Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia- ECHR 07/06/2022

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CASE OF TAGANROG LRO AND OTHERS v. RUSSIA

The European Court of Human Rights (Third Section)

CASE OF TAGANROG LRO AND OTHERS v. RUSSIA

(Applications nos. 32401/10 and 19 others – see appended list)

JUDGMENT

Art 9 (read in light of Art 11) ● Art 10 ● Freedom of religion ● Freedom to impart information ● Forced dissolution of a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (JW) local religious organisation (LRO) ● Declaration of JW’ publications as “extremist” ● Not “prescribed by law” and necessary in democratic society

Art 10+11 (read in light of Art 9) ● Freedom of expression ● Freedom of association ● Domestic courts’ failure to provide relevant and sufficient reasons and to uphold adversarial nature of proceedings when declaring JW’ publications “extremist” and prosecuting individual JW applicants ● No balancing exercise conducted by domestic courts for dissolution of a LRO for using those publications

Art 10 (read in light of Art 9) ● Freedom to impart and receive information ● Withdrawal of distribution permit and prosecution of JW for distributing unregistered media ● Declaration of JW’ international website as “extremist” ● Neither “prescribed by law” nor necessary in democratic society

Art 9 (read in light of Art 11) ● Dissolution of JW’ Administrative Centre and LROs ● Policy of intolerance by authorities ● Failure to act in good faith and breach of State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality

Art 9 ● Art 5 ● Arbitrary criminal prosecution of applicants for continuing to practice their religion ● Unlawful pre-trial detention of individual applicant

Art 1 P1 ● Peaceful enjoyment of possessions ● No legal basis for seizure of publications, immovable and personal property

Art 46 • Individual measures • Respondent state required to take measures to secure the discontinuation of pending criminal proceedings against JW and release of all imprisoned JW

DATE: 7 June 2022

This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia,

The European Court of Human Rights (Third Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

Georges Ravarani, President,
Georgios A. Serghides,
Darian Pavli,
Peeter Roosma,
Andreas Zünd,
Frédéric Krenc,
Mikhail Lobov, judges,

and Milan Blaško, Section Registrar,

Having regard to:

the twenty applications against the Russian Federation (see the list of applications in Appendix I) lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, publishers of religious literature and individual followers (see a list of applicants in Appendix II) (“the applicants”);

the decision to give notice to the Russian Government (“the Government”) of the complaints relating to the alleged violations of the rights to freedom of religion, expression and association, the right to a fair trial, the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions and the right to be protected against discrimination, and to declare inadmissible the remainder of applications marked with an asterisk in Appendix I;

the decision to give priority to applications nos. 10188/17 and 3215/18 (Rule 41 of the Rules of Court);

the decision by the Danish Government to exercise their right to intervene in the proceedings involving their national, Mr Christensen;

the decision by the German Government not to exercise their right to intervene in the proceedings involving the German company publishing the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious literature;

the comments by a third-party intervener, ADF International, which was granted leave to intervene by the President of the Section;

the parties’ observations;

Having deliberated in private on 5 April and 3 May 2022,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on the last-mentioned date:

INTRODUCTION

1. The case concerns the forced dissolution of Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organisations in Russia, the banning of their religious literature and international website on charges of extremism, the revocation of the permit to distribute religious magazines, the criminal prosecution of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the confiscation of their property.

THE FACTS

2. The applicants were represented by a legal team led by Dr Petr Muzny, professor of law at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

3. The Government were initially represented by Mr M. Galperin, the then Representative of the Russian Federation to the European Court of Human Rights, and later by Mr M. Vinogradov, his successor in this office.

4. The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.

JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES IN RUSSIA

5. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present in Russia since 1891. They were banned after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and criminally prosecuted for practising their faith in the USSR.

6. After the USSR Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations Act was enacted in 1990, the RSFSR Ministry of Justice registered the Administrative Centre of the Religious Organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR. On 29 April 1999 that national religious entity was re-registered as the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia (“the Administrative Centre”), under Russia’s new Religions Act.

7. In order to carry out their religious worship and practice throughout Russia, religious associations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were formed into groups or communities, called “congregations”. They operated under the authority of the Administrative Centre, an umbrella organisation for the Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were approximately 400 local congregations and 175,000 individual Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Their places of worship were known as “Kingdom Halls”.

8. In January 2007 a deputy Prosecutor General sent out a circular letter to regional prosecutors, asserting that Jehovah’s Witnesses represented a public threat:

“Various branches of foreign religious and charitable organisations operate in Russia, whose activities do not formally violate the provisions of Russian law but quite often contribute to the escalation of tensions in society. Representatives of foreign religious associations (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unification Church, Church of Scientology, etc.), followers of various Oriental beliefs, and followers of Satanism form branches that frequently carry out activities harmful to the moral, mental, and physical health of their members.”

He directed subordinate prosecutors as follows:

“To check whether territorial bodies of the [telecoms regulator Roskomnadzor] … properly execute their legal duty to uncover extremist material in the media belonging to religious associations (Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious organisations that have their own printing facilities).”

CIRCUMSTANCES OF INDIVIDUAL CASES

Forced dissolution of the Taganrog organisation, confiscation of its property and banning of publications (application no. 32401/10)
9. The first applicant, the Taganrog local religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (the “Taganrog LRO”), was originally registered in 1992 as an independent religious association. In 1998 it was re-registered as a local religious organisation operating within the structure of the Administrative Centre (the second applicant). The third and fourth applicants are the German and US publishers of Jehovah’s Witnesses religious literature. The fifth to sixteenth applicants are twelve congregations in Taganrog which shared the Kingdom Hall with the Taganrog LRO.

