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Secret witnesses, wiretaps and banned literature: how Russian law enforcement prosecutes Jehovah’s Witnesses

In Russia, criminal cases against Jehovah's Witnesses often follow a similar, if convoluted pattern - secret witnesses, wiretaps and criminalisation of religious texts.

OVD-Info Mikhail Shubin
10 September 2020
Illustration by Alina Kugush for OVD-Info

In June 2020, a gas welder from Pskov, Gennady Shpakovsky, was sentenced to 6.5 years in a general penal colony. A practicing Jehovah’s Witness, Shpakovsky was convicted simply for expressing his religious beliefs. After Russia moved to criminalise its Jehovah’s Witness community through its counter-extremism laws, Shpakovsky is now the eleventh Jehovah’s Witness who has received a prison sentence in the country - and the verdict against him has turned out to be the severest penalty in Russia so far.

As OVD-Info reports, criminal cases launched against members of the religious group often follow the same pattern. Shpakovsky, who is 61, was found guilty of “organising the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community” in Pskov and “financing the organisation”. His arrest and investigation was carried out by FSB officers.

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In court, the prosecution used recordings of Shpakovsky praying as evidence against him.

The investigation claimed that, together with other members of the religious group, Shpakovsky organised and attended prayers – this was interpreted as “organising the activities of an extremist organisation”.

Moreover, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the popular Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible which has been declared an “extremist” text in Russia, was confiscated from Shpakovsky.

During one of the court hearings in Pskov, the judge asked Shpakovsky why he had not destroyed the copy of the book. During another, the judge stated that the beliefes of Jehovah’s Witnesses were unacceptable in Russian society and that members of this community should leave for where this religion is more needed.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which monitors Russia’s anti-extremist legislation, criticised the declaration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation as “extremist”. They stated that this action was unlawful, constituted religious discrimination and was committed in violation of the law.

The SOVA Center also criticised the investigation’s forensic analysis of the Bible translation: “The main goal of the experts is to answer the prosecution’s questions affirmatively.” For example, experts from the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures justified the need to “overthrow the constitutional order”, as in their version Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the current state of affairs in the world is depraved, the coming end of the world, Jesus’ victory over the Devil who conquered the world, destroyed all rulers, “evil people and demons”, Jesus’ accession and the beginning of the new world order.

Experts from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs used the same arguments when answering the question of whether this version of the Bible contains calls for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity.

How Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in Russia

“An organised campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses started in 2009,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of SOVA Center. “Simultaneously, mass inspections were initiated by public prosecutors across the country. Moreover, these checks ranged from the fire safety inspection [in the premises of regional Jehovah’s Witness organisations] to the prosecutor’s office itself. It was obvious that the General Prosecutor’s Office initiated this. Why did this happen? It’s still unclear. This is when the first organisation was banned in Taganrog and the first criminal case was launched. And this has been going on since 2009, to a varying extent.”

This is also when the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature and brochures went into effect. A number of expert reports and court rulings banned these texts on the basis that they allegedly assert “religious superiority”. According to Verhovsky, these arguments were based on the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature included phrases like: “They will be saved, others won’t. Their religion is right, the religion of other people is wrong.”

Verkhovsky adds that the wording about the assertion of religious superiority - the basis for banning Jehovah’s Witnesses literature - looks strange, given that almost all religions state that they are true and the others are false, or at least worse. Russia’s extremism legislation itself is aimed at claims of superiority or inferiority of people on the grounds of nationality, language, race or religion.

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Illustration by Alina Kugush.

Next, Russian security forces banned local Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations in different regions of the country purely on the basis that they are using literature which is officially recognised as extremist. According to Verkhovsky, the very fact that this literature is used is interpreted as extremist activity. In cases where this “extremist” literature has not been found during apartment searches, it has been planted.

In April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an “extremist organisation”. In August that year, 395 regional religious organisations in Russia were listed as “extremist” and banned. This was a starting point of a new campaign targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which was followed by mass apartment searches and arrests across the country.

“The ban on 20 April 2017 was generally passed on rather formal grounds,” Verkhovsky says. “The court decision says that some of the organisations that were part of this Administrative Center were already banned. And, according to the court, the Administrative Center did not draw any conclusions from this. They used prohibited literature: ‘There are so many cases when they used prohibited literature.’ Thus, the Administrative Center, as a centralised organization, allegedly continued to engage in extremist activities, despite the actions it had already taken.”

