RUSSIA: 142 known "anti-missionary" prosecutions in 2019-20

Source:               www.forum18.org

Date:                     August 19, 2020

 

Wednesday 19 August 2020
RUSSIA: 142 known "anti-missionary" prosecutions in 2019-20

At least 17 organisations and 125 individuals faced prosecution in 2019 and
the first half of 2020 for "missionary activity" under Administrative Code
Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5. Over 90 per cent of cases ended with
convictions. Nineteen of the 125 individuals were foreigners, 10 of whom
were ordered deported. One such – Tajik citizen Fayzali Kholmurodov –
is still in a detention centre in Tula Region six months after his
conviction.

RUSSIA: 142 known "anti-missionary" prosecutions in 2019-20
By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18

Individuals of almost every religious affiliation continue to face
prosecution under Russia's "anti-missionary" legislation for exercising
their right to freedom of religion and belief. Despite a 2018
Constitutional Court decision which offered some clarification of what
"missionary activity" means, police and prosecutors continue to initiate
cases to punish a wide range of activities, from advertising events online
to holding ordinary worship services for fellow believers.

According to available court records, 142 prosecutions reached court
between January 2019 and June 2020. Of these, 123 were under Administrative
Code Article 5.26, Part 4 ("Russians conducting missionary activity"); and
19 under Article 5.26, Part 5 ("Foreigners conducting missionary activity")
(see below).

The 142 prosecutions involved 125 individuals and 17 organisations. The
majority resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate
across the 18-month period of 91 per cent (see below).

Ten of the foreign citizens convicted under Part 5 were also ordered
deported from Russia, with five being sent to detention centres before
their departure. One such detainee – 27-year-old Tajik citizen Fayzali
Kholmurodov – is still in a detention centre in Tula Region six months
after his February 2020 conviction, as the coronavirus pandemic has largely
closed Tajikistan's borders (see below).

(For a full list of the known cases in 2019 and in the first half of 2020,
see forthcoming F18News articles.)

Religious organisations also continue to face prosecution under
Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 3. This punishes "Implementation of
activities by a religious organisation without indicating its official full
name, including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of
missionary activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material
without a label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately
false label" (see forthcoming F18News article).

In terms of overall numbers and case outcomes, the 2019-20 period differs
little from 2018.

The number of prosecutions of individual Muslims and Muslim organisations
has risen considerably, however. Muslims have now overtaken Protestants as
the most likely to be taken to court for "unlawful missionary activity",
Forum 18 has found. The activity for which most Muslims are prosecuted
under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5 is simply conducting
(or allowing) prayers on premises which are not officially designated
places of worship (see below).

Despite the Constitutional Court's definition of "missionary activity", it
appears that almost any religious activity may still make people vulnerable
to prosecution (see below)

"Such broad interpretation of the concept of missionary activity makes it
possible to qualify any dissemination of religious information and
literature by an individual as unlawful missionary activity," lawyer
Anatoly Pchelintsev commented in an article for the Moscow-based Slavic
Centre for Law and Justice on 15 November 2019. "This creates a dangerous
precedent of infringement on the legitimate rights and freedoms of
believers, and serves as a basis for unjustified administrative
prosecution."

"The confusion of the law and the inability of courts to sort out this
situation give rise to perverse law enforcement practice and seriously
violate the right of citizens to constitutional freedom of conscience,"
Pchelintsev added.

Background

On 6 July 2016, President Vladimir Putin signed amendments to the Religion
Law imposing tight restrictions on the sharing of beliefs, including on
where and by whom they may be shared. The amendments effectively ban
broadly defined "missionary activity" by anyone without written permission
from an officially recognised religious association, and apparently any
activity performed by religious organisations not using their full legal
names.

The amendments also prohibit "missionary activity" on residential premises,
or by anyone who is a former member of an "extremist" religious
organisation, and allow wide scope for arbitrary official actions.

