Staunton, Nov. 28 – The Russian Supreme Court’s finding that Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t be charged with extremism if all they do is take part in religious services – for its holding, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/01/for-first-time-russian-court-finds.html -- should but likely won’t ease government pressure on them or other religious organizations, experts say.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Center which tracks religious freedom in Russia and which itself is listed by the authorities as “a foreign agent,” says that the court’s decision is welcome and will likely allow those convicted earlier to appeal and seek a reduction in the sentences they have received (idelreal.org/a/31573576.html).
However, he suggests, many courts will either ignore the decision altogether or use other charges to restrict the activities of groups the regime particularly dislikes such as Muslim organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir. In those cases, the wave of repression religious organizations have faced recently will likely continue unabated.
Meanwhile, Stanislav Seleznyov, a lawyer for the Net Freedoms Project, says that the impact of the decision depends not only on whether lower courts pay attention to it but also on the difficulty of deciding what is a religious service. For traditional religions, that is not so difficult. But for others, where conversations are the focus, that is unclear.
According to Seleznyov, Russian prosecutors and courts are likely to exploit that. They will say that if there are discussions, that is about making plans for work beyond their meetings; and then they will argue that that makes such sessions extremist rather than religious in character and subject to legal sanction.
And even more that Verkhovsky, the lawyer is skeptical that courts in the regions will pay attention to the Supreme Court ruling. Defense attorneys should call that to their attention but how effective that strategy will be very much remains to be seen.