The Jehovah's Witnesses Case in Moscow

Galina A. Krylova, Attorney at law, Member of Moscow City Bar Association
(A paper presented CESNUR 99, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvanya. © Galina A. Krylova 1999 - Do not cite or reproduce without the permission of the author)

The trial, which aimed at eliminating the Moscow community of Jehovah's Witnesses, was begun in Moscow on the initiative of the District Attorney and was the first attempt to ban a religious organisation on the basis of the 1997 discriminatory Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience. Undoubtedly, this precedent will point the way to future judicial practices in the 1997 Law's application. Despite the fact that the court sessions have attracted close attention from the mass media and human rights activists (and even diplomats have been present in the courtroom), the court has clearly been trying to help the District Attorney in his difficult task of proving the absurd accusations that he had brought against the defendants. These accusations include, inter alia, the fomenting of religious strife (since Jehovah's Witnesses consider theirs to be the only true religion); incitement to suicide (that is allegedly manifested in the rejection of blood transfusions); the 'involvement' of minors in religious activities including the refusal to celebrate holidays (which allegedly leads to the breakdown of the family).

The anti-cult Committee for Rescue of Youth, as the representative of the interests of an anonymous public, is also engaged in the trial on behalf of the District Attorney. As evidence of the danger that Jehovah's Witnesses pose, the court was presented with published materials from the State Duma, opinions of the well-known anti-cultists, Alexander Dvorkin and Father Oleg Stenyaev, judgements of theologians and psychiatrists who consider the teaching of the Witnesses to be 'pseudo-Christian' and who advocate 'deprogramming' to parents who do not approve of their children's choice.

Such accusations, as well as the methods to prove them, are not new. They were used as early as in the time of Stalin's repression when Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to labour camps and into exile. It is interesting that as recently as the 1980s, when five years was the standard term of imprisonment for adhering to the religious creed of Jehovah's Witnesses, legal decisions contained accusations similar to those being made now. The difference is in the proposed sanction - now it is proposed 'only' to eliminate the community and to ban its religious activities.

Jehovah's Witnesses have been in Russia for more than 100 years. They grew in number during World War II when western territories were annexed by the Soviet Union. They were cruelly persecuted in a monopolistic ideological state until the end of the 1980s, and only at the beginning of the 1990s were they exonerated as victims of political persecution. It seemed that there would be no return to the past. In his decree no. 378 of March 14, 1996, entitled "On Measures for Exonerating Religious Ministers and Believers that Became Victims of Illegal Persecution", President Yeltsin condemned the "years of terror unleashed by the Bolshevist Soviet Party regime against religious ministers and believers of all denominations". But was this to be the end of religious discrimination?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, some groups that disfavoured all but 'traditional Russian religions', have become increasingly influential. Calls in the media and official documents to combat so-called non-traditional religions became more and more insistent. There emerged anti-cult Committees that initiated attempts to ban religious associations, including Jehovah's Witnesses. Since they were supported by the State and the Russian Orthodox Church, their work was widely publicised in the media.

It was on the initiative of such Committees that criminal investigations were opened in 1996 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but they found Jehovah's Witnesses not guilty of any crimes. At the same time the Prosecutor General's office, prompted by the complaints of the anti-cultists, repeatedly insisted on renewing the investigations. In 1997 the anti-cult Committee for Defence of Family and Personality in St. Petersburg filed a suit to liquidate the Administrative Centre of Jehovah's Witnesses and requested that it itself should be awarded 100 million roubles in damages for harm allegedly inflicted against the mental and physical health of the organisation’s believers. In April 1998 the St. Petersburg court came to the conclusion that the Committee had no legal right to file a suit for liquidation of an organisation and demand monetary damages for itself for harm that had supposedly been inflicted on the religion's believers. This case set a precedent for Russia, precluding the possibility of other such lawsuits.

Nevertheless, after this, a Moscow prosecutor, acting under pressure from the anti-cultists, filed a court action demanding that the Moscow Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses be banned. At first the court refused to hear the case, stating that it had no jurisdiction; however it was later forced to hear it by order of the Moscow City Court.

