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Europe rights court overturns Russian ban on Jehovah's Witnesses

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ruled [judgment text] Thursday that the dissolution of a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses [BBC backgrounder] by a Russian court violates Articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF]. The court found that in enacting the ban, the Russian government denied the congregation its rights to religious freedom, a right described by the court as "one of the foundations of a 'democratic society.'" The Russian government had attempted to defend the ban, citing the limitations of Article 9, which allow restrictions on religious activity that are prescribed by law, that pursue the aim of maintaining public health, safety and morals, and that are necessary in a democratic society. The Russian government argued that the Jehovah's Witnesses had forced converts to break ties with their families. Additionally, the government argued that the congregation infringed on the rights of citizens by restricting members' employment opportunities, utilized "mind control" techniques, and encouraged suicide through the congregation's absolute prohibition on blood transfusions and organ donation. The court rejected these arguments, concluding:

[T]he interference with the applicants' right to freedom of religion and association was not justified. The domestic courts did not adduce "relevant and sufficient" reasons to show that the applicant community forced families to break up, that it infringed the rights and freedoms of its members or third parties, that it incited its followers to commit suicide or refuse medical care, that it impinged on the rights of non-Witness parents or their children, or that it encouraged members to refuse to fulfil any duties established by law. The sanction pronounced by the domestic courts was excessively severe in view of the lack of flexibility in the domestic law and disproportionate to whatever legitimate aim was pursued. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11.
As a remedy, the court ordered the Russian government to pay €70,000 (USD $85,000) in damages and costs to the parties who appealed to the ECHR.

The Moscow-based Jehovah's Witnesses congregation was banned [JURIST report] in 2004, causing leaders of the congregation to join a lawsuit already pending in the ECHR over the harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. In December 2009, the Russian Supreme Court [official website, in Russian] upheld a lower court decision [JURIST report] to shut down the Taganrog Jehovah's Witnesses congregation and ban the distribution of 34 Jehovah's Witnesses publications. Both the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation and the publications are "extremist" [Forum 18 report], the court held in its decision. In a separate 2007 case, the ECHR held that Russia violated Article 9 by failing to register the Chelyabinsk congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. The US Department of State [official website] chronicled the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses [JURIST report] and other religious minorities in Russia in its 2009 International Freedom of Religion Report [text].

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