The decision culminated six years of legal proceedings that began when prosecutors sought to halt the group’s activities on the ground that they posed a threat to Russian society.
Under Russia’s complex laws governing religious minorities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered on the national level and in nearly 400 other cities in Russia, though not in Moscow itself. The ban affects only the group’s activities here, but its leaders expressed fear that the ruling could presage similar efforts in other cities, where adherents have faced harassment.
“Once you get a decision like this, it’s open season,” John M. Burns, the group’s Canadian attorney, said.
Exactly how the ban will be enforced is not clear, though the prosecutor, Tatyana Kondryatyeva, told the court’s three judges that the group would be prohibited from renting buildings for religious services and from distributing religious literature, which she said violated the rights of Russian citizens.
After a four-hour hearing in which the two sides presented their arguments, the judges returned with a ruling after only five minutes, upholding a lower court’s decision in March to ban the Moscow chapter.
The decision came after several twists that dragged out the case. In 2001 a court ruled in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the prosecutors reinstated the case after an appeal that was supported, the group’s attorneys said, by leaders of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.
The second trial lasted nearly three years and included, among other evidence, a lengthy physiological and linguistic study that the Jehovah’s Witnesses said had been intended to question their beliefs, not their activities.
The group can appeal the decision in the Russian courts, but Burns said it would turn to the European Court of Human Rights, where it has already filed a legal challenge to the city’s ban.
The case has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organizations and from officials and lawmakers in the United States. The State Department’s report on religious freedom, released last December, cited numerous incidents of official or unofficial harassment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faiths that do not have the status of official religions in Russia, as do Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
In Washington last month, Steven K. Pifer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs, cited the case as an example of the Russian authorities’ “seeking greater control in the area of religious affairs.” He also said that “the Federal Security Service, working with local law enforcement officials, has targeted minority faiths as `foreign’ security threats.”