Russia: 2015 prosecutions for publicly sharing beliefs

Large numbers of individuals across Russia are facing prosecution for expressing their religious beliefs in public under legislation which provides little clear explanation of how "violations" may be committed, Forum 18 has found. Charges often result in lengthy court proceedings, and fines. In some cases, fines represent nearly two-thirds the average monthly wage and nearly twice the average monthly pension. These can place a heavy burden on the poor, elderly, and unemployed.

Charges are brought overwhelmingly against Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 has found, although members of several other religious groups, including Baptist churches and the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, have also been taken to court. Few defendants are acquitted, and appeals against convictions rarely succeed.

Based on Forum 18's analysis of available court verdicts, 119 individuals and three religious organisations are known to have been brought to court between January and December 2015 for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief in public space (see case listing below). Prosecutions were brought under the Code of Administrative Offences' Article 20.2 ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket").

This represents a sharp increase on the 23 known prosecutions under Article 20.2 for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief in public in 2014.

2015 Punishments

These prosecutions led to 80 fines, two short-term jailings, and one sentence of community service (before appeals). A further two individuals were convicted but not punished because of the "insignificance of the violation", according to court verdicts. Another court dismissed four prosecutions because the alleged offence did not fall under Article 20.2. Only 33 out of the 122 defendants were initially acquitted (before appeals).

Individuals or religious communities who wish to or whose beliefs require them to share the tenets of their faith in public, beyond the confines of a place of worship, are particularly vulnerable to prosecution under Administrative Code Article 20.2.

In 2015, Forum 18 found 83 prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses (including two communities); 9 of Baptists; 9 of Hare Krishna devotees; 6 of members of Falun Gong; 4 of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) as part of the same case – which was dropped; 3 of Muslims; and 3 of Protestants. One individual was charged in connection with a Buddhist event. The religious affiliation of four defendants remains unknown.

Gender and geography of 2015 prosecutions

Of the 119 individuals known to have been prosecuted, 74 were women and 45 men.

Forum 18 found that prosecutions under Article 20.2 in 2015 took place in 38 of Russia's 83 regions (not counting Crimea and Sevastopol). The five regions which saw the highest numbers of cases were: Rostov (15), Primorye (11), Voronezh (8), North Ossetia-Alania (8), and Saratov (7).

In addition to the 122 prosecutions found by Forum 18, similar cases have been brought in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Article 20.2

Administrative Code Article 20.2 is linked to the Demonstrations Law and punishes the "violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket". Its eight parts cover a variety of offences, but only Parts 1, 2, and 5 are known by Forum 18 to have been used against people who exercise freedom of religion or belief. These are also the most frequently used Parts in general.

As well as individuals promoting their religious beliefs, members of public associations and political parties (such as Communists marking Lenin's birthday), political demonstrators, and individuals protesting against social problems (such as rising utility costs or the introduction of new road tolls for lorry drivers) may also face charges under Article 20.2.

In total, 2015 saw 468 prosecutions under Article 20.2 for all types of public event and activity, of which just over a quarter (122 cases, 26 per cent) were brought against individual religious believers and communities. The highest proportion of religious cases came under Part 2, Forum 18 found, with more than a third (73 out of 217, 34 per cent) of these prosecutions involving the exercise of freedom of religion and belief in public space.

Most of these Part 2 prosecutions (55 out of 73) are based on a law enforcement interpretation of much outdoor religious activity as "picketing" (deemed unlawful if carried out by more than one person without notifying the authorities). Jehovah's Witnesses, upon whom the burden of such cases principally falls, do not consider their actions to be picketing, but "religious service" and therefore do not think to inform the authorities.

In 2015, Forum 18 found 73 prosecutions for religious activities under Part 2, 35 under Part 5, and 14 under Part 1. These were derived from a total of 80 separate investigations (50 under Part 2, 21 under Part 5, and 9 under Part 1), of which four resulted in charges under both Parts 2 and 5.

Article 20.2 Parts 1, 2 and 5

Parts 1 and 5 of Article 20.2 ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket") cover general violations of the Article and complement each other. Part 1 focuses on organisers, Part 2 on other participants. Conviction under Parts 1 and 5 brings a fine of 10,000 to 20,000 Roubles or compulsory labour (community service) for up to 40 hours. Officials of organisations may also receive a fine of 15,000 to 30,000 Roubles under Part 1, and organisations themselves may be fined 50,000 to 100,000 Roubles.

Part 2 specifically targets the organisation of events without formally notifying the authorities in advance. For individuals, this carries a fine of 20,000 to 30,000 Roubles, compulsory labour (community service) of up to 40 hours, or imprisonment for up to 10 days. Officials may be fined 20,000 to 40,000 Roubles, and organisations 70,000 to 100,000 Roubles.

These are substantial fines when compared with the average monthly wage in Russia (33,347 Roubles in November 2015) and particularly the average monthly pension (12,400 Roubles in 2015). Many of those prosecuted under Article 20.2 are elderly Jehovah's Witnesses who can ill afford to pay what may be twice their monthly income. In such cases, other members of the community often contribute towards the fine, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Judges sometimes acknowledge defendants' difficult financial position by reducing penalties for pensioners and the unemployed.

While the majority of convictions found by Forum 18 resulted in fines, two defendants were jailed and one was sentenced to community service.

Typical 2015 cases

Nikolai Kryukov and Dmitry Moskvichyov, Hare Krishna devotees, performed religious chants and handed out literature outside a shop in the centre of Magadan. Both were charged under Part 2 with holding a "group picket" without informing the authorities. They were detained for six days without an opportunity to organise proper legal support. Their three companions, Yevgeny Fedoreyev, Oleg Kim, and Vladimir Gerasimenko, were charged under Part 5 in their home regions and fined.