10. Reacting to the letter from the deputy Prosecutor General, on 13 September 2007 a deputy Rostov Regional Prosecutor directed all town and district prosecutors to carry out inspections of the religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“Structures of the foreign religious organisation (FRO) of Jehovah’s Witnesses, registered … in the Rostov Region, are actively functioning in the territory of Rostov Region. The organisation, as a matter of course, refuses to recognise the State authority in the countries in which its branches are located. The activity of the FRO has been banned in several jurisdictions.

Despite having official registration, by carrying out their cult activity followers of the FRO of Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly commit violations of Russian law. In particular, they preach refusal to fulfil civil responsibilities (serving in the army, paying taxes, commission of administrative and criminal offences). They forbid their followers from accepting medical assistance in the form of blood transfusions resulting in death or serious harm being caused to their health, including that of children. A characteristic feature of the organisation is the aggression it openly displays towards representatives of other religious confessions …

The findings of a religious expert study of several printed publications that had been distributed by the Jehovists in the Rostov Region, carried out in August of this year by the Rostov Center for Court Expert Studies indicate that they contain indicators of incitement to religious enmity.

On the basis of the above, it is necessary for you to organise and conduct a thorough investigation of local religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses located in your jurisdictions, together with the territorial agencies of the Federal Security [Service] and the registration service, and to take all possible reactive measures, including examining the question of preparing and sending to courts applications to liquidate local organisations for violations of law they committed, and to inform the regional prosecutor’s office with details of reactive measures by 10 October 2007.”

11. The expert study to which the deputy prosecutor referred, had been commissioned on 2 August 2007 by the acting prosecutor in the Tarasovskiy district with a view to determining whether or not a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ books and magazines contained “indicators of inciting hatred or hostility, or of debasing human dignity on account of one’s attitude toward religion, or of advocating the exclusivity of one religion in comparison with another”. An expert from the Rostov Centre for Forensic Studies found that, while the texts studied contained elements of hatred towards the “Christendom”, that is all religious movements recognising Jesus Christ and the Bible except Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no expressions inciting hostility which could “encourage readers to take action aimed at the destruction of the object of hatred”. The texts also advocated the exclusivity of one religion, inasmuch as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ movement pronounced itself to be the only true religion, whereas all other Christian religions were seen to be Satanic.

12. In pursuance of the Rostov Regional deputy prosecutor’s letter of 13 September 2007 and referring to the findings of the expert study, on 31 October 2007 the acting deputy Taganrog prosecutor issued a warning to the Taganrog LRO, advising it “to stop extremist activities”. The Taganrog LRO sent a written reply, considering the warning to be unlawful.

13. The Taganrog prosecutor also pursued other lines of investigation into the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the region. On 17 October 2007 his senior assistant requested the head doctor of the city hospital to provide a copy of the medical record of Ms S. who had been treated in the hospital in 2004, and the contact details of the medical staff in charge of the treatment. S. had been one of the founding members of the Taganrog LRO; on 17 March 2004 she had been admitted to the hospital following a serious traffic accident. Throughout her treatment, she requested that the doctors should refrain from administering blood products. On 8 April 2004 she died due to her extensive injuries. Both the post-mortem diagnosis and the medical examiner who conducted forensic autopsy for the purposes of a criminal investigation against the driver had concurred that her death had been caused by trauma, blood loss and multiple organ failure.

14. On 9 June 2008 the Rostov Regional Prosecutor’s office filed a claim in the Rostov Regional Court to liquidate the Taganrog LRO. The stated grounds for liquidation were:

(a) the death of S. which was alleged to have been the consequence of her refusal of blood transfusion;

(b) the ongoing distribution of religious literature which the expert study had found to contain indicators of extremism;

(c) the fact that the Taganrog LRO had held services of worship outside the area of operation indicated in its documents;

(d) the materials of a criminal case against Mr G. who had been convicted of refusing to accept alternative civilian service which was to be carried out at a factory connected with the military;

(e) the failure to amend the list of founders of the Taganrog LRO following S.’s death;

(f) the omission of the full details of the publisher religious organisation in certain printed materials of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

15. The Taganrog LRO sought to join the Administrative Centre and two publishers of religious literature as parties to the proceedings since they were responsible for the printing, publishing, and distribution of the religious literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. All such applications were denied.

16. On 11 August 2009 the prosecutor supplemented his claim in the case with the request that the sixty-eight publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted for a composite study be declared extremist material. On 7 September 2009 the prosecutor again amended the claim by requesting that the Taganrog LRO not only be liquidated but also be declared an extremist organisation and that its property and all existing copies of the sixty-eight religious publications be confiscated.

17. By judgment of 11 September 2009, the Rostov Regional Court granted the prosecutor’s claim, ordering the liquidation of the Taganrog LRO as an extremist organisation and the banning of its activities. The Regional Court founded its judgment on the following evidence.

18. On the charge of extremism, the Regional Court reproduced the findings of the composite expert study which established that thirty-four – out of a total of sixty-eight – publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses contained “indicators of inciting religious discord”:

“Assessing the research conducted by the experts and their oral evidence before it, the court has reached the conclusion that part of the literature and printed publications distributed by the [Taganrog] LRO contain a number of expressions … demonstrating the negative attitude of Jehovah’s Witnesses toward various elements of traditional Christianity, a negative image of Catholicism as a traditional Christian denomination, and a sharply negative assessment by one religious group, including accompanying illustrations directed at the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. The literature contains information capable of undermining the reader’s respect for Christian religions (except Jehovah’s Witnesses) and for their Christian religious figures, and also contains expressions and content urging [people] to leave other Christian religions (false religions) and to join the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Such appeals are expressed in various forms – declarations of intent, directives, pleading, appeals, and advice. Manipulative devices are used to exert psychological influence on the consciousness of the perceiver.”

