STRASBOURG—On Thursday, June 10, 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) moved further to protect religious freedom in Russia. The seven judges were unanimous in declaring the liquidation and ban on the activities of the Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses as unlawful and in violation of the fundamental human rights of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
In rejecting all the government’s allegations, the judges emphasized that today’s ruling is binding upon Russia and that Russia should take steps to “put an end to the violation found by the Court and to redress so far as possible the effects.”
The Moscow ban was based on an evaluation of religious belief and was used to justify a harassment campaign with the stated aim to extend the Moscow ban throughout Russia. Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing an increase in incidents of harassment and ill-treatment at the hands of individuals and government authorities: arson attacks on places of worship, arrests, unlawful searches, assaults, confiscation of literature, and restrictions against renting and building meeting places. This latest ECHR judgment encourages Russia to protect religious freedom and to reverse the liquidation of the legal entity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.
One reason for the application to the ECHR was the excessive length of the dissolution proceedings. On June 20, 1996, a local prosecutor’s office in Moscow began the first of four criminal investigations against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Almost two years later, on April 13, 1998, the last of the investigations was closed, after it was established that there were no grounds for any criminal case. Only one week later, however, the Northern Administrative Circuit Prosecutor filed a civil lawsuit against Jehovah’s Witnesses. After receiving the results of an expert study, the court dismissed the case on February 23, 2001, ruling that there was no basis for the charges. The beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not their activity, was the theme of the retrial. Despite the absence of any facts to support the charges, on March 26, 2004, the court liquidated the legal entity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and banned its activity.
Speaking of the importance of today’s decision, Ivan Chaykovskiy, Chairman of the liquidated Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses said: “This judgment is a victory of common sense over religious intolerance. I hope that as a result of this judgment, the authorities will quickly restore our legal rights and end the nationwide state-sponsored campaign of harassment against Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
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