The amendments were introduced as part of an "anti-terrorism" package
proposed by United Russia Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor
Ozerov. Protests against the changes were widespread.

A 2015 amendment to the Religion Law required all unregistered religious
groups to notify the authorities (usually local branches of the Justice
Ministry) of their existence and activities. This includes
providing the names and addresses of all their members, and addresses where
any meeting takes place.

Although no explicit punishment currently exists for not submitting this
notification, Forum 18's analysis of prosecutions under Administrative Code
Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5, shows that failure to do is frequently taken
as evidence of unlawful "missionary activity".

Punishments

Individuals and legal entities who violate any of the July 2016
restrictions and requirements are subject to punishment under
Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 3 ("Implementation of activities by
a religious organisation without indicating its official full name,
including the issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary
activity, of literature and printed, audio, and video material without a
label bearing this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false
label"), Part 4 ("Russians conducting missionary activity"), or Part 5
("Foreigners conducting missionary activity").

These were all signed into law at the same time.

Under Part 4 ("Russians conducting missionary activity"), Russian citizens
are liable for a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 Roubles. For organisations (legal
entities), the fine stands at 100,000 to 1 million Roubles. Religious
groups, while they may share their beliefs in limited circumstances, are
not legal entities – their members are therefore subject to prosecution
as individuals.

Foreigners may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 Roubles for the same offence under
Part 5 ("Foreigners conducting missionary activity"), with the possibility
of expulsion from Russia.

Punishments under Part 3 ("Implementation of activities by a religious
organisation without indicating its official full name, including the
issuing or distribution, within the framework of missionary activity, of
literature and printed, audio, and video material without a label bearing
this name, or with an incomplete or deliberately false label") are a fine
of 30,000 to 50,000 Roubles and possible confiscation of any materials (see
forthcoming article).

A fine of 50,000 Roubles represents nearly six weeks' average wages for
those in work or 16 weeks' average state retirement pension.

Statistics: January 2019 to June 2020

In an analysis of available court records, Forum 18 found a total of 142
prosecutions brought to court under Administrative Code Article 5.26, Parts
4 and 5 in the calendar year 2019 and the first six months of 2020. It is
unknown how many other individuals and organisations may have faced
charges, as cases against Russian citizens and legal entities (which
comprise the vast majority) are heard in magistrates' courts, of which
there are more than 7,000 across the country.

Establishing accurate figures is becoming increasingly difficult if
communities or their members do not themselves make prosecutions known.

The 142 prosecutions found by Forum 18 involved 17 organisations and 125
individuals (some of them charged more than once for different incidents).
Ten women and 103 men are known to have been brought to court, as well as
two people whose gender is unknown.

A number of cases appear to be based on surveillance by the FSB security
service – both of worship services and other events and of online
activities. The FSB then informs prosecutors or police, who open
administrative cases against the people or communities involved. Other
cases may arise from routine prosecutor's office "inspections of compliance
with the requirements" of the Religion Law and Extremism Law, or are
triggered by calls to police or prosecutors from members of the public.

In 2019, there were:

- 85 prosecutions (15 of organisations, 70 of individuals) under Part 4
("Russians conducting missionary activity");

- and 15 prosecutions under Part 5 ("Foreigners conducting missionary
activity").

In the first six months of 2020, there were:

 - 38 prosecutions (two of organisations, 36 of individuals) under Part 4;

 - and four prosecutions under Part 5.

These figures show no significant change from 2018, which saw 90
prosecutions under Part 4 and 15 prosecutions under Part 5. The conviction
rate also shows little change and remains high (see below).

Forum 18's analysis of prosecutions in the first half of 2020 shows
slightly fewer cases being considered than might have been expected. This
is likely to have resulted from restrictions on court functions imposed
during Russia's coronavirus lockdown period.