Almost every criminal case involves recordings of telephone conversations of Jehovah’s Witnesses with each other or audio recordings from their homes

There are about 170,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, says Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. After the Administrative Center was recognised as an “extremist organisation”, all these people can potentially figure in criminal investigations into “participation in an extremist organisation”. Whereas the organisation itself was banned, in fact, for religious literature recognised as extremist.

At the time of publication, 379 Jehovah’s Witnesses are listed as suspects or defendants in Russia, according to Sivulsky. People accused and convicted under anti-extremism legilsation are included in Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service register as “extremists”, which means their bank accounts are blocked. By February 2020, more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been placed on this register.

Secret methods

Two lawyers of the St Petersburg Bar Association, Viktor Zhenkov and Artur Leontyev, often act as counsel or advise the defense in cases against Jehovah's Witnesses.

They say that all cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses have been initiated under “organising an extremist organisation” and “participating in the activities of an extremist organisation” (Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 282.2 of Russia’s Criminal Code). Some people have also been charged with “financing an extremist organisation” (Part 1 of Article 282.3 of Russia’s Criminal Code) and recruiting into an extremist organization (Part 1.1 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code). Cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses are promptly followed by the FSB or the Centre for Combating Extremism.

According to Viktor Zhenkov and Artur Leontyev, in court the prosecution needs to prove that the banned “Jehovah’s Witnesses” organisation has continued to operate. This is done in several basic ways, they say. It must be taken into account that the persons accused do not deny that they belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and do not renounce their faith in court.

Almost every criminal case involves recordings of telephone conversations of Jehovah’s Witnesses with each other or audio recordings from their homes, Zhenkov says. For the courts, the fact that people visited each other or talked on the phone, and, among other topics, discussed the Bible during these conversations, is proof of guilt. Thus, in the eyes of the court, friendly meetings become “continued operation of an extremist organisation”.

"Statistically, there are very few extremism verdicts made public. It’s clear what this is actually connected - these verdicts are vulnerable"

Zhenkov also says that investigators, on occasion, turn the internet off at Jehovah’s Witnesses’ apartments. People under surveillance then call their internet service provider, but instead of engineers, investigators in disguise come and install wiretapping devices in their apartments or spyware programmes on their computers. From time to time, security officers conduct outdoor surveillance or video filming to confirm the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are meeting one another.

Zhenkov and Leontyev also point out that secret witnesses are also used in cases against Jehovah's Witnesses, although it is not a common practice. Testifying before court, anonymous witnesses report that they “talked about the Bible” or confirm the fact that believers met one other. According to Zhenkov, sometimes Russian law enforcement try to contact Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves and attempt to discuss the Bible - in order to later declare in court that these people tried to “recruit” them.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also often claim that Russian law enforcement has planted banned literature during searches - books, brochures as well as computer files. Artur Leontyev says that there are cases when flash drives with prohibited files have been planted as well. The lawyers also point out that collecting funds for renting premises or other needs are often declared evidence of financing “extremist activities”.

As in many extremism investigations, sentences against Jehovah’s Witnesses are not published on Russian court websites. OVD-Info was able to find only one verdict - the case of Sergey Klimov, while 26 people have already been convicted. Alexander Verkhovsky notes that it is not formally stated anywhere that courts are not allowed to publish verdicts in extremism cases, but rather it is a tradition that has emerged.

“Statistically, there are very few extremism verdicts made public,” Verkhovsky says. “It’s clear what this is actually connected - these verdicts are vulnerable. Even if, roughly speaking, a person is convicted in line with the criminal code, everything would be okay. But since it’s usually done in a slipshod manner, then you can understand them, they don’t want to publish it. This is how they try to give themselves a little bit of breathing room.”

For investigators, Verkhovsky says, cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses are simple when it comes to producing a base of evidence against suspects, while Artur Leontyev notes that law enforcement officials often treat Jehovah’s Witnesses as easy cases for fulfilling their quotas.

This article was originally published by OVD-Info in Russian. We translate it here with permission.

Illustrations by Alina Kugush.

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