The Regional Court referred to the statements by two Orthodox priests and five Orthodox believers who claimed having been offended by the Witnesses’ criticism of Orthodox Christianity. On the basis of their testimony, the Regional Court found that the Witnesses’ literature and views “outrage religious feelings, provoke conflict on interreligious grounds, and inflame religious discord”.

19. The Regional Court then turned to the grounds for the liquidation of a religious organisation established in the Religions Act. On the charge of incitement to refuse medical assistance, the court took evidence from Ms S.’s husband and the head of emergency unit. They confirmed that after the accident Ms S. had been repeatedly offered blood transfusion which she had firmly refused, citing her religious duty as a Jehovah’s Witness. In the doctor’s opinion, the medicine her fellow believers had brought for her had not been the kind of the blood substitutes she had needed. On the basis of the above-mentioned expert study, the testimony by witnesses and Ms S.’s medical record, the Regional Court considered it established that –

“… the refusal of a blood transfusion did lead to a fatal outcome since other methods of treatment turned out to be ineffective. [The court] considers that the establishment of injury to health of at least one person is a proven gross violation of law which would be incompatible with the continued operation of the LRO.”

20. On the issue whether the Taganrog LRO advocated abandonment of civic duties, the Regional Court again referred to the expert study and also heard an official of the Taganrog military drafting office. He stated that in 2007 Mr G. had been one of ten conscripts who professed the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He had learnt of the existence of the Taganrog LRO from two young men who were on their way to serve when “attempts were made to influence them not to serve”. Mr G. had refused a specific assignment to perform alternative civilian service, for which he was found criminally liable. The Regional Court found this evidence sufficient to conclude that a breach of the law on the part of Mr G. had been the product of the influence of the Taganrog LRO:

“… the evidence produced at the trial confirms the fact that the Taganrog LRO committed actions inciting citizens to refuse to fulfil civic duties established by law. Those actions included distributing among believers of literature containing such appeals … and the influencing of citizens of conscription age not professing the said religion to refuse to perform military service. The last allegation is based on the testimony of the witness … from the Taganrog military drafting office [who] testified that he learned of the existence of conscripted believers in the spring of 2007 during the spring call-up, when conscripted young men approached him and said that other conscripted persons were influencing them to refuse to undergo service in the army.”

21. The Regional Court further considered the prosecutor’s allegation that the Taganrog LRO involved minors in its activities. The prosecution produced two witnesses: Mr S., former husband of a Jehovah’s Witness, stated that his former wife involved their child in the religious activities, despite his objections. He had sought a judicial order for amending the custody arrangements but it had been refused because his former wife and the child had “excellent living conditions”. The second witness, Ms B., an official of the Child Protection Authority, reported the case of a sixteen‑year-old student who had fallen behind in her studies because she had missed classes twice a week to visit a Sunday school. In the end the child had been helped and had finished school. Two witnesses for the Taganrog LRO, the former wife of Mr S. and another Witness mother, told the court that they read Bible together with their children and attended religious meetings twice a week but they did not celebrate birthdays or State holidays. The Regional Court drew the following conclusion from the testimony before it:

“The testimony … objectively confirms the arguments in the application regarding minor children being lured into the organisation’s activity, including into the preaching activity, as small or minor children are being obliged, together with their parents, regardless of weather or time of the year, to go on the streets and to apartments with the goal of distributing literature, and to be present for long periods of time at [religious] meetings …

The circumstances established during the trial testify to the violation by the religious organisation and its members of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Constitution, and the Family Code, as they involve very young children in the religious organisation without the consent of the other parent, who has equal rights and duties in the upbringing of the children, and do not consider the opinion and interests of the children.

The actions of the members of the Taganrog LRO constitute a direct violation of the provisions of Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes that the States Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate fully in cultural and artistic life.

The testimony of the witnesses who are members of the organisation, to the effect that they visit the park with their children, take trips to the zoo, and spend time with their children in nature, does not attest to the parents’ ensuring conditions for the full and comprehensive development of the children, since all these activities only take place with the participation of other members of the organisation. Not one of the witnesses demonstrated that their children actively participate in sports or in any type of sports leagues, are receiving a musical education, or are interested in and attending hobby groups of any kind, all of which are necessary for a comprehensive development of personality, abilities, and interests.”

22. The Regional Court also found that the activities of the Taganrog LRO led to destruction of family relations on account of religious differences. The court referred to the findings of the expert study to the effect that “faith in God takes priority over family relationships” and that “non-belief on the part of a spouse or children is considered to be a basis for marital instability … and also for termination of relations with the non‑believing family member”. It also took evidence from Mr St., director of the Consultative Centre, an entity under the patronage of the Orthodox Church, who told the court that Mr S. (see the preceding paragraph) and Mr K. had sought his advice on how to prevent their families from breaking-up because of their wives’ involvement in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ work. Mr S. and Mr K. confirmed that before the court. Five witnesses for the defence who testified about their harmonious relationships with their spouses were deemed unreliable by the Regional Court: according to the court, Mr V., a non-believer, did not speak the truth because “his wife was in attendance in the courtroom during his testimony” and the four Jehovah’s Witnesses had a vested interest in “continuing the activities of the organisation of which they were members”.

23. Lastly, the Regional Court considered it established that the Taganrog LRO “had encroached on the personality, rights and freedoms of citizens”. That charge had two facets: first, the Taganrog LRO “determined how the believers’ free time [was to be] spent and forbade them to celebrate holidays and birthdays”, and second, the members of the LRO preached at homes uninvited, “without giving heed to the opinion of persons whom they visited and whose private life they interfered with”.

24. On the strength of the above evidence, the Regional Court pronounced the Taganrog LRO to be an extremist organisation and ordered that it be liquidated, its activities banned and its property, including the “Kingdom Hall” and the adjacent plot of land, confiscated and transferred to the State. Thirty-four publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses were declared extremist material and also confiscated.

