October 8 – This week, a court in Kabardino-Balkaria found Uriy Zalipayev, a Jehovah’s Witness, not guilty of all charges, the first time this has happened Moscow banned the group in 2017. Unfortunately, the prosecution is likely to get a guilty verdict on appeal, and other members of the group are still being found guilty on trumped up charges.
The case against Zalipayev was always especially weak because his defense had video showing that the literature the prosecutors said was “extremist” was planted on Zalipayev and found more than 30 people who testified he did no more than encourage people to read the Bible (credo.press/233351/ and sova-center.ru/religion/news/extremism/counter-extremism/2020/10/d43024/).
The court’s decision fully reflected the lack of merits of the government’s case, but it may be a response to growing international complaints about Moscow’s repression against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On October 1, the international religious rights organization CESNUR released a statement signed by 50 leading specialists denouncing Moscow’s approach (mailchi.mp/31700d1ec0cd/qgmwmqvble-3316074?e=611a1908d8 and cesnur.org/2020/jehovahs-witnesses-statement.htm).
Massimo Introvigne, a CESNUR official who helped draft the statement, says that “it seems the Jehovah’s Witnesses are really punished in Russia because of their growth, something that provides unwelcome competition for the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.” Others echoed his words and said the Witnesses have every right to proselytize.
Their statement urged that “President Putin and his administration to take action to cease the systematic and senseless persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a community of peaceful, law-abiding citizens who only ask to practice their faith in peace.” The decision in KBR may be an effort to muddy the waters and thus reduce the likelihood of more such appeals.
But such international action is absolutely necessary. Since the Russian Supreme Court banned the Witnesses’ activities three years ago, Russian police have raised 1145 homes and kingdom halls and have launched 388 criminal investigations. Forty-five Witnesses are now behind bars and 26 more are under house arrest.
And perhaps most ominously of all given the hopes the Zalipayev verdict has sparked, other Russian courts, all outside of Moscow and thus less likely to receive the media coverage domestic and foreign they deserve, this week found other Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty as charged, activists say.