On March 4, 2020, Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, presented her new report on human rights impact of policies and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism. In the report, the Special Rapporteur stressed that any laws based on the broad concept of extremism cannot be seen as human rights compliant. She emphasized that: “The category of ‘extremist’ crimes is particularly vague and problematic. Absent the qualifier of ‘violent extremism conducive to terrorism’, the term remains broad and overly vague and may encroach on human rights in profound and far-reaching ways… The term ‘extremism’ has no purchase in binding international legal standards and, when operative as a criminal legal category, is irreconcilable with the principle of legal certainty; it is therefore per se incompatible with the exercise of certain fundamental human rights.”
The Special Rapporteur further added that “legislation that criminalizes ‘extremist’ thought, belief and content or ‘hate speech’ on the basis that it is a precursor to terrorism, because it is often used as a placeholder for silencing non-established or minority religious groups or non-majority opinions.”
This is a message that is yet to be delivered to Russia. Over recent years, in Russia, one after another Jehovah’s Witness has been arrested and/or prosecuted for not ceasing to practice their faith. The arrests come as a result of a ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, handed down on April 20, 2017, which liquidated the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Solnechnoye and 395 Local Religious Organizations (LROs) used by Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia. In doing so, the Russian Supreme Court opened the doors to charges under the Russian Criminal Code against (virtually) any members of the LROs (used by over 175,000 practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia). Furthermore, the ruling pronounced that the “property of the liquidated religious organization remaining once creditors’ demands have been satisfied” to be turned over to the Russian Federation.
Since the ruling, at least 313 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been placed under investigation and face criminal charges. This includes 35 held in prison (26 in pretrial detention; 9 convicted and serving time in prison), 25 under house arrest, 29 convicted (9 imprisoned, 8 fined, 12 others with restrictions) (as of February 24, 2020). Furthermore, in 2020 alone, Russian law enforcement has raided over 70 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
All of the charges that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses face relate to Article 280 and 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Article 282.2 criminalizes the act of organizing the activity of an extremist community with subsection (1) concerning “organizing the activity of a non-governmental or religious association or other organization that due to its extremist activity was liquidated or had its activity banned by a court decision that has entered legal force, with the exception of organizations declared terrorist under Russian Federation legislation”, and subsection (2) “Participating in the activity of a non-governmental or religious association or other organization that due to its extremist activity was liquidated or had its activity banned by a court decision that has entered legal force, with the exception of organizations declared terrorist under Russian Federation legislation.” Furthermore, Article 282.2, Subsection (1.1.) criminalizes the act of “persuading, recruiting, or otherwise inducing a person to participate in the activity of an extremist organization.”
Russia’s violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief has started to move beyond its own boarders. On February 21, 2020, Nikolai Makhalichev, a Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia, was arrested in Belarus while on holiday visiting friends. He had reportedly been placed on an interstate wanted list for allegedly practicing a forbidden religion. He has been detained indefinitely and is facing the possibility of extradition.
While countering terrorism and protecting people from its effects is an important role of the state, Russia must re-evaluate its position and distinguish between countering terrorism and using and abusing the very broad concept of extremism to curtail human rights of all. The case of Jehovah’s Witness in Russia shows the danger that laws based on such a concept can have on the right to freedom of religion or belief. It should be a warning to any states considering taking an approach focused on the concept of “extremism” in all its forms and without any link to terrorism. It should be a warning to anyone championing human rights.