25. The Taganrog LRO filed a 125-page statement of appeal, in which it dissected the Regional Court’s judgment and complained in particular that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been singled out for persecution and discrimination. It referred to the prosecutor’s letters which explicitly targeted the organisation, to the press publications about the trial, and to the fact that the Regional Court took evidence from Orthodox priests, avowedly Orthodox Cossacks and the director of an Orthodox-affiliated centre Mr St.

26. On 8 December 2009 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rejected the appeal in a summary fashion, without addressing the arguments in detail. On the same day it rejected an application by the Administrative Centre requesting that it be heard as a party to the proceedings.

Banning and confiscation of religious publications

27. The applicants in the below cases include the local religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses (LROs), individual members of the affected congregations, the Administrative Centre, and the German and US publishers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature.

Banning of eighteen publications in the Altay Region (application no. 44285/10)

28. On 22 December 2008 the town prosecutor in Gorno-Altaysk in the Altay Region filed an application with the Gorno-Altaysk Town Court to declare extremist twenty-seven religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He relied on an expert assessment which determined that the publications proclaimed the superiority of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The number of publications was later reduced to eighteen, by withdrawing from consideration the publications held to be extremist by the Rostov court.

29. On 7 June 2009 the police searched the place of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Gorno-Altaysk confiscating hundreds of items of religious literature. They also searched the homes of the legal representative of the Gorno-Altaysk LRO, and of another Jehovah’s Witness, seizing religious literature and their personal property.

30. On 1 October 2009 the Town Court declared extremist eighteen religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses (one brochure, seven Awake! magazines, and ten Watchtower magazines). The court endorsed in their entirety the findings of the expert assessment to the effect that the publications promoted “the superiority of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings and the inferiority of other religions.” It ordered that the publications be confiscated and added to the federal List of Extremist Materials. On 27 January 2010 the Supreme Court of the Altay Republic dismissed the appeal in a summary fashion.

Banning of three publications in the Rostov Region (application no. 2269/12)

31. Following a complaint by a member of the public asserting that certain publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim the superiority of their religion over others, the town prosecutor in Salsk in the Rostov Region asked a linguistic expert to conduct a study on the literature concerned. The expert concluded that the texts did not contain signs of extremism but that they could “cause the incitement of hostility to other religions” and did contain “traces of propaganda of the superiority of one religion over others”. A subsequent court-appointed study concluded that four publications contained statements capable of “undermining respect, or of evoking hostile feelings, towards religions other than Jehovah’s Witnesses” and information “about the exclusivity and moral superiority of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. The prosecutor filed an application with a court to have the publications declared extremist.

32. On 27 June 2011 the Salsk Town Court granted the prosecutor’s application in part, ruling to pronounce the nine of the twelve publications extremist, extensively quoting from, and fully endorsing the findings of, the expert studies. Following an appeal hearing on 13 October 2011, the Regional Court amended the judgment in the part concerning the six publications which were already on the Federal List of Extremist Materials and upheld the finding of an extremist nature of the remaining three publications.

Banning of four publications in Krasnodar (application no. 2269/12)
33. On 11 March 2009 the Krasnodar regional prosecutor filed an application with the Pervomayskiy District Court of Krasnodar, requesting that four publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses – which had been allegedly discovered in a public park – be pronounced extremist: three issues of The Watchtower magazine, and the book Draw Close to Jehovah. The claim was based on the findings of a linguist from the Krasnodar regional police and concerned one issue of The Watchtower magazine which had been pronounced as not containing signs of extremism in the Rostov proceedings (see paragraph 18 above).

34. On 29 June 2009 the District Court appointed a psychological linguistic assessment of the publications which was completed on 18 February 2011. The experts found that the publications contained indications of disrespectful or hostile attitude to religions other than Jehovah’s Witnesses and of their superiority over other religions, but that there were no statements inciting religious hatred or calls for enmity or violent acts against any other social or religious group.

35. Relying on the findings of the expert study, on 22 April 2011 the District Court granted the prosecutor’s application in full and pronounced the four publications extremist. It rejected the expert studies that had been supplied by the defence on the grounds, in particular, that the studies had been carried out at the request of a party to the case. On 16 August 2011 the Krasnodar Regional Court upheld the judgment on appeal.

Banning of six publications in Kemerovo (application no. 2269/12)
36. On 22 September 2010 the Zavodskiy district prosecutor in Kemerovo asked the Zavodskiy District Court to declare six publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses (the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, the brochure Keep on the Watch!, and four issues of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines) to be extremist. The application rested on a linguistic assessment which concluded that the publications incited to enmity and hatred towards Catholicism and Catholic priests but did not contain calls to violence or other unlawful actions. Members of the local congregation, the Administrative Centre or the publishers were not summoned to participate as parties to the case. On the basis of the expert’s report as the sole piece of evidence, on 28 October 2010 the District Court granted the prosecutor’s application and declared the publications extremist.

37. The applicants only became aware of the decision when the publications appeared on the Federal List of Extremist Materials after it had been updated on 18 January 2011 on the web site of the Ministry of Justice.

38. Between 25 and 27 January 2011 fifteen Jehovah’s Witnesses from Kemerovo, the Administrative Centre and the publishing houses filed statements of appeal. On 28 March 2011 the District Court rejected the appeals, holding that, as the applicants had not participated in the 28 October 2010 hearing, they did not have the right to appeal against the decision.

39. The applicants challenged the refusal to consider their appeals before the Regional Court. On 8 July 2011 the Kemerovo Regional Court rejected the complaint, finding that the District Court’s judgment did not interfere with the applicants’ right to freedom of religion.