There have now been three hearings in the case, each of which has ended in adjournment due to the prosecution's obvious lack of a viable case. The hearing in February and March of 1999 received the keenest attention, when the court heard all the parties to the case, as well as their witnesses and experts, and, once again, used technical grounds to avoid making a decision. The court commissioned an expert study of the religious teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses, which, by all appearances, will delay the trial for an indefinite period.

Why is this trial so significant, and why has it drawn such wide attention? A significant reason is that this is the first major trial in which the government has openly moved against religious freedom in an attempt to use the discriminatory 1997 Law. Maintaining the tradition of officially sanctioned ideology, a prosecutor in democratic Russia has launched accusations similar to those used by the former Soviet government. But now the interests of the State were defined differently: 'communist ideals' were replaced by 'traditional values'. One might compare the prosecutor with a theatre director producing a play entitled The Russian people vs. Jehovah's Witnesses. Just as in Soviet times, the ‘Russian people’ had no face, and its interests, as in the past, were expressed by the so-called ‘representatives of the public’ and the government.

Let us take a look at the forces that were arrayed against Jehovah's Witnesses. On the prosecutor's side was the anti-cult Committee, in effect the initiator of the trial, and the Justice Department. It is interesting to note that when the court granted the appeal of the congregation's lawyers to exclude the Committee from the parties to the case because of its obvious interest and bias, the anti-cultists' lawyer tried to participate in the trial as the representative of the Justice Department. This demonstrated the common interests of the anti-cult Committee and the state agency, which had registered the Moscow congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and had the authority to monitor its activity. When the court denied the anti-cult Committee the right to participate as a result of the sharp protest from the lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses, the anti-cultists in essence directed the prosecutor and the Justice Department's representative throughout the trial, and fed them with doctrinal literature that, in their opinion, exposed the congregation to be guilty as accused.

The trial visibly demonstrated the forces in opposition to the Jehovah's Witnesses. When the court began its hearings in a large hall, Cossacks and neo-Nazi groups stood guard threateningly. Vladimir Lysenko, MP, attempted to participate in the case. Members of both the Liberal Democratic (Zhirinovsky's) party and the communists, who are known for their extreme religious intolerance and nationalistic rhetoric, would have been quite at home beside the prosecutor. But when a respectable MP from a Moscow district, declaring his commitment to democratic values, comes to court 'on behalf of his voters' and supports the case against Jehovah's Witnesses, this is a significant matter. His appearance served as a reminder that only six members of the entire State Duma voted against the discriminatory 1997 Law. Furthermore, the Duma deputy could not give any name or quote any document which would explain who, under what circumstances, had asked him to demand the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses. ‘The voice of the people’ remained anonymous. The media, which had eagerly publicised the beginning of the trial - when the opponents of religious freedom were anticipating victory - lost interest as soon as the absurdity of the accusations dashed their hopes.

The hearings in September and November 1998 aroused huge interest. Perhaps this was the reason why, in February 1999, the judge moved the trial from the large hall that could seat 200 people into a tiny one for only about 15. Thus, access for the press and the public was severely limited. The defence's motion to ensure an open trial by moving it back into the larger hall was refused.

Let us take a brief look at the accusations. Jehovah's Witnesses were accused of incitement to religious hatred by distributing literature in which their teachings were presented as the only true ones. In support of her argument, the prosecutor presented the Watchtower and Awake! magazines to the court. In Soviet times one could have been sent to prison for possessing these magazines. The prosecutor was undeterred by the fact that an investigator from her office had reported that the Jehovah's Witnesses had not committed the criminal act of inciting religious discord. Furthermore, the law states that denominational preferences and religious differences should be resolved outside the courtroom.

