Staunton, Nov. 16 – Many have welcomed the decision of the Russian Supreme Court that Jehovah’s Witnesses must “not be prosecuted for peaceful meetings if the believers do not undertake attempts to renew the activity of the religious organization which has been recognized in Russia as extremist and prohibited” (sibreal.org/a/verhovnyj-sud-sobraniya-svidetelej-iegovy-ne-yavlyayutsya-ekstremizmom/31564248.html).
But there are three reasons to think that this decision will not end official persecution of the denomination that has been going on since the same court held in April 2017 that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an extremist group and banned its activities in the Russian Federation, a decision that has been extended to ever more groups and individual believers.
First, the new decision simply brings the declared policy of the Russian legal system into what its propagandists and most recently Vladimir Putin have routinely claimed, namely, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are free to practice their religion as long as they don’t violate Russian laws including missionary activity
The new decision does nothing to prevent the Investigation Committee or the FSB from declaring any meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as involved with this. It simply means that the authorities will have to define the charges in other ways, and it leaves in place the 2017 ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a denomination are extremist, a dangerous nonsense.
Second, Putin’s words about these cases and the Supreme Court’s declaration almost certainly have more to do with Russian propaganda than they do with legal practice. They will be invoked by defenders of the Putin dictatorship every time anyone complains about the hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses either languishing in prisons or under legal jeopardy.
Moreover, they will obscure and are clearly intended to obscure that they do nothing to change the notion that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist organization deserving to be banned. Anyone who carefully reads the court’s ruling will see that but most will only take in the gloss that Russian propagandists will give it.
And third, while the ruling of the Russian Supreme Court is supposed to guide all lower courts and define future legal practice, the gap between what the courts in Russia say and what actual legal practice is not only has been historically large but has been growing larger rather than smaller in the Putin era.
For all these reasons, one should not celebrate the court’s decision but see it as yet another Kremlin effort to muddy the waters and distract attention from its repression of Russians who simply want to exercise their constitutional and God-given right to practice their religion without state interference.