Conviction rate stable

First instance courts convicted a total of 112 defendants and acquitted
only twelve. Judges sent another eight cases back to police and prosecutors
on technical grounds and closed a further five for unknown reasons. Five
more cases were dropped because they reached court after the permitted time
period for prosecutions had passed (the statute of limitations on
administrative offences examined by a judge is three months).

This gives an initial conviction rate of 90.86 per cent across the 18
months from January 2019 to June 2020. This is similar to 2018's rate of 90
per cent, this figure was 82 per cent.

Of those convicted in 2019-20, all but one were fined. One Muslim
community, in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, received a warning for
conducting unspecified "missionary activity" in a house of culture
(according to the verdict, "on premises it had no right to use", as it had
only an oral agreement with a local administration staff member). The judge
agreed that there had been no negative consequences. On appeal, the warning
was overturned as the statute of limitations had expired.

Most Russian citizens charged under Article 5.26, Part 4 ("Russians
conducting missionary activity") received fines of 5,000 Roubles (the
minimum punishment available). In 2019, there were two fines of 6,000
Roubles and three of 10,000 Roubles (one of these was overturned on
appeal), and a court imposed a fine of 35,000 Roubles on an imam who
continued to lead prayers in a village mosque after he was dismissed from
his post and expelled from the council of the Spiritual Administration of
Muslims of the Adygeya Republic (the verdict did not mention the reason for
his dismissal).

Organisations charged under Part 4 were fined between 50,000 Roubles
(reduced because of mitigating factors) and 100,000 Roubles (the formal
minimum).

Of the 19 prosecutions in 2019-20 under Article 5.26, Part 5 ("Foreigners
conducting missionary activity"), fifteen resulted in the minimum fine of
30,000 Roubles and one in acquittal, while two cases were sent back to
prosecutors for technical reasons (and not resubmitted) and one was closed
because the statute of limitations had expired.

Ten people were also sentenced to deportation under Part 5 between January
2019 and June 2020, with five of them sent to detention centres before
their departure (see below).

Few appeals successful

Defendants submitted initial appeals in 65 cases (either to district/city
courts within ten days of the original verdict, or as supervisory appeals
after the original ruling came into force – the latter were heard in
regional courts up to October 2019, thereafter in one of nine newly
established cassational courts which each caters to several federal
subjects).

Of these initial appeals, 50 were unsuccessful and only 13 successful. One
case was sent for re-examination, then closed as the statute of limitations
had expired. The outcome of one appeal remains unknown.

Twelve defendants challenged their unsuccessful appeal rulings at the
supervisory level. All of these were again unsuccessful (though one outcome
is unknown).

Police and prosecutors lodged only seven appeals (five initial appeals and
two supervisory), none of which succeeded.

Deportations on the rise?

Judges sentenced ten foreign citizens to deportation under Article 5.26,
Part 5 in 2019 (eight) and the first half of 2020 (two), five of whom were
sent to detention centres before being removed from the country. One man
– Tajik citizen Fayzali Kholmurodov – is believed to be still in
detention six months after his February 2020 conviction, because of border
closures.

As well as being fined, foreigners found guilty under Article 5.26, Part 5
may also be ordered deported from Russia (adminstrativnoye vydvoreniye –
under Russian law, this is technically different from deportatsiya, as it
is punishment for an administrative offence imposed by a court ruling,
while deportatsiya is decided on by the migration authorities or the FSB
border service; they also differ procedurally).

Adminstrativnoye vydvoreniye may take the form of enforced expulsion, in
which the defendant is held in an Interior Ministry detention centre until
he or she can be sent out of Russia. Bailiffs are responsible for ensuring
that this process is carried out. More often, defendants are subject to
monitored independent departure, under which an individual remains free and
makes his or her own way out of the country within a specified number of
days after the ruling comes into force, under migration authorities'
supervision.

Some judges decide not to deport defendants because their families are in
Russia or – as in the case of a South Korean Protestant and postgraduate
student at Omsk State University – because it would be "an excessive and
unjustified measure".