Nevertheless, the prosecutor initiated disputes about the divine nature of Christ and the essence of the Holy Trinity, and criticised Jehovah's Witnesses for their 'false interpretation' of the Bible. When asked who had the true interpretation of the Bible, the prosecutor answered: the Russian Orthodox Church. The defence lawyers challenged her by asking, "Where did you receive your information as to who among the Christians are true ones? Did God himself tell you?" At this point she had to admit that, according to the law, the prosecutor's office should not engage in interpreting the Bible, and that she herself was incompetent in religious matters. The Bible itself was, in fact, put on trial, and all parties in the case engaged in what amounted to a collective Bible study. In this debate the prosecutor appeared so incompetent that the judge asked her to explain the words of the Apostle Paul "One Lord, one faith, one baptism". Was Paul inciting religious discord? Was not the author of the Book of Revelation causing mass psychosis, when he was making believers anticipate the Day of Judgement in fear? In response to the prosecutor's reference to the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah's Witnesses quoted publications of the Moscow Patriarchy that contained harsh and insulting condemnations of other religions. All the participants in the trial engaged in a comparison between biblical texts and the doctrinal literature of Jehovah's Witnesses. At times, stumped by quotations from the New Testament, which she heard for the first time in her life, the prosecutor had to admit that she was not a specialist in Biblical studies. However, she was reluctant to withdraw her accusations, as she was confident that she was defending the interests of ‘society and State’. Moreover, the prosecutor three times suggested that the judge should withdraw from the case as she allegedly had a personal interest in it. As grounds for this suggestion the prosecutor referred to the judge's refusal to disallow the defence lawyers to ask questions concerning certain issues. When I, as the defence lawyer, in my opening statement characterised the prosecutor's position as aggressive ignorance, the prosecutor threatened a criminal case against me.

Other statements by the prosecutor were no less questionable. For example, in support of her accusation of destruction of the family, she cited the Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to celebrate holidays. She felt that it was mandatory to participate in politics and celebrate the Orthodox Christmas as a state holiday. While citing four cases of divorce, she failed to refer to the relevant court decisions. The defence presented documents which showed that the reasons for those divorces were unrelated to the teaching or practices of Jehovah's Witnesses. The prosecutor condemned Jehovah's Witnesses for demanding too much time from its members for preaching, which allegedly prevented them from taking care of their families. However, she did not have any idea of how much time the members normally spent on preaching.

What else could one expect from a prosecutor who admitted that she had never attended a single meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses? Before cross-examination of the members in court, she had never spoken with a single member of the congregation. She had no idea of the conditions at Bethel, which she described as the ‘headquarters of a totalitarian sect’. And, while referring to the Russian Constitution and international law, she stated that the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Manoussakis, Kokkinakis, and Tsavachidis cases had no relevance whatsoever to this trial. Furthermore, she only learned of these decisions after they were presented to the court by the defendants.

The Justice Department's representative was more reserved, but she was no better informed about the Jehovah's Witnesses' theology than the prosecutor. She believed that the Witnesses forcibly destroyed the family since they teach (as she understood it) that families will be separated after Armageddon. No less ‘convincing’ was her argument that only 144,000 Jehovah's Witnesses would end up in paradise, whereas others awaited a fate so terrifying that the fear of it causes massive mental disorders.

It became evident to the court that the arguments of the prosecutor and the Justice Department were irrelevant. It was also clear that the official agencies looked at the congregation's activities through the eyes of the anti-cultists, who provided them with all the documents and literature.

It should be noted that the court was impressed by the historical documents which showed the similarity of the accusations made against Jehovah's Witnesses in this trial to those previously made against them by the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Germany under the Nazis. Decrees and sentences from Nazi Germany revealed that believers had been sent to concentration camps and imprisoned. In accordance with laws of the Stalin era, the Witnesses were subject to persecution, sent in large groups with their children to Siberia and the Far East. The prosecutions continued into the 1980s, when five years in prison was the usual sentence for adhering to their teaching. These documents showed that the accusations made by the prosecutor in this trial were similar, only the State's professed interest had changed. In the past, the Nazi laws protected "the National-Christian State during the period of its national ascent", and the Soviet laws were meant to secure the "construction of communism". Now the State was concerned about "traditional values". These archival documents bore witness to the strength of the believers who did not denounce their faith in concentration camps or exile. Let us now look at the prosecutor's witnesses.

