Russia must drop its ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, release the 91 members of the group in its jails, and stop prosecuting citizens for belonging to the movement, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
The court also stated that it was illegal for the Russian Federation to ban the group’s books, periodicals and its official website.
Russia pulled out of the Council of Europe, of which the ECHR is a component, in March after it invaded Ukraine. The 46-member Council of Europe is separate from the European Union, of which Russia never had been a member.
The ECHR said Russia has the right to appeal the decision within 90 days, triggering a process that might delay implementation of the ruling’s terms.
With Russia no longer a member of the Council, at war against Ukraine, and regularly threatening Western European nations, the chances of the judgement coming to fruition are slim.
At first allowed to operate publicly following the fall of the former Soviet Union, Russia banned the Witnesses in 2017, calling it an “extremist organization.” The Russian Supreme Court ordered its entities liquidated.
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Last November, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated Russia a “country of particular concern” for human rights violations involving religious groups, including the Witnesses.
The decision, voted 6-1 by judges, also ordered Russia to return confiscated properties or pay adequate compensation. The court ordered the Russians to pay $63.6 million in damages, chiefly for seized property, and $3.7 million in non-pecuniary damages.
The ECHR said Russia’s “forced dissolution” of the Witnesses operations in the country “was not merely the result of a neutral application” of the law, but rather demonstrated “a policy of intolerance by Russian authorities” towards the group.
The human rights tribunal also said individual believers who appealed their convictions were members of a valid religious organization.
The ECHR found that Russian courts “did not identify any word, deed or action by the [Witnesses] which would be motivated or tainted by violence, hatred or discrimination against others.”
Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses profess the teachings and name of Jesus, the Russian Orthodox Church and many other Christian bodies condemn it as heretical for its denial of the Trinity, a doctrine the Witnesses themselves condemn as unbiblical.
Witnesses spokesman Jarrod Lopes said in a statement his co-religionists “around the world are thrilled to hear about today’s comprehensive judgment against Russia. We hope Russia will comply with the Court’s direction to halt the nationwide persecution and to release all 91 Witnesses in prison.”
In a separate action, the ECHR ruled against Lithuania for denying a military-service exemption to Stanislav Teliatnikov, a member of the group. The religion practices non-violence and refuses military service.