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Analysis & Opinion
29.03.11 Defending The Faith
By Rosemary Griffin

Alexander Kalistratov, a Jehovah’s Witness from the Siberian city of Gorno-Altaisk, stands accused of inciting religious hatred for distributing religious materials. If he is found guilty when a verdict is delivered on April 14, Kalistratov’s case could have serious implications for Russia’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Alexander Kalistratov became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1994, after studying the Bible and attending services for a year. He is currently being prosecuted for inciting racial hatred under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code in a trial that began in October of 2010. If he is found guilty, he faces two years in jail. “I am not surprised; many Christians have suffered persecution. Christian love for God and neighbor will help me to endure all of this,” Kalistratov said at the opening of his trial last year.

The case against him is based on allegations that he distributed magazines published by the religious group in 2008 and 2009, which were declared to be extremist literature by courts in Gorno-Altaisk and Rostov-on-Don. These court judgments, however, took place after Kalistratov is alleged to have distributed the material. He is expected to become the first Jehovah’s Witness in Russia to be sentenced under extremism legislation, although other cases are underway. “There are 12 criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses currently being investigated, including one in Asbest, which has been halted for lack of evidence, but has not been closed,” Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Russia Profile.

Russia’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses – an evangelical Christian denomination based in Brooklyn, which believes in Armageddon – is sizeable, and many see the case as an attack on the group’s right to worship as a whole.

One of Kalistratov’s defense lawyers, Viktor Zhenkov, in his final address to the court on March 18 said “The prosecution is accusing Kalistratov as a Jehovah’s Witness, and in Russia there are over 160,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all have a religious belief based on the Bible. Therefore we have to understand that essentially, the sentence which will soon be handed out to Kalistratov is a sentence to all Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.”

The length of the case has had a financial and physical impact on Kalistratov’s defense team, which has travelled from St Petersburg, where the Russian branch is headquartered, over 3,000 kilometers to the Gorno-Altaisk courtroom, for court hearings. Earlier this year a session was adjourned when all three of the lawyers representing Kalistratov fell sick and were unable to make the trip.

After Kalistratov’s final words at the last hearing on March 18, Mikhail Odintsov, the representative of the Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights of the Russian Federation stated: “Aleksander Kalistratov is not guilty—not before the law, men, or God.”

Although Kalistratov’s case is being heard in the Altai Republic, a region far from Moscow, bordering Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, it could have serious implications for the rest of the country.

Russian authorities have long tried to suppress the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, but the group has successfully challenged the legality of repressive Russian laws at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). And outstanding cases at the court in Strasbourg may see more victories for the group in future. In June last year the ECHR ruled that Moscow court rulings banning the organization were illegal. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian capital were banned from meeting in October 2001. The European court decision came into force in November 2010 and included compensation for the community of 20,000 euro, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses said was paid this week, although the deadline was February 22, 2011.

In order to reinstate the community, Jehovah’s Witnesses applied to three Moscow courts to overrule the previous bans and the city Justice Ministry to re-register its Moscow branch. “We have not heard anything from the Ministry of Justice,” Martynov said. “We had one hearing at the Golovinsky court in February this year, but Judge Elena Novikova ruled that it would not reassess a decision to close the organisation taken on 26 March 2004.” The group is waiting for a hearing at Moscow’s Butyrsky court.

The situation in other parts of Russia is much better for the congregation, and a number of communities have received official local registration in the past. “We have 408 religious communities registered in Russian towns,” Martynov said. “There are Jehovah’s Witnesses living elsewhere in Russia, but they do not need to register their groups individually; under Russian legislation they can be affiliated with a registered central branch, which we have in St. Petersburg.”

That is not to say that a registered branch protects the faithful from intimidation by local authorities. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported harassment throughout Russia, ranging from confiscation of printed materials, to searches and interrogation by police and FSB officers.

One reason for this is the nature of Russia’s extremism legislation, passed in 2002. Critics say the law is too flexible, allowing for any court, based on “expert” testimonies to rule printed materials extremist and add them to a Ministry of Justice list of outlawed texts. As soon as a text is on the list, those who distribute or who are in possession of it can be prosecuted.

Religious groups publishing or studying these texts often only find out about the court rulings when a text is added to the ministry’s list, giving them little or no time to appeal court decisions before destroying their materials. Over 50 Jehovah’s Witness publications are on this list, with the most recent batch added in December 2011.
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