Russia’s Supreme Court on April 20 banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organisation be considered an extremist group.
The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.
The Interfax news agency on April 20 quoted justice ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova in court as saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to Russians.
“They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security,” she told the court.
Borisova also said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian healthcare laws.
As reported by The Associated Press, Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said they are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws.
Human Rights Watch criticised the April 20 decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
In a separate report, USA Today online noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives have said they will appeal the April 20 verdict. They plan to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if the appellate panel of Supreme Court judges upholds the April 20 verdict.