Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests
Vajnai v. Hungary
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The Supreme Court of Russia granted the Ministry of Justice’s request to dissolve the “Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center in Russia” (Center) and its 395 regional affiliates for violating the law “On Combatting Extremist Activities”. It was alleged that the Center imported banned extremist religious literature into Russia, financially supported banned extremist organizations, and failed to eradicate or prevent extremist activities within it and its regional affiliates. The Supreme Court interpreted anti-extremism legislation broadly to allow preventative actions to be taken that resulted in restrictions on freedom of religion, expression and association.
On March 27, 1991, the Ministry of Justice registered the “Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR.” The registration was amended to reflect the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center in Russia” (the Center) and registered with the Ministry of Justice in 1999. In 2016, the Ministry of Justice filed a request with the Supreme Court of Russia that the registration be annulled and that the organization be dissolved, along with 395 regional affiliates that were a part of it under the Center’s charter, on the grounds that the Center operated in violation of its organizational charter and Russian law, including the Federal law No. 114-FZ “On Combating Extremist Activities”.
The Ministry of Justice made three main points in its request for dissolution:
On the first point, the Ministry of Justice explained that Russian courts had declared various Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature and other materials extremist because they incited religious hatred and advocated for the superiority of one group of persons over another on the basis of religion. The allegedly extremist information was contained in 95 print publications and various digital materials, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ main website and several blogs. It was also highlighted that, between 2014 and 2015, the Center imported into Russia over a million copies of various publications that had been declared extremist, including editions of its magazine “Watch Tower”.
On the second point, the Ministry of Justice explained that, since 2009, law enforcement authorities in Russia determined that nine regional offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses threatened national security and intentionally committed extremist acts. Russian courts ordered these offices to be shut down. Despite these developments, it was alleged that the Center continued to finance some of these regional offices.
On the third point, the Ministry of Justice clarified that on March 2, 2016, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center received a warning from the Prosecutor General of Russia about the inadmissibility of extremism in Russia. Despite the warning, the Ministry of Justice identified additional instances of the Center disseminating allegedly extremist literature to regional Jehovah’s Witness organizations.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice argued that the Center’s activities contained elements of extremism because it acted as a coordinating body for its regional offices, imported literature that was declared extremist, and financed regional offices that were declared extremist. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Ministry of Justice, the Center did not take any steps to eradicate the causes and conditions of extremist activities within it and its affiliates.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center called the ban unjustified because it did not pursue a legitimate aim and was not proportionate. The Center highlighted that it never committed extremist activities and was never held responsible for violating federal laws “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” or “On Combatting Extremist Activities.” Additionally, the Organization argued that the Ministry of Justice’s request to dissolve the Center violated the Russian Constitution, namely Articles 28 (freedom of religion), 29 (freedom of opinion and expression), and 30 (freedom of association). The Center also argued that the request violated Articles 9 (right to liberty), and 11 (fair trial) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Articles 18 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and 19 (freedom of expression) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Supreme Court of Russia (Court) granted the Ministry of Justice’s request to dissolve the “Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center in Russia” (Center) and its 395 regional affiliates for violating the law “On Combatting Extremist Activities.”
The Court began by reviewing the relevant articles of the Russian Constitution. It explained that Article 28 of the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, which includes the right to practice or not practice religion, to freely choose a religion, and to disseminate and hold religious opinions and beliefs. The Court then highlighted that Article 30 of the Russian Constitution prohibits the establishment and activities of organizations that aim to violently overthrow Russia’s constitutional regime, to undermine national security, or to incite national or religious hatred.
Next, the Court explained that freedom of religion in Russia was regulated by the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”. This law permits the creation of religious organizations and groups, and defines them as voluntary associations of Russian citizens and other persons who permanently and lawfully reside in Russia, with the aim of jointly practicing and disseminating religious beliefs. Under this law, a “Central” or “Managerial” religious organization is one that includes at least three affiliate regional religious organizations under its charter. Accordingly, the Center was a “Central” religious organization since it oversaw 395 regional religious organizations and administratively managed 2,500 religious groups.
The Court then turned to reviewing the Center’s charter. Under the charter, the Center’s main activities included the coordination of Jehovah’s Witnesses preaching activities, and the dissemination of the religion’s beliefs. The Center was also responsible for offering services to its affiliates, including administrative, consulting, legal, and other aid. Its responsibilities also included overseeing the financing of religious activities and other services, as well as the importing and exporting of religious literature.
Lawful reasons for dissolving a religious organization were considered next. The Court explained that Article 14 of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” permitted the dissolution of a religious organization for conducting extremist activities. Furthermore, under the Federal Law “On Combatting Extremist Activities”, a religious association may also be banned if it was found to have committed extremist activities. The Court listed an exhaustive definition of extremist activities, which included (i) a violent overthrow of Russia’s constitutional regime, (ii) the public justification of terrorism, (iii) the incitement of hatred, and (iv) the advocacy of superiority or violation of rights on the basis of race, religion, or nationality. The Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” established that a warning should be sent to a religious organization where it is determined that the religious organization or one of its regional or structural institutions committed acts of extremism or if their activities contained signs or symptoms of extremism.
