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RUSSIA: Strasbourg rules Russia’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017 is unlawful

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Jehovah’s Witnesses / ECtHR: Russia ordered to pay EUR 59,617,458 ($63,684,978 USD) for pecuniary damage (mainly seized property) and EUR 3,447,250 ($3,682,445 USD) in respect of non-pecuniary damage

Information and text from: JW World Headquarters/HRWF (08.06.2022) –

On Tuesday 7 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) released a landmark judgment against Russia in favour of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The ECHR declared—6 votes to 1—that it was unlawful for Russia to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017.

The court also stated that it was illegal to ban printed publications, periodicals and the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It ordered Russia to discontinue all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses, to release all those in prison, as well as to return all the confiscated properties or pay adequate compensation.

Russia was ordered to pay the applicants a total of EUR 59,617,458 ($63,684,978 USD) for pecuniary damage (mainly seized property) and EUR 3,447,250 ($3,682,445 USD) in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

granted: EUR 59,617,458 for pecuniary damage

Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses states: 

“Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are thrilled to hear about today’s comprehensive judgment against Russia. The Court vindicated Jehovah’s Witnesses as law-abiding citizens who, as a result of religious discrimination, are being unlawfully prosecuted and imprisoned in Russia. We hope Russia will comply with the Court’s direction to halt the nationwide persecution and to release all 91 Witnesses in prison. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia eagerly await the opportunity to freely worship in their homeland as millions of fellow believers in over 200 other lands do.”

Significant Facts

  • The European Court stated that Russia “must take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses, including by reference to the recently amended guidance by the Supreme Court of Russia (see paragraph 126 above), and release of all Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been deprived of their liberty.”
    • Why significant? Usually, the European Court does not articulate what State authorities should do to implement a judgment. Moreover, the conclusion of a judgment is typically limited to the parties of the case. But in today’s judgment, the Court makes a general statement about all Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. This shows that neither the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses nor any individual Witnesses constitutes a threat to Russia. This confirms that the Witnesses’ beliefs and practices are harmless and deserve full protection because they are not extremists.

  • The Court views Jehovah’s Witnesses as a peaceful, legitimate religion
    • Advocacy that their beliefs are true: “Peacefully seeking to convince others of the superiority of one’s own religion and urging them to abandon “false religions” and join the “true one” is a legitimate form of exercise of the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.” (right to freedom of religion) (§156)
    • Publications: “The applicants’ religious activities and the content of their publications appear to have been peaceful in line with their professed doctrine of non-violence.” (§157)
    • Website, jw.org: Site content not extremist. And even if some of it was extremist, the authorities should have required to remove the harmful part instead of blocking it all. (§231)
    • Individual believers, including Dennis Christensen: The ECHR stressed that the Russian Courts “did not identify any word, deed or action by the applicants which would be motivated or tainted by violence, hatred or discrimination against others.” (§271)
    • Conscientious Objection and Blood Transfusions: The Court reiterated that these are fundamental rights, which should be respected as part of one’s right to self-determination and freedom of conscience and of religion. (§165, 169)

  • The Court strongly criticized the Russian authorities, asserting the authorities were prejudiced, showed bias, and “had not acted in good faith.” (§187)
    • “Evidence tainted by bias against Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (§180)
    • “The forced dissolution of all religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia was not merely the result of a neutral application of legal provisions but disclosed indications of a policy of intolerance by the Russian authorities towards the religious practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses designed to cause Jehovah’s Witnesses to abandon their faith and to prevent others from joining it”. (§254)
    • Serious “procedural flaws”, such as the Court relying on biased expert reports selected by the police and prosecutors, instead of reviewing the publications impartially. (§252)
    • Law on extremism drafted in such a broad and vague manner that it allowed the authorities to act arbitrarily against us. (§272)

  • Russia violated several articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
    • freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
    • freedom of expression (Article 10)
    • freedom of assembly and association (Article 11)
    • Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (the right to respect for property)

  • Judgment for “Taganrog LRO and others v. Russia” (32401/10), was combined with 19 other applications filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses from 2010 to 2019. The total number of applicants is 1444, of which 1014 are individuals and 430 are legal entities (some applicants appear in more than one complaint)

Judgment’s Impact

  • Inside of Russia: Although Russia is no longer a member of the Council of Europe, the case facts took place well before Russia withdrew and was expelled from the Council. Russia has had the opportunity to respond to the arguments in all the cases. Moreover, the ECHR has linked this judgment to the recently amended guidance by the Supreme Court of Russia. Thus, it is obligated to respect its content, all the more so as the content of this judgment applies indistinctly to all Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Outside of Russia: For all countries in Europe and elsewhere, the ECHR, which is the most effective international human rights court in the world, has made clear once and for all that Jehovah’s Witnesses are peaceful people, whose beliefs and practices are harmless. It has shown that even though State authorities may dislike their beliefs, they have no right to review their legitimacy, as they fall in the private sphere of every individual. (§172)

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present in Russia since 1891. They were banned after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and criminally prosecuted for practising their faith in the USSR.

After the USSR Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations Act was enacted in 1990, the RSFSR Ministry of Justice registered the Administrative Centre of the Religious Organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR. On 29 April 1999 that national religious entity was re-registered as the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia (“the Administrative Centre”), under Russia’s new Religions Act.

In order to carry out their religious worship and practice throughout Russia, religious associations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were formed into groups or communities, called “congregations”. They operated under the authority of the Administrative Centre, an umbrella organisation for the Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were approximately 400 local congregations and 175,000 individual Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Their places of worship were known as “Kingdom Halls”.

In January 2007 a deputy Prosecutor General sent out a circular letter to regional prosecutors, asserting that Jehovah’s Witnesses represented a public threat:

“Various branches of foreign religious and charitable organisations operate in Russia, whose activities do not formally violate the provisions of Russian law but quite often contribute to the escalation of tensions in society. Representatives of foreign religious associations (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unification Church, Church of Scientology, etc.), followers of various Oriental beliefs, and followers of Satanism form branches that frequently carry out activities harmful to the moral, mental, and physical health of their members.”

He directed subordinate prosecutors as follows:

“To check whether territorial bodies of the [telecoms regulator Roskomnadzor] … properly execute their legal duty to uncover extremist material in the media belonging to religious associations (Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious organisations that have their own printing facilities).”

Link to ECHR press release summary (7 pages)

Link to full judgment (196 pages)

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