Eight deportations in 2019, three with detention (plus two in the first
half of 2020, both with detention) marks an increase on 2018, when only
three foreign citizens were ordered deported (all by monitored independent
departure), one of whom had the deportation order overturned on appeal.

In 2016-17, there were five deportation orders (three by monitored
independent departure, two by enforced expulsion with detention). One of
those detained successfully challenged his deportation and was immediately
released.

Given that those deported are of six different nationalities and multiple
religious affiliations (Muslim, Mormon, three different Evangelical
churches, and one unknown), and that their cases were brought in seven
different regions, it does not appear that any particular group is being
targeted.

Twenty-seven-year-old Fayzali Kholmurodov was convicted at Donskoy City
Court in Tula Region on 12 February 2020. The judge imposed a fine of
30,000 Roubles and ordered that he be expelled from Russia, and held in the
region's detention centre for foreign nationals in Kimovsk until his
departure. Staff told Forum 18 that Kholmurodov arrived at the detention
centre on 13 February, and, because Tajikistan's borders have been almost
entirely closed during the coronavirus pandemic, is still there six months
later.

Like other Muslims prosecuted under Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5,
Kholmurodov was charged because he had led prayers (for migrant workers in
their hostel) when no notification had been submitted of the existence of a
religious group. Consequently, he had no written authorisation from a
religious group to carry out missionary activity. There is no suggestion,
however, that any non-Muslims were present.

The court verdict, seen by Forum 18, states only that Kholmurodov "took
actions to disseminate information about his faith (Islam) among persons
from the hostel who were not members of the religious group of employees of
[company name redacted], in order to involve these persons as participants
by addressing their consciousness, will, [and] feelings, including by means
of disclosing [his] own religious views and beliefs".

Forum 18 found 15 prosecutions under Article 5.26, Part 5 in 2019, and four
in the first half of 2020 – a total of 19. They comprised four US
citizens, three Tajiks, three South Koreans, two Kazakhs, two Azerbaijanis,
one Ukrainian, one Lebanese citizen, one Pole, and one Turk. The
nationality of one person remains unknown.

Article 5.26 sometimes only one part of restrictions

The "anti-missionary" amendment is one of many pieces of civil and
administrative legislation which may be used to restrict, monitor, and
penalise the expression of freedom of religion and belief in Russia.

Individuals and their communities may face more than one kind of court case
simultaneously or in quick succession. For example, Muslim convert Artur
Rusyayev was charged (but acquitted) under Article 5.26, Part 4 for holding
prayers in an "auxiliary" building on farmland owned by his wife, Irina
Rusyayeva. This occurred in the midst of civil proceedings against the
Rusyayevs, which ruled their prayer house – near Chernyakhovsk in
Kaliningrad Region – an  "unauthorised structure" and resulted in its
demolition .

Similarly, Baptist Union pastor Yury Korniyenko was fined 10,000 Roubles
under Article 5.26, Part 4 for leading a service in his community's church.
The church met in a residential building owned by a church member in the
village of Verkhnebakansky, on the outskirts of Novorossiysk (Krasnodar
Region). This was despite the fact that no non-Baptists were present and
that Korniyenko had written authorisation to perform missionary activity
anyway. Novorossiysk city administration had banned the Baptists from using
the building for religious purposes as its land plot lay within a "zone of
education facilities and scientific complexes" established after its
construction.

Religious profile – shift towards more prosecutions of Muslims?