The Court then turned to the review of the relevant facts. In the case at hand, the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation issued a written warning to the Center on March 2, 2016 explaining that 88 materials published by Jehovah’s Witness organizations in Russia were added to the federal list of extremist materials. The Center appealed this warning in the Tversk Regional Court of Moscow on October 12, 2016, and before the Judicial Collegiate of the Moscow City Court on January 16, 2017. Both tribunals left the warning unchanged.
On January 27, 2017, the Ministry of Justice conducted a review of the Center to determine its compliance with the law on religious organizations and its charter. The Ministry of Justice determined that the Center violated its charter and the Federal Law “On Combatting Extremist Activities”. The review determined that despite the April 26, 2010, ban on the dissemination of the Jehovah’s Witness magazines “Watch Tower” and “Awake!” in Russia, the Center continued to import these publications in the hundreds of thousands. Additionally, between 2014 and 2015, the Center imported 14 thousand copies of the text entitled “Studying in a theocratic school”, which was declared extremist by the Starooskol City Court on November 27, 2014.
Furthermore, per court orders, eight regional Jehovah’s Witness organizations were banned in Russia between 2009 and 2016 because they were deemed extremist. However, a review of the Center’s finances showed that three of these organizations received funding from the Center before and even after their bans.
According to Article 7 of the Federal Law “On Combatting Extremist Activities”, if new facts arise pointing to an organization’s extremist activities within 12 months of that organization having been warned that its activities were extremist or had elements of extremism, then the organization could be dissolved. Here, the Court concluded that following the March 2016 warning, new facts arose that pointed to the Center’s involvement in extremist activities.
The Court then reviewed the legitimacy of limiting Jehovah’s Witnesses’s rights to free expression and public association. According to Article 55(3) of the Russian Constitution, Article 22(2) of the ICCPR, and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a restriction on human rights and the right of association must be prescribed in federal law, seek a socially important aim (protection of the constitutional regime, morality, health, the rights and interest of others, national security, or public order), and be necessary in a democratic society (e.g. it must be proportionate to the socially important aim).
The Court ruled that, on the basis of the above evidence, the Center’s dissolution was not an arbitrary interference or an illegitimate restriction on the right of association or freedom of religion. In the eyes of the Court, it was clear that the Center and its many regional affiliates conducted extremist activities. A warning and a review of the Center did not eradicate these extremist activities. Furthermore, banning regional Jehovah’s Witness organizations did not stop the Center from its unlawful activities, since it continued to support them and justified their activities. Thus, dissolving the Center was the only option left.
The Court stated that the restrictions imposed on Jehovah’s Witnesses in this case had a socially important purpose (the protection of the lawful interests of others, and protection against threats to personal rights, the health of citizens, public order, and national security), and were proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. The Court then turned to anti-hate speech norms to justify the order to dissolve the Center. It explained that Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, as well as Articles 18, 19 and 29 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights prohibited all advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred. Additionally, as established by the Russian Constitutional Court and the Shanghai Convention on Combatting Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism (June 15, 2001), States are permitted to interpret “terrorism” broadly in their legislation so that terrorism, separatism, or extremism could not be justified using politics, ideology, philosophy, ethics, religion or in other ways. The Court also interpreted the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Resolution “On threats to democracy from extremist parties and movement in Europe” July 2, 2013, No. 1053-O, to stress the importance of legislatively restricting freedom of expression and association to combat extremism.
The Court then explained that the State is not required to wait for symptoms of extremism to accumulate and turn into more than threats. In its opinion, a different interpretation of the Federal Law “On Combatting Extremist Activities” would render the law pointless and would fail the socially important goal of combatting extremism.
Next, the Court justified dissolving regional Jehovah’s Witness organizations. According to its interpretation of the relevant laws, liquidating a Central religious organization meant that its regional and other institutional structures must also be dissolved. The fact that regional and other institutional structures were separately registered did not protect them from the order of dissolution.
The argument that the Center did not produce any of the extremist literature was dismissed. The Court reasoned that the Center coordinated the importation of these publications. The publications also included a web-address of a banned website, in violation of Article 12 of the Federal Law “On Combatting Extremist Activities” which prohibited the use of communication networks to conduct extremist activities. The Center also coordinated all of the activities of the regional organizations.
On the basis of the above, the Court approved the dissolution order of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center and all of its regional organizations. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court’s Judicial Collegiate, which subsequently refused to hear the appeal.
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The Council of Europe condemned the decision, calling it a “further escalation of the harassment and judicial persecution… in contradiction with the international standards on freedom of religion or belief.” Similarly, SOVA-Center, an NGO that studies misuse of extremist laws in Russia, called the Supreme Court’s decision a clear example of religious discrimination. In fact, in 2010, the European Court of Human Rights had already found Russia to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for ordering a regional branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be dissolved.
There are over 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and due to the closure of the Center and its regional affiliates, these persons may be held criminally liable for practicing their religious beliefs.
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