In my latest article for RT (which you can read here) I take a shot at the plethora of reports ranking countries for their freedom, happiness, and so on. I’ve made use of these reports myself in the past, and don’t think that they are worthless, but one definitely needs to treat them with a lot of care, in particular because they tend to contain a lot of pro-Western bias.
In the article, I discuss a new report ranking states for religious repression, and note that in this area Russia deserves some criticism, especially for what I call its ‘despicable’ and ‘appalling mistreatment’ of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So, I thought it would be worth spending a bit more time on the topic.
The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is truly preposterous. The religion has been deemed an ‘extremist’ organization, in accordance with the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity. What determines ‘extremism’ under the law is the subject’s motivation – an activity is extremist if motivated by ‘ideological, political, racial, national, or religious enmity, as well as hatred or enmity towards a social group’. The law also lists various specific activities which qualify as extremism, such as ‘public justification of terrorism’, ‘incitement of social, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred’, ‘propaganda of exclusiveness’, the catch-all ‘mass distribution of materials known to be extremist, their production and possession for the purposes of distribution’, and somewhat scarily, criticism of ‘federal and local governments and officials, official policies, laws, ideas, religious and political organizations’.
The legislation requires the government to maintain a list of extremist materials and allows for the prohibition of organizations who foment extremism. Those banned include several Russian nationalist and Muslim organizations, the Church of Scientology, and the Jehovah Witnesses.
Quite why the latter two organizations are ‘extremist’ under the terms of the legislation I cannot begin to fathom. One can challenge the validity of their beliefs, but to say that they are motivated by ‘ideological, political, racial, or religious enmity’ is absurd. Charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses involve purely peaceful activities without any ‘public justification of terrorism’, ‘incitement of social, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred’, or anything else of the sort. Those arrested are guilty of nothing more than meeting to discuss the Bible or possessing religious literature. About a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned, for terms of up to 4 years (or in the case of one Dane, Dennis Christensen, 6 years). The contrast between the severity of the sentences and the total lack of threat these people pose to public order is deeply disturbing.
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, finding that a police raid on a religious service in 2006 had violated Articles 5 (right to liberty and security) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, in 2017 the Russian Supreme Court upheld the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since then, repression of the group has continued, including raids in multiple regions of the country this Tuesday. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation justified the raids by claiming that a new branch of the religion had opened in Moscow, and had held ‘secret gatherings’ and studied ‘religious literature’. In others words, a handful of people had met in the privacy of their homes and discussed the Bible. One might imagine that the police have more serious issues to deal with.
Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only ones to have suffered under the extremism laws, whose terms are interpreted so flexibly as to be able catch just about anybody whom the authorities take a dislike to. There is some evidence that senior officials are aware of the problem. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for instance, has stated publicly that the definition of extremism is too broad, while President Putin has said that equating religious organizations to terrorist and other similar groups is a mistake. Nevertheless, the repressions continue.
This in turn reveals something about how Russian operates. Extremism legislation is hardly unique to the Russian Federation. Such laws proliferated worldwide in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001. But in Western countries, these laws tend to be applied in a saner fashion. In Russia, laws are all too often applied in an erratic and arbitrary way, oppressing people who pose no danger to society as a whole. Many of the complaints made about Russia in the West are much exaggerated. But in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian state’s behaviour is both unjustifiable and counter-productive, as their persecution induces unwarranted suffering while serving no social purpose whatsoever.