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Jehovah’s Witness on trial for ‘extremism’ in Kabardino-Balkaria

31 August 2018
Jehovah's Witnesses in Prokhladny (Caucasian Knot)

A Jehovah’s Witness from the Kabardino-Balkarian town of Maysky is on trial in Prokhladny District Court for ‘inciting religious hatred’ and ‘calling to extremist activity’. Yury Zalipayev faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

On Monday, an employee of the Prosecutor’s Office of Kabardino-Balkaria testified in Zalipayev’s defence, saying that the town’s Jehovah’s Witnesses did not distribute ‘extremist materials’.

Fifty-four-year-old Zalipayev has been on trial since 17 July. According to the prosecution, Zalipayev ‘made unflattering comments’ about Muslims and Orthodox Christians during a sermon, urged his fellow believers to physically attack them, and distributed ‘forbidden religious literature’.

In April 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses were declared an extremist organisation and banned in Russia.

Caucasian Knot cited Zalipayev’s lawyer, Anton Omelchenko, as saying his client insists he is innocent and that the case against him had been fabricated.

Omelchenko said the charges were based on the testimony of two witnesses who repeatedly received calls with instructions from a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer. Zalipayev, along with around 30 Jehovah’s Witnesses interrogated during the investigation, denied the witnesses’ testimony.

The trial was adjourned until 7 September.

In a case similar to Zalipayev’s, an investigation was opened against 70-year-old Arkady Akopyan, the former chairman of a Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation in the city of Prokhladny, Kabardino-Balkaria, in May 2017. Akopyan was charged with inciting hatred, but not with extremism; his trial continues.

‘Extremist organisations’

In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, declaring the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and its local branches extremist organisations. Their property was confiscated, and sweeping arrests followed.

Human Rights Watch called the decision an assault on freedom of religion and declared the measures unjustified. More than 150 Russian activists spoke out against the ruling in an open letter initiated by think tank Sova, calling for the immediate release of the arrested Jehovah’s Witnesses and to reverse the Supreme Court ruling.

On 28 May 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) proceeded to consider a complaint by Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses on the prohibition of their activities and the confiscation of their property. The ECHR has asked the Russian authorities for an explanation in light of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Tradition of persecution

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long history of being persecuted in Kabardino-Balkaria. In 2011, there were two armed attacks on a prayer house in the town of Nartkala, which was then closed. Kabardino-Balkarian Muslims have often protested against materials distributed by local Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russian, Balkar, and Circassian.

In March 2016, the FSB and local police searched the premises of a Jehovah’s Witness organisation in the town of Prokhladny, and confiscated what they called ‘extremist literature

In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations in Prokhladny and Maysky were fined ₽100,000 ($1,500) and ₽200,000 ($3,000) respectively for distributing ‘extremist materials’.

In February 2018, Prokhladny’s Prosecutor’s Office asked the city court to restrict access to four websites run by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The deputy head of the spiritual department of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria, Alim-Khadzhi Sizhazhev, told OC Media that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature contains ‘a number of strained interpretations and inaccuracies in terminology that cast a shadow on other faiths’.

Sizhazhev said that Jehovah’s Witnesses wanted to ‘attract as many supporters as possible’ and that ‘the texts of Jehovah’s Witnesses are designed for those who do not understand religion and who are easy to manipulate’.

One Jehovah’s Witness in Nalchik who did not wish to be named told OC Media he did not understand ‘what kind of extremism could be blamed on Jehovah’s Witnesses if they preach love for God and encourage the desire to do good. I don’t exclude the possibility that there are inadequate people among us, but you can’t dub all Jehovah’s Witnesses extremists because of the stupid behaviour or statements of one or two people’,

As of 30 March 2017, five Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations were active in Kabardino-Balkaria, the total number of followers is unknown.