“Russian Authorities Sentence Jehovah’s Witness”
The Russian Constitution of 1993 states that, “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with others any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them.” Ostensibly, this provision provides broad protections to Russians to freely observe their chosen faiths. However, recent targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses suggests that this may not be the case — who have faced discrimination and legal sanctions in other countries as well, including in the United States suggests, however, that this may not be the case.
In March, Russian authorities sentenced Sergey Filatov to six years in a prison camp after he was convicted in the Dzhankoy District Court of the Republic of Crimea of violating Article 282.2(1) of the Russian Criminal Code, which makes it illegal to organize the activities of an extremist organization. Filatov is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Russia officially banned in 2017, and it was his religious proselytizing activities — an essential component of Jehovah’s Witness practice — that served as the factual basis for his prosecution. More recently, in May 2020, a Crimean appellate court refused to consider Filatov’s claims that the government “illegally altered the evidence” used against him. The main prosecution witness, for example, was identified as a Russian intelligence official who under false pretenses attended and recorded a gathering at which Filatov spoke about religious topics. The only other witness against the defendant changed his testimony to incriminate Filatov — perhaps due to government pressure — after initially testifying that he had no knowledge of Filatov’s religious activities under investigation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian faction in which members of the group practice and grow their religion by proselytizing to others door-to-door and sharing their beliefs. Notably, Jehovah’s Witness proselytizing practices were a source of tension in other countries as well. During the first half the 20th century several important First Amendment cases involved prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses for violating state and local non-solicitation laws in the United States. In Russia, one primary reason for the government’s prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is their commitment to non-violence, and their attendant refusal to enlist for service in the Russian military is one reason they may be targeted for prosecution by the government.
Filatov is not the first Jehovah’s Witness to be targeted by the Russian government; 30 Witnesses have been convicted of various crimes in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea since 2017, and ten of these have received prison sentences. Additionally, “[t]he Jehovah’s Witnesses organization has recorded 780 search-and-seizure raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and apartments in Russia since 2018.” Hundreds of members have been put on a surveillance list for Russian government monitoring. This watchlist includes photographs and videos of members’ gatherings, conversations, and even homes. Much of this information is later used as evidence in prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses. During raids and arrests, officers also commandeer Bibles and religious materials. In some instances, the raids have become very disruptive and involved homes being ransacked. Many raids also result in personal belongings being taken with no hopes of their being returned. One such raid was carried out at Filatov’s home, and some of the evidence used against him was a recording made by intelligence officers of a Jehovah’s Witness meeting where he “spoke on religious subjects.”
These government actions have left many Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses fearful.
President Vladimir Putin has claimed that the government will look into the targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, “the Kremlin has since said that the group remains illegal under current legislation and declined to confirm whether the law will be changed or not.”
Filatov declared in his final address to the court, “I know for sure that I did not commit any crime either before God or before the state. I am being convicted for the fact that I am a Christian and I consider my faith to be true . . . and I cannot renounce it.”
If Jehovah’s Witnesses are being sentenced to prison merely for practicing their faith, this calls into question whether the religious freedom protections of Russia’s Constitution are worth any more than the paper they are written on. Ultimately, the matter may generate greater international scrutiny, as Filatov’s defense attorney, Oleh Zakharchuk, has confirmed that he “will continue to seek justice . . . if necessary, at the European Court of Human Rights.” ♦
Adrienne Phillips is a rising third year law student at Emory University School of Law. She is currently serving as Chief of Staff for the Journal of Law and Religion.