Jehovah's Witness V. Lubyagina was also convicted of holding an unlawful "group picket" for displaying literature on a stand at a town centre crossroads (her companion was not charged). Lubyagina was sentenced to 20 hours' "compulsory work" in light of her financial position, according to the verdict from Sovietsk City Court, Kaliningrad Region.

Prosecutions are usually initiated by the police and in some instances by prosecutors' offices. According to written verdicts, members of the public sometimes alert law enforcement officials to supposed "offences" upon seeing Jehovah's Witnesses or Baptists setting up literature stands in the street.

Other investigations are based on monitoring of "compliance with anti-extremism legislation" – if law enforcement agents find "extremist" literature, believers may also be taken to court under Article 20.29 ("Production or mass distribution of extremist materials").

Jehovah's Witnesses Lyudmila Ponomarenko and N. Mironenko, for example, were fined at Prokhladnyy District Court in Kabardino-Balkariya for both unlawful "group picketing" and the distribution of "extremist literature" on the same day.

Confusion remains

Despite legal changes in 2012 and 2014 which give judges concrete grounds for dismissing cases in which police misapply the law, the situation remains confusing. In December 2012, responsding to an appeal by two Jehovah's Witnesses, the Constitutional Court ruled that notification of an event need only be submitted if the authorities are required to provide health and safety measures. The Religion Law was amended in 2014 to clarify in which places religious events may be freely held.

Despite these legal changes, police and prosecutors persist in bringing charges against individuals for publicly exercising freedom of religion and belief, often on a very small scale.

Also, different judges apply these changes inconsistently. This can result in conviction in one court and acquittal in another for identical offences.

For example, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Jehovah's Witnesses O. Kozlova and I. Parkhomuk were charged with unlawful picketing for standing with a literature stand outside a shop at the edge of a city square. Judge Nadezhda Tatun acquitted both of them at Central District Court on 16 December, citing the 2012 Constitutional Court ruling. V. Sharabanova and M. Zakhvatayeva, who also set up a stand with Jehovah's Witness literature at a bus station in Tulun in Irkutsk Region and were also charged with unlawful picketing, were convicted and each fined 20,000 Roubles.

Sometimes this inconsistency occurs even within the same case in the same court. Jehovah's Witnesses, O. Fioktistova and K. Tutinova, were charged with organising "a public religious event" aimed at the "popularisation of [Jehovah's Witness beliefs] among residents" without notifying the authorities in the city of Elista in the Kalmyk Republic. They too had displayed religious literature on a stand in a pedestrian zone. They were both tried under Article 20.2, Part 2, at Tulun City Court on the same day. While Judge Natalya Tsykalova acquitted Fioktistova, Judge Ilya Furmanov convicted Tutinova and fined her 20,000 Roubles.

In 2015, Forum 18 found six prosecutions (five for Jehovah's Witness events, one for a Protestant event) which should not have been initiated under the new amendments. All six involved religious services or meetings held in loaned or rented properties (a category added to the list of places where religious worship may be held without hindrance). All of the defendants were acquitted on the basis of the 2014 amendments.

The 2012 Constitutional Court ruling was invoked by Judge Natalya Mashkina of the Supreme Court of the Udmurt Republic when she overturned the 70,000 Rouble fine imposed on the Society for Krishna Consciousness of Izhevsk for holding an "unauthorised" procession. In her verdict, she ruled that the local administration had not shown that notification was required at all. The event's alleged organiser, Aleksandr Korepanov, had, however, already been convicted for the alleged violation in July 2015. This indicates that it is possible for both organisations and individual organisers to be charged for the same offence – and face different outcomes.

A clear discrepancy also exists between how religious adherents themselves view their public activity (as "meetings for worship or other religious purposes") and how law enforcement agencies perceive it (as "public events" on a par with political demonstrations, most often as picketing).

Finally, legislation still does not explicitly address the conduct of public religious activities which are not "worship rites or ceremonies" (such as handing out religious literature or discussing beliefs in public places). This leaves a grey area of public space in which religious events are neither freely permitted nor expressly forbidden. This puts the onus on individuals themselves to determine whether or not it is necessary to notify the authorities of an event.

Lengthy proceedings and legal challenges from both sides

Seventy-eight of the 122 verdicts found by Forum 18 were challenged in higher courts, including 10 attempts by the prosecution to appeal against acquittals. Ten fines were overturned as a result, and seven of the challenged acquittals were upheld. Appeal judges also returned 6 cases to their original courts for re-examination (3 after appeals by the defence, 3 after appeals by the prosecution), leading to 3 fresh convictions (after initial acquittals) and 2 eventual acquittals (after initial convictions).

With their potential for large fines, the likelihood that police or prosecutors will challenge acquittals, and the possibility that appeals at the regional/republic level will result in re-trials, cases under Administrative Code Article 20.2 place a heavy burden on defendants in terms of time, energy, and money – even if they are ultimately exonerated.

Defendants can become caught up in a cycle of appeals and re-trials for months on end. E. Rogachyov, a Baptist charged with "picketing" near a school in Rostov, endured some eight months of proceedings before losing his final appeal in January 2016. Rogachyov and two companions, N. Kirillov and L. Leyn, were originally acquitted by the city's Proletarian District Court in June 2015. However, the police challenged these rulings at Rostov Regional Court on the grounds that the district court had not taken into account the fact that the "picket" had been held near an educational institution. Kirillov's acquittal was upheld, but Leyn and Rogachyov (who faced a different appeal court judge) were sent for re-trial and found guilty on 7 August. Leyn appealed unsuccessfully on 8 October, while Rogachyov's case was again returned for re-examination at the lower court, where he was convicted again and fined 5,000 Roubles on 20 November.