Prosecutions between January 2019 and June 2020 involved individuals or
organisations belonging to the following religious communities:

- Muslim – 62 (42 in 2019, 20 in 2020)

- Baptist (Council of Churches, Baptist Union, independent/unknown) – 29
(17, 12)

- Evangelical Protestant (including Pentecostals) – 22 (16, 6)

- Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna) – 8 (8, 0)

- Methodist – 3 (3, 0)

- Catholic – 2 (1, 1)

- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) – 2 (2, 0)

- Seventh-day Adventist – 2 (2, 0)

- Buddhist – 1 (1, 0)

- Unknown faith - 11 (8, 3)

This represents a considerable increase from 2018 in prosecutions of Muslim
religious activity. In that year, police and prosecutors initiated only 14
such cases under Article 5.26, Part 4 or Part 5. It is unclear why such a
sharp rise has occurred. Sergey Chugunov, a lawyer at the Slavic Centre for
Law and Justice, has also noted the trend, he told Forum 18 on 6 August,
but believes it is difficult to ascertain a reason for it.

Muslim-related cases show a wide geographical spread across 15 federal
subjects – Adygeya Republic, Astrakhan Region, Chelyabinsk Region,
Dagestan Republic, Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, Kaliningrad Region,
Kemerovo Region, Khabarovsk Region, Leningrad Region, Moscow Region, Rostov
Region, St Petersburg, Tatarstan Republic, Tula Region, Ulyanovsk Region
– with varying proportions of the population who are (at least nominally)
Muslim.

The regions with the highest numbers of such prosecutions are: Dagestan –
13 (though these all derive from only two investigations); Rostov – 9;
Chelyabinsk – 7; and Leningrad – 7.

Although most prosecutions for Muslim worship are of Russian citizens, they
frequently occur as the result of police or prosecutor's office inspections
of places where migrant workers are likely to be employed, such as
construction sites and markets. Several prosecutions of Muslim foreign
citizens also followed such inspections. Four cases were also associated
with three cultural centres for people from Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the
Caucasus respectively, in St Petersburg and Leningrad Region.

On 28 October 2019, a Turkish construction company's Russian branch was
fined 100,000 Roubles for allowing a digger driver to act as imam and lead
Friday prayers for workers in their camp, without authorising documents
from a religious organisation. According to the verdict from Tosnensky
District Magistrate's Court No. 70 (Leningrad Region), the digger driver
(who was himself convicted and fined 5,000 Roubles) "discussed and
disseminated among [worshippers] information on his faith, ‘Islam'" –
multiple witness statements from attendees nevertheless describe only
"group prayers".

Similarly, Tajik citizen Kurbonali Kakhorov was charged under Article 5.26,
Part 5 for leading prayers for fellow labourers in a trailer on their
building site, while "not being a mullah (imam) of a Muslim mosque, [and]
officially not part of a religious organisation", and without either
authorisation from a religious group or having submitted notification of
the existence of a religious group. The judge at St Petersburg's Frunze
District Court decided, however, that on the basis of the Constitutional
Court's 2018 definition, Kakhorov had not conducted any missionary
activity, and acquitted him on 30 May 2019.

First Catholic and Methodist prosecutions

 In another potential shift, 2019 and the first half of 2020 also saw the
first prosecutions known to Forum 18 of Catholics and Methodists under
Article 5.26, Part 4 or 5 (Catholic and Methodist churches have already
faced prosecution under Article 5.26, Part 3).

Leningrad District Court in Kaliningrad fined Polish citizen Fr Andrzej
Zalewski, priest of the Nativity Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite,
30,000 Roubles under Article 5.26, Part 5, for conducting the Liturgy of St
John Chrysostom on premises belonging to the Caritas-West charity.
According to the verdict of 17 September 2019, police patrol officers
noticed "loud music" and "suspicious citizens" coming from the property. Fr
Zalewski had lodged an application to register the parish as a religious
organisation three days before the police visit, but it had not yet been
approved, thereby rendering the church's lease invalid.

On 12 February 2020, Nikita Glazunov, leader of a traditionalist Catholic
religious group, the Society of Saint Pius X, was fined 5,000 Roubles at
Vakhitovsky District Magistrate's Court No. 8 in Kazan (Republic of
Tatarstan). He had organised a Latin Mass in a hotel conference hall,
served by a "foreign preacher" who did not have written authorisation from
the group to perform missionary activity. According to the verdict, a
witness testified that the preacher had "spoken of the truth of Catholicism
in comparison with Orthodox Christianity", and that Glazunov had
"approached him and invited him to take printed materials to familiarise
himself with their religious views".