Anti-cult activists gave evidence against Jehovah's Witnesses. Their stories were about how their loved ones had accepted an 'alien' faith. They admitted that they would not have objected if their relatives had turned to Orthodoxy. In telling the court about the alienation that had arisen, they failed to recognise that it was perhaps their own hostility towards their relatives' position that had led to spiritual separation. One of them - a professional military man who had left the service - recalled even throwing an explosive device into a group of believers in protest at his son's conversion. For many of them, the 'battle against sects' had become their second profession, and they had formed Committees. Others had used the issue of religion in civil cases to settle scores with their former spouses or to obtain custody of their children, with the anti-cult Committee participating on their behalf. However, the official documents presented by the defence - court decisions in divorce cases, letters from juvenile institutions, etc. - undermined the credibility of their evidence.

The witnesses for the defence confirmed the voluntary and informed nature of their choice of religion. They told of their families, work, and studies, showed photographs of their life in Bethel, and did not appear at all to be 'zombified', as the prosecutor had tried to depict them. The leaders of the congregation also gave testimony. Some of them were third-generation Jehovah's Witnesses and had gone through exile and concentration camps together with their loved ones. Vasilii Kalin, co-ordinator of the Administrative Centre, was exiled with his parents to Siberia at the age of five. An elder of the Moscow Congregation, Stepan Levitskii, and the parents of elders, Anatolii Timura and Yaroslav Sivulskii, served long years in prison for participating in meetings and distributing Bibles. Their testimonies illustrated the tragic history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

The prosecutor gave special attention to expert witnesses who were called with the intention to convince the court of the need to ban the Moscow congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Scholars of religion were represented by Frederich Ovsienko, a professor at the Russian Presidential Civil Service Academy; Igor Metlik, a researcher from the Academy of Education, who was little known in academic circles; and the prominent anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin.

Ovsienko, who has published a book about the 'illegal activities' of Jehovah's Witnesses, was unable to give a single example of such activities, and offered his personal interpretation of their doctrinal literature. Metlik knew neither the history of Jehovah's Witnesses nor the meaning of the name ‘Jehovah’. His fantasies about 'concentration camps' that the Witnesses were allegedly preparing for their opponents, or about their schemes to carry out terrorist acts to expedite the end of the world, were accompanied by claims that Jehovah's Witnesses engaged in commercial activities and prevented their children from receiving education. When excerpts from so-called expert sect studies from the Soviet-era trials were read to him, he expressed his complete agreement with them. Later it was revealed that this expert was actually a chemical engineer turned expert in child pedagogy.

Finally, Alexander Dvorkin tried to stun the court with stories about a Jehovah's Witness whom he knew personally and who allegedly dreamed of taking a machine gun to kill everyone who disagreed with him. However, Dvorkin was unable to answer a single specific question about the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The psychiatric evidence from the prosecution was presented by the well-known professor Fiodor Kondratyev, who heads a group which studies New Religious Movements at the notorious Serbskiy Institute For Forensic Psychiatry. He is the author of the 'sectomania' theory, which, in his opinion, holds that sect membership resembles drug addiction. In keeping with the tradition of punitive Soviet psychiatry, the professor condemned the 'new enemy of the Russian State'. While admitting that he had not examined members of the Moscow congregation, the professor realised his potential as a theologian. His conclusion was that "the practice and admonitions of the organisation run contrary to, and disparage the traditional spirituality of the peoples of the Russian Federation". The court was surprised when the defence lawyers exposed this expert witness as guilty of banal plagiarism. His 'study' quoted without attribution whole passages from the notorious 1997 Moscow Patriarchy Handbook. After a moment of embarrassment, Kondratyev explained that he had used a floppy disk with a file that contained the text of the Handbook. When he was presented with further evidence that he had also used without attribution whole pages from a book by Andrei Khvylya-Olinter, another anti-cult activist who worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the professor stated that they worked from the same desk and used the same material. (Incidentally, in his book Khvylya-Olinter thanks Alexander Dvorkin for his assistance and the provision of some data). It should be stressed that the prosecutor's claim of mass psychosis in the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses was based on Kondratyev's opinion.

