- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Russia’s mistreatment of 14 Jehovah’s Witnesses more than a decade ago violated their “fundamental rights to freedom of religion and liberty,” the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.

The rulings consolidated six cases against Russia challenging the validity of search warrants that prompted raids of several private homes and a place of worship, the strip-searches of two women following their arrest while preaching, confiscation of personal items and the refusal of authorities to return those items.

Masked and armed officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) often perpetrated the raids, officials of the Christian sect said.

According to the judicial body, which is Europe’s highest human rights court, the Russian government must pay more than $112,000 in fines as compensation. A three-judge panel of the ECHR rendered the judgments, which cannot be appealed and are treated as final. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers will monitor whether Russia follows the rulings and pays the fines.

Since these violations took place between 2010 and 2012, Russia has declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, ordered the liquidation of its registered operations and heightened its arrests and prosecutions of members. Several have received harsh prison sentences — longer than those typically given kidnappers and rapists.

“These judgments set a critical precedent that Russia has been unjustly and unlawfully raiding the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses — 1,700 since 2017,” spokesman Jarrod Lopes said. “Any new home raids based solely on the owner’s religious beliefs are now considered illegal and in violation of the European Convention.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman noted the ECHR declared “sharing one’s beliefs is a religious activity that should not be interfered with by public authorities.”

Mr. Lopes contended that the FSB often will “bait” a member “into talking about his beliefs, record the conversation, and use that as “evidence” of extremist activity and a basis for criminal charges. Today’s judgment effectively directs Russia not to interfere with the Witnesses’ ministry — as sharing one’s beliefs is a fundamental part of freedom of religion.”

The European court ruling comes a day after Russia ignited a global crisis by announcing it was officially recognizing two breakaway separatist enclaves inside neighboring Ukraine and sending in troops as “peacekeepers” to protect them. A full takeover of Ukraine by the Kremlin would be concerning to the 130,000 Witnesses who live in the former Soviet republic, Mr. Lopes said.

“In Russia and Crimea, 82 Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison and hundreds more face criminal charges under articles of the Russian Criminal Code,” he said. “If at some point Russian law is likewise enforced in Ukraine, then the Witnesses there will face the daily realities that their fellow believers in Russia and Crimea have been living [with] for nearly five years since 2017.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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