The Methodist Church of stantsiya Ugolnaya in Primorye Region was fined
100,000 Roubles on 15 May 2019 for organising the Far Eastern Conference
for Children's Ministers without a formal lease on the sanatorium used.
Because the delegates included members of different churches and people who
had not specified their religious affiliation, Soviet District Magistrate's
Court No. 24 in Vladivostok concluded that the conference constituted
"missionary activity".

Oleg Kuzin, pastor of Ryazan Wesleyan Church, and his acquaintance Fyodor
Makarov were fined 5,000 Roubles each at October District Magistrate's
Court No. 18 for distributing Gideon bibles outside a university. This was
despite their arguments that the New Testament was common to all Christians
and they were not attempting to involve anyone in any religious
association. Because both did, in fact, have written authorisation to carry
out missionary activity, they were acquitted on appeal.

Geographical spread

Thirty-eight of Russia's 83 federal subjects saw at least one prosecution
under Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5 between January 2019 and June 2020 (33 in
2019, 15 in 2020), not counting Russian-annexed Crimea and Sevastopol. The
highest numbers of prosecutions were in Krasnodar Region (14), the Dagestan
Republic (13), Chelyabinsk Region (12), Rostov Region (9), Ryazan Region
(8), and Leningrad Region (8).

The Dagestan prosecutions were derived from two investigations. The first
was of ten Muslims charged for giving Arabic language and Koran lessons at
a mosque in Makhachkala. The second was of three Muslims charged for
teaching Arabic and the Koran (as well as handicrafts and arithmetic) at a
children's centre in the Botlikh district.

(The Russian occupying authorities in Crimea and Sevastopol frequently use
Article 5.26, Part 4 to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or
belief. At least 24 such prosecutions are known to have been launched in
2019, of which 17 ended with punishment.)

Impact of March 2018 Constitutional Court definition only minor

On 13 March 2018, the Constitutional Court issued an interpretation of some
of the legal norms in the "anti-missionary" legislation. "A defining feature
[sistemoobrazuyushchy priznak] of missionary activity," it declared, "is
the dissemination, by citizens and their associations, of information about
a specific religious belief among persons who, not being its followers, are
involved in their number, including as participants in specific religious
associations."

Therefore, the distribution of information, for example, about meetings for
worship, ceremonies, or events "falls under the definition of missionary
activity as such, only if it contains the said defining feature".

The Constitutional Court concluded that establishing whether missionary
activity has been carried out requires "the identification of all the signs
of missionary activity specified in [the Religion Law]". If any is absent,
the religious activity "cannot qualify as missionary activity in the sense
of the [Religion Law], and therefore, even if it is committed in violation
of the requirements of the [Religion Law], it does not constitute an
offence as stipulated in Administrative Code Article 5.26, Part 4
["Russians conducting missionary activity"]".

This appears to be having a discernible but still limited impact on
prosecutions under Article 5.26, Part 4. Forum 18 found eight explicit
mentions of it in written verdicts (first instance and appeal), as well as
five rulings in which its principles were evidently at least acknowledged.
In four of these cases (three first instance, one appeal), it did not
prevent judges from reaching a guilty verdict.

The Constitutional Court's definition did lead to acquittal for eight
defendants (and was mentioned by the judge in the closing of another case
for technical reasons). For example, Society for Krishna Consciousness
adherent T. Kulichenko appeared at Miass Magistrate's Court No. 9
(Chelyabinsk Region) on 21 January 2019, charged with speaking to an
audience at a yoga studio and chanting mantras "aimed at disseminating
information about his faith, Krishnaism (Vaishnavism), among persons who
were not participants in this religious group, in order to involve them in
the group's membership", without authorisation from a religious group and
without submitting notification of the existence of a religious group.
Referring to the Constitutional Court's definition, the judge concluded
that "In itself, the holding of a religious event, in the opinion of the
court, does not indicate that the organisers are pursuing the goal of
involving those present in the composition of any religious association",
and acquitted Kulichenko.

