Freedom of Religion, Russia and the Jehovah's Witnesses

Edward Baker &  Daniel Priestley 

You’ll be vaguely aware of who the Jehovah’s Witnesses are from their notorious door knocking habits to promote their religion. With a worldwide profile and 8.5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses actively preaching every month, the religion is incredibly significant - for scale Judaism is estimated to have about 14 million followers. However what you might not know is that their practices are banned in 34 different countries; in alphabetical order these countries are:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, China, Comoros. Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Loas, Lebanon, LIbya, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, U.A.E., Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yeman.

This article will focus in on one of these countries: Russia. Whilst practicing the religion in not strictly illegal, the Russian Supreme Court declared the group as “extremist” in 2017, allowing for the dramatic increase of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) in Russia. This is despite the Russian constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. JWs in 40 regions have faced raids and there are now “140 believers facing criminal charges, including 26 in pretrial detention and 26 others under house arrest.” They have also banned the Jehovah’s Witness translation of the bible in Russian. In February 2019 a search of the homes in the town of Lantor resulted in a criminal case against 19 people being opened and most shockingly it is now alleged that seven of the JWs who were detained, were tortured between interrogation sessions by Russian security officers. Clearly the right to freedom of religion is being violated by the Russian state and these allegations also raise concerns about the right to freedom from torture and inhumane treatment.

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses an Extremist Group?

The arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses are based on Article 282.1 and Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code which prohibits organizing or organizing the activity of an extremist group. Article 282.2 defines an extremist group as “an organized group of persons for the preparation or for the performance, with the motives of the ideological, political, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity, as well as on the motives of hatred or enmity towards any one social group.” It also states in regards to the offences “A person who has voluntarily ceased participation in the activity of a public or religious association... shall be relieved of criminal liability, unless a different corpus delicti is contained in his activity.” This definition appears to have three key aspects:

Being an organized group of persons
Being having ideological, political, racial, national or religious hatred motives
Aiming hatred at any one social group

Let’s go through this definition and see if we can get a law-abiding, pacifist religion to fit this into the aspects. Jehovah’s Witnesses are clearly an organised group and are led by the central organisation known as the Watchtower. This is as far as the definition can be met. They are not driven by ideological, racial or political ideas and specifically don’t participate in local political systems. There is also no clear example of the Jehovah’s Witnesses aiming hatred at any one social group in a way that is representative of the religion. Therefore it is false to classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group and it is clear that defining them in this way is just being used as a tool to allow for religious persecution.

Are the Conclusions of the Russian Supreme Court a Violation of Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights has described religious pluralism to be indissociable from a democratic society (Kokkinakis v Greece), highlighting the court’s promotion of ranging beliefs to be accessible and practicable in a modern society.The protection afforded by the convention has developed from the backdrop of Jewish persecution in the holocaust. Despite the convention’s aims, Russia has continued to violate the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses removing the concept of pluralism enshrined at the heart of Article 9.

Before a violation by Russia is to be determined, it is important to decipher the scope of thought conscience and religion under Article 9(1). The court has provided a flexible and wide interpretation of the definition to include religions such as Scientology (Church of Scientology Moscow v Russia). Therefore Jehovah’s Witnesses, being a readily established religion, will come under the conventions scope with no issues. Subsequently, Article 9(1) provides for the right to manifest that religion or belief in public or private. Manifestation can be linked to internal and external dimensions, internal manifestation is an absolute right whereas external manifestation is a qualified right. The importance in differentiating between internal and external manifestations is crucial in establishing outright violations by contracting states.

An internal manifestation, as mentioned is absolute (Darby v Sweden), includes the right to hold a belief and to change that belief. State interference dictating what a person believes or coercive measures to such effect will be a violation of Article 9. The actions of the Russian Government to enact legislation labelling Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation is an unquestionable violation of the right to hold a belief. The power to arrest and detain under the Russian criminal code is incompatible with Article 9 due to severe state interference with the ability to hold the belief, furthermore the coercive measures displayed in the torture of believers will violate Article 3 and an Article 8 issue is also present when viewing the search of homes.

Russia’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not an uncommon issue in the European Court of Human rights. In 2007 the court found a violation where Russian authorities disbanded a meeting for disabled members of the religious group (Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia). In 2010 the court found against Russia concerning the dissolvement of the Moscow branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses accompanied by a complete ban on the re-registration of the group (Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia). In 2013 a violation was found where the choice to refuse blood transfers was then disclosed to further parties (Avilkina and Others v. Russia). In 2014 Russian security forces and riot police illegally raided an annual congregation commemorating the death of Jesus Christ, the court found a violation.

It is unsurprising to see repeated violations against Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Russian government. Russia’s continued attempt to disband the religion using the enactment of the Russian criminal code is now more of an expectation than a surprise. The convention's goal is to promote freedom of ideas, opinions and expression but the Russian government clearly hold these values in absolute contempt. This leaves the question: are Human Rights really enough to protect the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia?

Photo Credit - Nikita Karimov -


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