On January 31, 2023, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), having considered seven complaints from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia, recognized the disruption of worship services from 2010 to 2014 as a violation of fundamental freedoms. The ECHR ruled to pay compensation to the applicants in the amount of 345,773 EUR and another 5,000 EUR as legal costs.
This case concerns the disruption of religious meetings in 17 regions of Russia, as well as searches, confiscation of literature and personal belongings, and several cases of detention with personal searches.
Law enforcement officers, sometimes armed and wearing masks, would brake into the buildings where worship services of Jehovah’s Witnesses were being conducted. The actions of law enforcement officers were justified by technicalities, for example, by the fact that the meetings were organized without prior notice to the authorities. The security forces either demanded that the event be stopped or remained on the premises and filmed what was happening using photo and video equipment, after which they interrogated those present.
On several occasions, police raided places of worship, including private residences. The search warrants did not provide specific grounds. They only stated that the buildings may contain “evidence relevant to the criminal case.”
“The applicants unsuccessfully pleaded with [the police] to postpone the search until after the end of the religious services.” Several similar cases are described in the ECtHR decision (§ 4).
The victims appealed against the actions of the security forces in local courts, but their demands were not satisfied.
The European Court concluded that the actions of the Russian authorities violated Article 9 of the Convention on Human Rights, which declares the fundamental right to participate in peaceful religious assemblies.
Here are excerpts from the judgment of the ECtHR.
“ The disruption of a religious assembly by the authorities and sanctioning of the applicants for holding ‘unauthorized’ religious events amounts to ‘interference by a public authority’ with the applicants’ right to manifest their religion.” (§ 9) “The Court has previously noted the consistent case-law of Russia’s Supreme Court that religious meetings, even those conducted on rented premises, did not require prior authorization from, or notice to, the authorities . . . [the applicants’] conviction did not have a clear... legal basis and was not ‘prescribed by law.’” (§ 10) “It is undisputed that all religious assemblies were peaceful in their nature and were not likely to cause any disturbance or danger to the public order. Their disruption . . . did not pursue a ‘pressing social need’ and therefore not ‘necessary in a democratic society.’” §·11) “The Court finds that the search warrants had been couched in extremely broad terms... They did not specify why the particular premises were targeted, what it was that the police expected to find there and what relevant and sufficient reasons justified the need to conduct the search.” (§·12)
What Does the Decision of the European Court Mean?
Although the cases reviewed by the ECHR dealt with events prior to the ban on Russian legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, hundreds of criminal cases filed since then have treated the joint discussion of the Holy Scriptures as a crime.
Yaroslav Sivulskiy, representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, commented on the decision of the ECHR: “The ECHR once again emphasized that there is not and cannot be anything extremist in the religious meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The same was recognized by the Plenum of the Supreme Court of Russia; however, some Russian courts continue to act contrary to these rulings, putting Jehovah’s Witnesses behind bars merely because of their religion.”
More than 60 applications from those who suffered from the repressive campaign against Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses are awaiting the European Court’s decision.
In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights recognized the liquidation of legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia as illegal and demanded that the criminal prosecution of believers be stopped and that all those imprisoned for their faith be released.