Baptist G. Makiyev was charged under Article 5.26, Part 4 for leaving
copies of the magazine "Faith and life" on a table in a property where he
was doing building work, with a sign saying that anyone who wished could
take one. Makiyev's lawyer pointed out that the magazine contained writing
by Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox authors, as well as art and fiction.
In acquitting Makiyev on 27 January 2020, the judge at Maysky District
Magistrate's Court No. 1 (Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya) cited the March
2018 definition and noted that there was no evidence that Makiyev had
carried out (or aimed to carry out) any activities aimed at disseminating
information about any religion in a public place.

While 13 cases mentioning the Constitutional Court definition (11 in 2019,
two so far in 2020) represents an increase on 2018 (when this figure was
seven), the impact still appears to be minor.

"Difficulties remain in law enforcement practice," lawyer Sergey Chugunov
remarked to Forum 18 on 6 August. "Despite the fact that the Constitutional
Court indicated that not all activities of a religious organisation are
missionary, in practice the [magistrates' and district] courts make no
distinction, recognising all religious activities as missionary. Therefore,
this problem remains, and the number of such cases, if it is decreasing, is
only due to the fact that citizens have become more careful."

Interpretation of the law remains broad

Despite the Constitutional Court's 2018 definition of "missionary activity"
and its consideration by some judges, Article 5.26, Parts 4 and 5 offer
officials many ways to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or
belief.

Firstly, investigators and prosecutors can still apply the concept of
"missionary activity" indiscriminately. Secondly, officials frequently
appear to disregard even the broad definition provided by the Religion Law
in favour of finding tangential violations, such as the lack of
notification of a religious group's creation, even when no religious group
exists. Thirdly, the anti-missionary amendment is based on the presumption
that all religious activity should take place within the parameters of a
formally constituted religious organisation or group, and this has the
effect of penalising individual expressions of freedom of religion and
belief.

In commentary for the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice on 5 July 2019,
Mikhail Shakhov, President of the Guild of Experts on Religion and Law,
points out that no legal definitions exist of the terms "member",
"participant", and "follower" – all used in the anti-missionary
amendment> He also points out that no formal process exists of making a
person a member of a religious association (unless they are one of the
"founder members" (uchrediteli) named in an organisation's charter).

This, Shakhov argues, "opens up ample opportunities for circumventing the
provisions" of Article 2, Paragraph 3 of the Religion Law, which declares
that "nothing in the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of
religion, and religious associations should be interpreted in the sense of
diminishing or infringing upon the rights of person and citizen to freedom
of conscience and freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the Constitution of
the Russian Federation or arising from international treaties of the
Russian Federation".

Shakhov notes that the law implies that the outcome of missionary activity
is the inclusion of a person in the membership of a religious association
– so if someone is persuaded to follow Islam, for example, but does not
join a specific association, the process of persuasion is not technically
missionary activity. This has led to police and prosecutors "‘correcting'
the deficiencies of the law" by assuming any dissemination of beliefs to be
missionary activity.

The example of a Buddhist leader's prosecution in Sochi shows how far the
interpretation of "missionary activity" can stray even from the
wide-ranging concept outlined in the Religion Law. Khostinsky Magistrate's
Court No. 99 fined Igor Darayev 5,000 Roubles on 7 February 2019 for
organising "collective meditation" in a boathouse for "about a dozen"
fellow Buddhists, without written authorisation from a religious
association to carry out missionary activity.

"The organiser of the gatherings did not actively attract new followers and
did not promote his activities in the media; a small circle of people met
for meditation", a prosecutor's office spokesperson told "Kommersant"
newspaper on 13 February 2019. "Nevertheless, [Darayev's] activities are in
fact missionary, which presumes the registration of a religious association
with the Justice Ministry."

