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Russian terror law’s wide reach

Sophia Kishkovsky (Society)
Filed on November 7, 2011

Over this past week, a well-
known writer and a Jehovah’s Witness in Siberia have become two more Russians to fall afoul of a murky and much-criticised law purported to fight terrorism but being turned against a broad and seemingly random array of people.

Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known as Boris Akunin, a writer of best-selling historical mysteries, revealed in his blog that an investigative body subordinate to the Kremlin had summoned his publisher for questioning about possible extremist statements in his latest book, ‘All the World’s a Stage.’ The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation said it had been alerted that Chkhartishvili’s novel might be in violation of a law pushed through by the Kremlin in 2002, purportedly to fight terrorism, and amended in 2006. Rights activists say the law is so obscure that it can be applied at official whim to stifle perceived critics.

The Investigative Committee quickly concluded it had found no offending passages. On his blog, a commentator painted law enforcement as a “theater of the absurd.”Religious groups that have encountered the law concur but say that they are facing very real consequences.

On Thursday, a court in the Gorno-Altaisk region of Siberia found Aleksandr Kalistratov, a Jehovah’s Witness, guilty on charges of disseminating extremist materials. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Kalistratov had earlier been found not guilty, but a higher court ordered a retrial. Viktor Zhenkov, a defence lawyer for Kalistratov, said the law was so broad now “that any court can rule that any literature is extremist.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses were repressed, imprisoned and exiled in Soviet times, and their leaders in Russia say that there are now nearly a dozen criminal cases against members on charges of extremism across Russia. Religious literature distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is on a list of extremist literature compiled by the Russian Ministry of Justice, which serves as a basis for cases like the Kalistratov one.

Grigory Martynov, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that homes of believers had been raided and that there were fears in Revyakino, a village in the Irkutsk region, after the local mayor twice burst into gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were first exiled there in the Soviet era. Martynov said he feared the authorities would not pay attention until the situation became deadly. He also provided a photocopy of what he said was a police handbook from Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region, that described the local head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “likely in contact with the special services of the USA.”

Roman Lunkin, a religion specialist with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow, which has defended religious freedom cases for nearly two decades, said that Russia’s special services “see a fifth column” in religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostalism. A Russian Orthodox priest testified against Kalistratov, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses say that pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church is often a factor in the prosecution of sects. But last year a nationalist Russian Orthodox group called the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers also fell afoul of the law because of T-shirts with the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death!” which are now also on the Justice Ministry’s extremism list.

But the Banner Bearers say the slogan comes from Mount Athos, the monastery in Greece, and refers to internal spiritual battle. Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer and one of the founders of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, which does not typically defend nationalists, is serving as a defense lawyer for the Banner Bearers.

Sophia Kishkovsky writes for Ecumenical News International and is based in Moscow


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