It is also interesting that all the specialists who testified for the prosecutor admitted that they had not directly studied the congregation's members. Although the more experienced Alexander Dvorkin and Fiodor Kondratyev referred to 'conversations' with 10-15 believers, they could not give a single detail of these conversations.

In contrast, the specialists who testified for the Jehovah's Witnesses had conducted empirical studies of the congregation and their doctrinal literature. For example, Viktor Kagan, vice-president of the Independent Psychiatric Association, had carried out a psychological study of 113 believers whom he had selected using random sampling. His conclusion was that the level of psychological health of the congregational members was higher than average in the general population and that they were much more psychologically stable. He presented a copy of his research report to the court. However, in contrast to Professor Kondratyev's opinion, the court did not accept it as evidence. Only a short summary of Kagan's testimony was recorded in the official transcript. Similarly, the court refused to accept as evidence a critical analysis of evidence from the prosecutor concerning the Jehovah's Witnesses' concept of blood transfusion. This evidence was based on the work of experts for the prosecution who openly declared themselves to be apologists for the Russian Orthodox Church.

By the end of the trial, the prosecutor had failed to present any evidence other than a few quotes from doctrinal literature taken out of context. After cross-examination of the witnesses and experts in the case, the court began to realise that a decision to ban Jehovah's Witnesses could not be made. However, the judge chose to support the prosecutor and decided to adjourn the trial. What reason was given this time?

The court was reluctant to evaluate the evidence which had already been presented during the case. This evidence was unlikely to support the prosecutor's claims. Similarly, the court did not accept the conclusions of the Panel of Experts for the Ministry of Justice, which offers its opinion to the state officials when religious organizations apply for registration. (Some well-known academics are on this Panel, and its conclusions served as the basis for re-registration of Jehovah's Witnesses under the 1997 Law). Instead, the court granted the prosecutor's motion and appointed a panel of experts which included three specialists nominated by the prosecutor and two experts nominated by the defence. The case was adjourned indefinitely, and, according to the law, once the trial is back in session it will be heard from the beginning.

The appointment of the Panel of experts is an obvious attempt to avoid making a decision in favour of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Given the judge's professionalism, it is likely that she experienced certain pressure from her superiors. Considering the close relationships of the Moscow city authorities and the federal government with the Moscow Patriarchy, and having in mind that this case will create an important precedent for further developments in the area of religious freedom in Russia, one may arrive at one's own conclusions. Advocates of the co-operation between Church and State do not seem troubled by the experiences of the past nor are they inhibited by the obvious violations of the Russian Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights.

What can be said in conclusion? Although the lengthy trial has had a negative effect on re-registration of the regional congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, their national organisation has been re-registered at the federal level by the Ministry of Justice under the 1997 Law. Doubtless the Ministry of Justice could not ignore the widespread international publicity of the Golovinskiy trial, nor the absurdity of the accusations against the Jehovah's Witnesses. Finally, after re-registration had been completed, the Ministry of Justice received demands, including some from the State Duma, asking that the re-registration be annulled. Now stories about the position of officials are appearing in the press. For example, in his recent speech Mr. Genrich Mikhaylov, secretary of the Commission on Affairs of Religious Associations of the Russian Government, alleged that there were increasing activities of "all kinds of religious sects" as the 1999 parliamentary elections approach. He specifically referred to the "openly aggressive" political actions of the Jehovah's Witnesses who were allegedly trying to get their candidates into legislative bodies. In one apparent paradox in the trial, the Witnesses were accused of exactly the opposite - that they refused to recognise the State or the government.

It should be noted that the media has played a considerable role in inciting religious intolerance, and this campaign is getting more intense. According to Jehovah's Witnesses, within the past four years approximately 600 negative stories about them appeared in the media, in comparison to more than 200 during the first four months of this year.

Even without an official decision, it would seem that this attempt to create a legal precedent for liquidating a religious organisation on the basis of the discriminatory 1997 Law has failed. Although influential state agencies were against them, Jehovah's Witnesses were able to prove the absurdity of the accusations. The trial also demonstrated that theological differences cannot be used as grounds for criminal accusations and should not be accepted by either prosecutors or courts of law.


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