Banning of a new edition of the same book in Krasnoyarsk (application no. 74387/13)
40. On 20 March 2012 the head of the Central Military District of the Federal Security Service (FSB) wrote to the Sovetskiy district prosecutor in Krasnoyarsk that they had been carrying out “operational-investigative measures aimed at suppressing the extremist activity of followers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses” to prevent them from “recruiting military personnel of military units of the Krasnoyarsk garrison into the destructive activity of the religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. As a result of these measures, they seized a copy of the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? published in Germany in 2009, that was identical in its contents to the earlier 2005 edition which had already been pronounced to be extremist by the Rostov Regional Court in 2009 (see paragraph 18 above). The FSB requested the prosecutor to institute judicial proceedings to have the 2009 edition also declared extremist.

41. On 28 April 2012 the prosecutor filed such an application with the Sovetskiy District Court of Krasnoyarsk. By judgment of 14 February 2013, the District Court granted the prosecutor’s application, finding that the 2009 edition was identical in its contents to the 2005 edition which had been pronounced extremist. On 20 May 2013 the Krasnoyarsk Regional Court upheld the judgment on appeal.

Banning of a brochure in Krasnoyarsk (application no. 79240/13)
42. On 13 June 2012 the FSB wrote to the Sovetskiy district prosecutor that they had prevented the Jehovah’s Witnesses from carrying out extremist activities and recruiting military personnel and had seized thirteen publications which had the characteristics of extremist material.

43. On 25 June 2012 the prosecutor in Krasnoyarsk filed an application with a court, seeking a declaration that the brochure Will You Follow Jehovah’s Loving Guidance? was extremist. By way of justification, the prosecutor referred to an expert assessment. The expert found that the brochure “contained calls to reject one’s own religion in favour of that of Jehovah’s Witnesses” through declaring that “all non-Christian religions [were] clearly false” and “emphasising the true nature of the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

44. On 24 January 2013 the Sovetskiy District Court granted the application, fully endorsing the findings contained in the expert opinion. On 24 July 2013 the Regional Court upheld the judgment on appeal.

Banning of the book “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom (application no. 28108/14)
45. On 2 November 2011 a district prosecutor of the Krasnodar Region asked the Uspenskiy District Court to declare extremist the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ book “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom. A first court-commissioned expert assessment concluded that the book did not contain calls to enmity and hatred or any statements degrading the dignity of others. The second assessment appointed at the prosecutor’s request found that the book contained “indicators of indirectly inciting citizens to refuse to perform lawfully established civic obligations, in particular non-compliance with judicial decisions and government bans conflicting with the principles of the religious teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses” and statements “capable of creating in the reader a negative perception … of ministers of traditional Christian denominations”. An Orthodox priest, heard at the request of the prosecutor, was of the view that the book had an extremist character.

46. On 19 June 2013 the District Court pronounced the book extremist, relying exclusively on the findings in the second expert assessment and the statements by the Orthodox priest. On 8 October 2013 the Krasnodar Regional Court dismissed their appeals and upheld the judgment in a summary fashion.

Banning of two brochures (application no. 16578/15)
47. On 14 October 2013 a military prosecutor in Vladimir asked the Leninskiy District Court of Vladimir to pronounce two brochures of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extremist on the grounds of an expert’s assessment that the brochures incited religious hatred and advocated superiority of one religion above others. On 23 October 2013 the Leninskiy District Court granted the prosecutor’s application, relying exclusively on the expert report. The publisher of the brochures or any other representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses were not summoned to the hearings. The judgment became final on 2 December 2013.

48. On 26 May 2014 a prosecutor in Birobidzhan in the Yevreyskiy Region issued an official warning letter to the local organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With reference to the judgment of the Leninskiy District Court of Vladimir, he advised the applicants to cease the distribution of the brochures.

49. Having thus become aware of the judgment of the Leninskiy District Court, the applicants appealed against it, requesting the District Court to restore the time-limit for lodging an appeal. On 7 August 2014 the District Court dismissed their request, finding that the judgment did not interfere with the applicants’ rights and that they did not give a valid reason for missing the time-limit for appeal. On 7 October 2014 the Vladimir Regional Court upheld this decision on appeal.

Prosecution of applicants for distributing “extremist” literature
50. In the second half of 2010 individual Jehovah’s Witnesses were prosecuted for using the religious literature declared to be “extremist” in religious ministry.

51. Mr Boltnyev and Mr Mardonov in Tatarstan (applications nos. 3488/11 and 3492/11) were stopped by the police in the street. The police demanded to see their documents and contents of their bags; on discovering Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature, the police took them to the station and seized all the literature in their possession, including their personal Bibles and notepads. On 9 June 2010 the magistrates’ court in Nizhnekamsk found them guilty of “mass dissemination of extremist material”, an offence under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offences (CAO) on the basis the fact that they had in their possession the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? which had been previously declared extremist. They were fined 1,000 Russian roubles (RUB) each. On 7 July 2010 the Nizhnekamsk Town Court rejected their appeals.

52. In the case of Mr Aliyev in Birobidzhan (application no. 14821/11), a certain Mr M., posing as a member of the public, attended a meeting of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses with the stated aim of “studying the religion”. He made audio recording of the meeting and provided it to the Birobidzhan prosecutor, claiming that he was concerned about distribution of extremist literature. A joint team of the police, prosecutors and security services interrupted a religious meeting on 31 March 2010 in which a partial copy of religious textbook Come be my Follower was being used. By judgment of 26 May 2010, as upheld on appeal on 11 August 2010 by the Birobidzhan Town Court, the magistrates’ court found Mr Aliyev guilty of mass dissemination of extremist material, noting that he had allowed the text to be distributed and commented upon in his presence, and fined him RUB 3,000.

53. Mr Fedorin in the Rostov Region (application no. 17552/11), one of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1959 who had been sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in 1972 for his religious convictions, was found guilty of the distribution of religious literature, including “extremist” publications, among residents of the village of Sredniy Yegorlyk. He was fined RUB 1,000 (final decision – 21 September 2010, the Tselinskiy District Court).

