The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing “deep concern about the recent ruling of the Moscow City Court to ban the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.”
The federation aimed to remind Putin of his “international obligations” and hopes for a public statement from the president.
“We would welcome public statements by President Putin or other senior authorities of the Russian Federation to this effect,” the federation’s chief editor, Paula Tscherne-Lempiaeinen, told Mosnews.
In its letter, the federation called the ruling a “serious failure of the Russian judicial system to abide by international provisions on freedom of religion.” It considers the Moscow ban, which came into force on June 16 after the Moscow city court upheld an earlier ruling stripping the religious community of its legal status, a “sign of profound intolerance towards religious minority groups.”
The letter, signed by the federation’s executive director Aaron Rhodes, in particular expressed concern that the ruling will increase harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and Russia.
Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses Moscow spokesman Christian Presber has said in an email to MosNews that such harassment and even violence have already taken place.
“In February of this year, during the closing weeks of the trial, one woman Witness preaching in her neighborhood was cruelly assaulted by a man who later admitted that he had seen a report on the ongoing trial,” Presber said. “The woman suffered a broken rib.”
After the ruling, Presber reported instances of Witnesses being arbitrarily detained by police, then freed.
He hopes the open letter, which talks of violations of international rights treaties to which Russia is bound, will overall help the Jehovah’s Witnesses case.
“A letter coming from such a serious human rights organization should help officials to see these issues and clearly,” he said, “and take the necessary steps to avoid the possible catastrophe that may ensue Russia-wide if this precedent is exploited throughout Russia.”
Paula Tscherne-Lempiaeinen, meanwhile, pointed out the uniqueness of the case. In a statement to MosNews, she pointed out the difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious organizations that have been banned in the West.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses have not been accused of terrorist acts, and the Moscow City Court failed to substantiate any alleged wrongdoings by them to justify a ban on their activities,” she said in her email. “In our view, the ban was based solely on their beliefs. Yet, it is not up to a court or a state to decide which religious beliefs are ’right’ or ’true’.”