Staunton, Nov. 21 – A Vladivostok court has exonerated a Jehovah’s Witness who had been charged with extremism on the basis of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that religious services and other religious activities in and of themselves are constitutionally protected and not subject to extremism charges.
But however welcome both the Supreme Court ruling and the Vladivostok court rulings are, most Russian specialists on law and religion do not expect them to lead to the reversal of earlier decisions against Jehovah’s Witnesses or an end to extremism charges against them (kommersant.ru/amp/5089236 and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/01/russian-supreme-court-decision-on.html).
That is because the Supreme Court ruling is only advisory and not an obligatory precedent, and investigators, prosecutors and judges are free to follow it or not on the basis of their own judgment. Most, experts say, will continue to view any religious activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist and subject to prosecution.
The Vladivostok court’s decision regarding Dmitry Barmakin was “unexpected,” Kommersant reports. He was accused of engaging in extremist activities by the practice of his religion; but after the Supreme Court decision, the local judge ruled there was no crime in what he had done, using language that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have long used in their arguments.
Yaroslav Sivulsky of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses says that he “would like to believe that this sentence is only the first of many analogous ones,” given that 545 of the 576 Witnesses Russian prosecutors have brought charges against have been accused of the same offense the Vladivostok judge has said isn’t a crime.
But other Russian legal experts aren’t so optimistic. Viktor Zhenkov, an attorney who has defended many Jehovah’s Witnesses says that he doesn’t think those already convicted will be able to overturn those findings. And Roman Lunkin, a specialist on religion at the Moscow Institute of Europe, says he doesn’t expect massive findings of innocence in the future.
Despite what the Supreme Court has said, he continues, “every judge will decide on his own whether to make use” of the higher court’s recommendation. And prosecutors and police will continue to view any religious activity by the Witnesses as evidence of the continuation of the work of the banned organization of which they are a part.