54. The police entered the flat of Ms Chekhovskaya in Belgorod (application no. 17552/11) acting on information received from her grandfather, who had let them in without a search warrant in her absence. The officers seized Ms Chekhovskaya’s entire personal library of religious literature, including books, journals, hymn books and Bibles. By judgment of 27 July 2010, as upheld on appeal on 14 September 2010 by the Sverdlovskiy District Court of Belgorod, she was found guilty of possession of extremist literature with the intent of mass dissemination and fined RUB 1,000.

55. Ms Savelyeva in Yoshkar-Ola (application no. 17552/11) and her fellow believers were placed under surveillance by the Centre for Suppression of Extremism (CSE) of the Mariy El Police Department. They were detained in a joint operation carried out by the chief, deputy chief and a senior officer from the CSE, and an officer from the Department for the Protection of the Constitution. By judgment of 12 October 2010, as upheld on appeal on 22 December 2010 by the Yoshkar-Ola Town Court, she was found guilty of disseminating one title of extremist literature and intending to disseminate two others and fined RUB 1,200.

56. On 7 October 2010 officers from the Department for the Protection of the Constitution of the Samara division of the FSB arrived at the residence of Ms Ebenal in the Samara Region (application no. 17552/11). They showed her a court order authorising the inspection of her apartment and asked her to hand over her religious literature, since it was alleged that she had distributed the publication What Does the Bible Really Teach? in the spring of that year. The officers seized her entire personal library of religious publications. By judgment of 15 November 2010, as upheld on appeal on 29 December 2010 by the Volzhskiy District Court of Samara Region, she was found guilty of mass dissemination of extremist materials and fined RUB 1,000.

57. In the case of Ms Belimova in Tver (application no. 17552/11), she was initially found guilty of mass dissemination of extremist material on the grounds that she had supplied religious publications to Ms F. and also studied Bible with her (final judgment of 18 March 2011 by the Tsentralniy District Court of Tver). On 18 October 2011 the President of the Tver Regional Court quashed the judgments by way of supervisory review and discontinued the proceedings because communication of extremist materials to one another person did not constitute “mass dissemination” of such materials. The order to confiscate and destroy thirty-eight publications which had been declared extremist was maintained.

Forced dissolution of the Samara organisation and confiscation of its property (application no. 15962/15)
58. The applicants are the local religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara (the “Samara LRO”) and six members of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ groups of the Samara Region, including Mr Moskvin from the Novokuybyshevsk congregation. At the time the Samara LRO had a membership of ten, but the thirteen Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the Samara Region were made up of more than 1,500 members.

59. On 29 January 2013 the Novokuybyshevsk town police in the Samara Region inspected the premises rented by the Samara LRO in which the Novokuybyshevsk congregation held their religious services. During the inspection, ten issues of the brochures which had been declared extremist by the Rostov court were uncovered and seized. Mr Moskvin, an “elder” (religious minister) of the Novokuybyshevsk congregation, was charged with “mass dissemination of extremist material” under Article 20.29 of the CAO. By judgment of 3 April 2013, as upheld on appeal on 13 May 2013, the Novokuybyshevsk Town Court fined him RUB 3,000.

60. Referring to Mr Moskvin’s conviction, a regional prosecutor issued identical warnings to the Novokuybyshevsk congregation and the Samara LRO, advising them that any form of extremist activity was prohibited on pain of liquidation. The Samara LRO replied to the prosecutor that Mr Moskvin was not one of its members and that the Novokuybyshevsk congregation was not a structural division of the LRO. No reply was received to their submission.

61. On 22 January 2014 the Samara Regional police department decided to inspect the premises rented by the Samara LRO at the local community centre for the purpose of “collecting additional information [allowing the prosecutor] to decide on the institution of criminal proceedings”. The police were instructed to seize all objects and documents “relevant to the illegal activity”. In a box inside a cabinet, they found seven copies of four books which had been declared extremist by the Rostov court. Following the inspection, the Samara LRO was charged with possession of extremist material with intent to mass dissemination. By judgment of 7 March 2014, as upheld on appeal on 17 April 2014, the Sovetskiy District Court of Samara fined it RUB 50,000.

62. On 22 April 2014 the Samara Regional prosecutor asked the Samara Regional Court to declare the Samara LRO “extremist organisation” and to liquidate it. The prosecutor cited the Mr Moskvin’s and the Samara LRO’s convictions for possession of extremist materials. The Samara LRO objected to the prosecutor’s claim, by asserting that the facts of storage of extremist literature were wrongly imputed to it, since Mr Moskvin did not belong to the Samara LRO and that the Novokuybyshevsk community operated as an independent religious group.

63. The Regional Court dismissed the Samara LRO’s arguments as an attempt to impeach the findings of the Novokuybyshevsk Town Court and the Sovetskiy District Court. With reference to the final decisions by those courts, on 29 May 2014 the Regional Court held that the Samara LRO’s administrative conviction under Article 20.29, intervening as it did within twelve months after the prosecutor had given an anti-extremism warning, constituted a sufficient ground to declare it an “extremist organisation”, to liquidate it and to confiscate its property.

64. On 12 November 2014 the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the Samara LRO in a summary fashion.

Withdrawal of the distribution permit and prosecution of applicants for the distribution unregistered media
Withdrawal of the permit to distribute religious magazines (application no. 76162/12)

65. In 1997 the Russian media regulator granted the German publisher of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower and Awake! magazines a permit to distribute the magazines in Russia. The Administrative Centre was listed in the permit as the “applicant and distributor of the magazines” produced by the German publisher.

66. On 26 April 2010 the successor media regulator (known by its Russian abbreviation “Roskomnadzor”) issued an order to withdraw the permit. The order referred to the judgments by the Rostov Regional Court and the Gorno-Altaysk Town Court by which certain issues of the magazines had been pronounced extremist.

