “it is highly significant that no evidence of violence, hatred or coercion was adduced” in the government’s case against the Taganrog congregation. Their religious activity and publications “appear to have been peaceful in line with their professed doctrine of nonviolence.” Throughout, the Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a legal process stacked against them. For example, the Russian Supreme Court did not allow them to submit arguments in their defense; in other cases, congregations were not even informed of the cases against them.
The European court’s ruling will probably have only symbolic impact; Russia has been ejected from the council in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, although it remains bound by the European Convention on Human Rights until Sept. 16. The Russian parliament has passed legislation ending the court’s jurisdiction. But the ruling is a testament to what happens when innocent people are stripped of their rights and dignity by a police state.