The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has in a landmark decision against Russia, ruledthat it was unlawful to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for their faith. The court also ruled that the 2017 ban of Witnesses by Russia was illegal. It also quashed the ban of the Witnesses’ printed publications and their official website, jw.org.
Russia was ordered to discontinue all pending criminal proceedings against Witnesses and torelease all those in prison. Russia was also ordered to return all the confiscated properties or pay59,617,458 euros (US$63,684,978) compensation for the same in pecuniary damages. Theformer Soviet State was also directed to pay applicants a total of 3,447,250 euros (US$3,682,445) in nonpecuniary damages.
The ruling came as the ECHR also issued a judgment against Lithuania for denying Stanislav Teliatnikov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an exemption to military service.
The judgment last week addressed 20 cases from 2010 to 2019, involving over 1 400 applicants —individual Witnesses and legal entities. However, the court’s judgment extends far beyond the applicants.
It stated that Russia “must take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . and the release of all Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been deprived of their liberty.”
The judgment vindicated every one of Jehovah’s Witnesses inside and outside of Russia, legally establishing that they were law-abiding citizens who were being wrongly prosecuted and imprisoned.
Throughout the judgment, the ECHR systematically refuted Russia’s claims as baseless that the Witnesses’ actions, beliefs, publications, and website were extremists.
The judgment indicated 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.
On the belief that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the truth, the court established that: “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.”
On blood transfusions, the court said: “The refusal of blood transfusion was an expression of free will of a community member exercising her right to personal autonomy in the sphere of health care protected both under the Convention and in Russian law.” It was also the court’s finding that the religious admonishment to refuse military service did not break any Russian laws. It noted that the applicants’ religious activities and the content of their publications appear to have been peaceful in line with their professed doctrine of non-violence.
The court also determined that the content on jw.org was not extremist, and asserted that if the authorities objected to selected information on the website, they should have required the organization to remove only those sections they found offensive instead of banning the entire website.
The judgment strongly criticized the Russian authorities and established that they were prejudiced, showed bias, and “had not acted in good faith.”
The judgment detailed the following discoveries made by the Court:
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.
Russian authorities allowed serious “procedural flaws,” such as when the Russian Supreme Court relied on biased expert reports selected by the police and prosecutors instead of reviewing the publications impartially.
The law on extremism was strategically drafted in such a broad and vague manner that it allowed the authorities to act arbitrarily against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to the Court, Russia violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights among them:-
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)
Although, Russia was 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 had the opportunity to respond to the arguments in all the cases. In addition, the ECHR linked the judgment to the recently amended guidance by the Russian Supreme Court. Thus, Russia was obligated to respect its content, all the more so as the content of the judgment applied indistinctly to all Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In Europe and elsewhere, the ECHR, which is the most effective international human rights court in the world, made it clear once for all that Jehovah’s Witnesses were peaceful people, whose beliefs and practices were harmless. This judgment showed that even though governmental authorities may dislike the beliefs of the Witnesses, they have no right to review their legitimacy, as they fall in the private sphere of every individual.