67. The applicants challenged the order in court. The courts at two instances upheld the validity of the order but on 22 June 2011 the Federal Commercial Court of the Moscow Circuit ruled to quash their judgments and remit the matter for a new hearing. It found in particular that the lower courts had not established a legal basis granting Roskomnadzor the power to revoke permits.

68. On 6 October 2011 the Moscow City Commercial Court found that that the order had been unlawful:

“… the law does not authorise [Roskomnadzor] to revoke a permit to distribute a foreign printed periodical … the disputed order indicates that all issues of the magazines are prohibited for distribution in Russia, whereas court decisions declared only individual issues of these periodicals extremist.

… [Roskomnadzor] did not present adequate evidence to establish that courts had declared extremist all issues of the printed periodicals Awake! and The Watchtower. Thus, its revocation of the permit to distribute all issues of the printed periodicals Awake! and The Watchtower in Russia was unlawful.”

69. On 25 January 2012 the Commercial Court of the Ninth Circuit overturned the City Court’s judgment on the grounds that using mass media for the promotion of extremism was prohibited in the Mass-Media Act and that the functioning of a media outlet promoting extremism should be terminated in accordance with the Suppression of Extremism Act.

70. On 29 May 2012 the Federal Commercial Court of the Moscow Circuit upheld that judgment, finding a legal basis for the revocation in section 32 of the Mass Media Act:

“In view of the fact that the legislation does not directly regulate the revocation of a permit to distribute foreign printed periodicals, Roskomnadzor used, by an analogy of law, the legislation governing a similar situation – section 32 of the Mass-Media Act, ‘Revocation of a License’ – in issuing the order.”

71. On 25 October 2012 the Supreme Commercial Court refused the applicants’ supervisory appeal.

Prosecution of applicants for the distribution of unregistered media (application no. 17552/11)

72. In the second half of 2010 the authorities obtained copies of The Watchtower and Awake! magazines in various ways. In the case of Mr Sirotyuk in the Primorskiy Region, the head of the village administration and an assistant district prosecutor had asked him for “some religious literature” during a religious meeting. Mr Ebeling in the Smolensk Region was stopped by the police on his way home; they asked him to show them the contents of his bag on the grounds that they had been ordered to detain anyone distributing “banned literature”. In another case from the Primorskiy Region, the police set up video surveillance in a car parked near the building where applicant Mr Konyukhov lived; they also asked a member of the public to go to his flat and obtain magazines from him. In the case of Ms Bondareva from the Kamchatka Region, the police seized magazines from the homes of individuals who told the police that they had received them from her. Lastly, in the case of Mr Komarov in Udmurtiya, the police stopped the car in which he was travelling and seized the publications from the boot of the car.

73. In all cases, the applicants were found guilty on charges of distributing unregistered magazines, an offence under Article 13.21 of the CAO, and were fined between RUB 1,000 to 1,200. The court decisions included an order to confiscate and destroy the publications. The final decisions were issued as follows: Mr Sirotyuk: 19 November 2010, the Khankayskiy District Court of the Primorskiy Region; Mr Ebeling: 13 September 2010, the Gagarinskiy District Court of the Smolensk Region; Mr Konyukhov: 30 September 2010, the Pogranichniy District Court of the Primorskiy Region; Ms Bondareva: 7 December 2010, the Ust‑Bolsheretskiy District Court of the Kamchatka Region; and Mr Komarov: 21 December 2010, the Oktyabrskiy District Court of Izhevsk.

Seizure of a consignment of religious literature (application no. 5547/12)

74. In 2010 the Administrative Centre received from a German organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses a free gift of religious publications. After going through customs formalities, the publications were released for unrestricted distribution in the territory of Russia. The Administrative Centre sent a portion of the publications by railway to Kemerovo for the use by local Jehovah’s Witnesses, with applicant Mr Gareyev being listed as the recipient. Not one of the publications included in the shipment had been pronounced extremist by a court anywhere in Russia.

75. Applicants Mr Gareyev and Mr Rashevskiy collected the literature and loaded it into a private van with the intention of delivering it to Jehovah’s Witnesses in local congregations. On their way, they were intercepted by the armed police and taken to the Investigations Committee for questioning. After they had been questioned, the investigator ordered that the religious literature from the vehicle be seized on the grounds that the van could contain “religious literature relevant to the criminal case”. The police seized more than 100 packages of literature weighing over one ton.

76. On 17 February 2011 the applicants complained to a court that the seizure order was unlawful as it did not indicate what specific literature was of relevance to the criminal case. Not one item of the literature in the vehicle had been pronounced extremist or was subject to any restriction under Russian law.

77. By judgment of 1 April 2011, as upheld on appeal on 19 July 2011, the Zavodskiy District Court rejected the complaint. It found that the seizure order had been issued by the investigator lawfully and that the purpose of the seizure was “to form an objective view on the activities of the organisation” rather than to uncover extremist literature.

78. The consignment has never been returned to the applicants.

Blocking of access to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website (application no. 2861/15)

79. The applicants are the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (“Watchtower New York”) as the owner of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website at jw.org, the Administrative Centre, and ten individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses who have various perceptive limitations (visual or hearing impairments).

80. On 7 August 2013 the Tsentralniy District Court in Tver, on an application by a prosecutor, pronounced the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website to be extremist on the ground that it contained copies of the brochures What Does the Bible Really Teach?, Draw Close to Jehovah and the book Come Be My Follower which had been previously declared extremist by the Rostov courts. It also referred to the information from the FSB, according to which the website contained copies of the brochures How Can Blood Save Your Life? and What Does God Require of Us? and copies of Awake! and The Watchtower magazines whose distribution permit had been revoked. Watchtower New York and the Administrative Centre were not informed about the proceedings. The District Court held that a decision declaring the website extremist in Russia would not affect the rights of Watchtower New York, making its participation in the proceedings unnecessary.