Basis for prosecutions

The most common ground for prosecution (60 cases) is a lack of written
authorisation from a religious organisation or group to carry out
missionary activity on its behalf. This assumes, firstly, that everyone
carrying out missionary activity must be representing a formally
constituted religious association, rather than simply sharing their own
beliefs (several defendants appear not to be members of any association);
and secondly, that any activity which individuals might perform on behalf
of (or merely in connection with) their religious communities is inherently
"missionary".

Almost as common (52 cases) is the failure to submit notification to a
regional branch of the Justice Ministry of the existence of a religious
group (see below).

Among the cases found by Forum 18, other reasons given in verdicts include:
missionary activity on residential property – 17 cases; no right to use
the premises (e.g. by ownership, lease, agreement of free use) – 16
cases; an individual's lack/loss of position as official representative or
clergy – 3 cases; missionary activity on another religious organisation's
property – one case (although both organisations were Muslim and their
relationship is unclear); missionary activity among minors without parental
consent – one case.

In more than 30 cases, it was impossible to ascertain what reason police or
prosecutors had for initiating the prosecution, because no written court
decision was available, the court decision lacked detail, or the judge
deemed there to be no grounds at all, and therefore decided on acquittal.

These figures add up to more than the total number of prosecutions because
police and prosecutors often cite multiple violations. The commonest
combination is a failure to submit notification of the existence of a
religious group and (consequently) a lack of written authorisation from a
defendant's (often non-existent) religious group to carry out missionary
activity.

Lack of religious group notification

Apart from the lack of written authorisation, the commonest reason behind
the prosecution of individuals is a presumed failure to submit notification
of the existence of a religious group.

This is a particular problem for both independent and Council of Churches
Baptists, as well as, increasingly, for Muslims meeting to pray in homes or
workplaces. Council of Churches Baptists refuse on principle to seek any
kind of state registration, and argued publicly against the restrictions
imposed by the introduction of the group notification requirement in 2015.

On many occasions, there appears to be no reason that an individual should
have deemed notification necessary, e.g. when no group with consistent
membership and regular meetings exists at all, or when worship involves
only casual gatherings of friends at home.

There were 52 prosecutions for this lack of notification (36 in 2019 and 16
in the first half of 2020). The calendar year 2018 saw 39 such
prosecutions, while there were 24 in 2016-17.

"It is difficult to say whether or not a majority of cases are related to
non-notification of group creation, but this is a big problem," lawyer
Sergey Chugunov told Forum 18 on 6 August. "The legislation contains no
specified point at which a group is considered created. This is a gap.
Therefore, anything is considered to be a religious group and fined."

Most cases based on lack of notification arise either because individuals
(usually groups of acquaintances in someone's home) hold collective
meetings for prayer outside formal places of worship, or because of
activities (often one-off actions) which an individual might reasonably
assume could not be interpreted as "missionary activity".

Police and prosecutors initiated 47 prosecutions in 2019-20 under Article
5.26, Parts 4 and 5 solely or principally for worship. Sixteen of these
were for worship on residential premises. (Article 24.1, Paragraph 3 of the
Religion Law explicitly forbids "missionary activity" on residential
premises, with the exception of activities covered by Article 16 Paragraph
2, namely "Services, rites, and ceremonies", which are explicitly
permitted.)

Individuals prosecuted included a Baptist Union pastor who held services on
the third floor of his own house and a Muslim charged for praying with
relatives and acquaintances "who had professed Islam since childhood",
again in his own home. (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia

For more background see Forum 18's survey of the general state of freedom
of religion and belief in Russia, as well as Forum 18's
survey of the dramatic decline in this freedom related to Russia's
Extremism Law.

A personal commentary by Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the SOVA Center
for Information and Analysis, about the systemic
problems of Russian anti-extremism legislation

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments


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