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Russia: sentence against Jehovah's Witness follower violates human rights obligations

‘Today's court judgement is a violation of Aleksandr Kalistratov's right to the peaceful expression of his religious views’ - John Dalhuisen

A Russian court ruling which found a Jehovah's Witness guilty of inciting hatred and enmity against other religious groups for distributing literature, is an attack on freedom of expression and religion, Amnesty International said today.

Aleksandr Kalistratov was sentenced to 100 hours of community service by a court in the Altai Republic earlier today for handing out Jehovah's Witness brochures which allegedly incited hatred against the Catholic Church.

The City Court in Gorno-Altaisk had already acquitted Mr Kalistratov of the charges on 14 April because of lack of evidence. However the Supreme Court of the Altai Republic later overturned the acquittal on appeal by the prosecution and ordered that the case be reconsidered by the same court.

Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Deputy Director John Dalhuisen said:

"Today's court judgement is a violation of Aleksandr Kalistratov's right to the peaceful expression of his religious views.

"Alexander Kalistratov's conviction contradicts Russia's own legislation as well as its obligations under international human rights law. It should be quashed.
"This case is the latest in a line of convictions and court rulings targeting Jehovah's Witnesses on the most spurious grounds."  

In June, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that a critique of a political organisation, religious or ideological group or of national or religious traditions, on its own cannot be interpreted as an action aimed at inciting hatred. The court said that the onus is on the prosecution to prove that the distribution of banned texts was intended to incite hatred. This has not been proved in the case against Kalistratov.

The charges against Kalistratov, who is the leader of the Republic of Altai branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, relate to the distribution of books, brochures and magazines such as The Watchtower and Awake!. Several issues of these two publications have previously been found by Russian courts to incite hatred and are on a blacklist of banned texts maintained by the Russian Ministry of Justice. Aleksandr Kalistratov denies having distributed brochures from the blacklist.

Meanwhile, similar criminal proceedings are currently ongoing in several Russian regions.  The Jehovah's Witnesses, which have around seven million followers worldwide, are thought to have some 200,000 in Russia. They have been banned in several Russian regions and in some former Soviet republics. The organisation's Moscow branch was dissolved by a district court ruling in 2004. In June 2010 the European Court of Human Rights declared that this decision violated the right to freedom of religion and freedom of association under the European Convention of Human Rights.

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