81. On 12 September 2013 the applicants became aware of the District Court’s decision from media reports. They filed separate appeals, complaining in particular that the decision had affected their rights without giving them an opportunity to take part in the proceedings; that the decision to block the access to the entire website had been excessively broad, because, in addition to the material that had been declared extremist, the website contained religious literature, audio and video records in hundreds of languages, and the decision prevented worshippers in Russia from accessing those non-extremist materials. The individual applicants who had physical limitations also complained that the website was the only source of religious materials with special features, such as sign language commentaries or audio recordings for blind users.

82. On 22 January 2014 the Tver Regional Court examined the appeal by Watchtower New York and quashed the decision of 7 August 2013. It found, firstly, that Watchtower New York, as the website’s owner, should have been afforded an opportunity to take part in the proceedings. It further noted that the materials declared extremist were no longer accessible on the website from within the Russian territory. Finally, it held that the District Court had gone beyond the scope of the prosecutor’s request by referring to other materials on the website, and that the reference to the revocation of the publication permit was irrelevant. The Regional Court further held that publication of certain extremist materials was not a ground for declaring the entire website to be extremist.

83. On 18 March 2014 a judge of the Tverskoy Regional Court refused the prosecutor leave to appeal to the cassation instance.

84. On 21 July 2014 a deputy Prosecutor General lodged a second cassation appeal with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. On 2 December 2014 the Supreme Court quashed the Regional Court’s decision and reinstated the District Court’s decision declaring the website extremist. Watchtower New York was notified about the hearing by registered mail but did not attend because an English translation of the notice had not been ready until after the hearing. On 29 December 2014 and 9 January 2015 it unsuccessfully requested the Supreme Court to re-open the case.

85. On 21 July 2015 the Ministry of Justice added jw.org to the Federal List of Extremist Materials as item 2904.

Forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre and local religious organisations (applications nos. 10188/17 and 3215/18)

86. On 2 March 2016 a deputy Prosecutor General issued an official warning to the Administrative Centre. With reference to the domestic judgments banning local religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses (LROs) and declaring their publications “extremist”, the Administrative Centre was advised to cease any “extremist activity” on pain of liquidation.

87. On 15 March 2017 the Ministry of Justice asked the Supreme Court to declare the Administrative Centre an “extremist organisation”, to liquidate it, together with all 395 LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to confiscate their property. The Ministry alleged that the Administrative Centre had “systematically breached” the extremism legislation by importing religious publications which had subsequently been declared “extremist”, distributing such publications through its LROs, and also by financing, coordinating and directing LROs, including those whose activities had been declared “extremist”, and by failing to implement any “preventive organisational measures” after being warned about the prohibition on any form of extremist activity. On the same day, the Ministry, on its authority, suspended the activities of the Administrative Centre and of the LROs pending the examination of the liquidation claim.

88. The LROs did not receive notice of the banning claim from the Ministry of Justice or from the Supreme Court. A majority of them learned of the banning claim from the media. On 5 April 2017 they filed an application to be added as co-defendants, and another application to the same effect was lodged by the Administrative Centre. By a same-day decision, the judge summarily rejected the applications. On 10 April 2017 he also returned an appeal against his decision without consideration on the grounds that the decision was not amenable to a separate appeal.

89. The Administrative Centre objected to the claim on the grounds that its liquidation would constitute an unjustified interference with the right to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and that its activity was entirely peaceful. It further asserted that the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses were independent entities and, therefore, the breaches of the Suppression of Extremism Act on their part should not have been imputed to the Administrative Centre and, vice versa, that its possible liquidation should not entail repercussions for the LROs.

90. By judgment of 20 April 2017, the Supreme Court granted the claim, ordering the liquidation of the Administrative Centre and the local organisations of Jehovah’s Witness in Russia and the confiscation of their property. In granting the banning claim, the Supreme Court noted that from 2009 to 2016, eight LROs and eighty-eight publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses and also their website had been banned as “extremist”, and that, after the deputy Prosecutor General’s anti-extremism warning, eight more LROs had been found guilty of “mass dissemination of extremist material”. Accordingly, the Administrative Centre was to be banned as an “extremist organisation” because it had not taken “effective measures” to prevent the LROs from engaging in “extremist activity” after the liquidation warning, and all LROs were to be banned because they were part of the structure of the Administrative Centre. The Administrative Centre was responsible for all unlawful activities of its regional or structural subdivisions and also for the importation of religious publications which were declared to be extremist. The Supreme Court held that “the application of such an exceptional measure” did not constitute arbitrary interference with, or unlawful restriction on, citizens’ rights to association or freedom of worship. It pursued “a socially significant aim defined by law – counteracting extremist activity” and sought to protect the rights and lawful interests of others and to guarantee national security and public order. It was also proportionate and necessary in a democratic society in so far as the elimination of violations of rights of others and of “a real threat of harm to the person and health of others”, public order, public security, society and the State was “the only means of ensuring a balance of the rights and lawful interests of participants in legal relations in the public legal domain”.

91. On 19 May 2017 the Administrative Centre lodged an appeal against the liquidation order and the refusal to join the LROs as co-defendants. The LROs also lodged appeals, relying on the provision of the Code of Administrative Procedure which stipulated that persons not called to participate in the first-instance hearing may lodge an appeal if the judgment affected their rights and obligations (Article 295 § 2). In May, June and July 2017 the judge of the Supreme Court ruled to return their appeals without consideration on the grounds that the decision to liquidate those organisations as “extremist” and confiscate their property did not “rule on matters concerning their rights and obligations”. Some local organisations also attempted to lodge appeals directly with the Appellate Chamber of the Supreme Court.

92. On 17 July 2017 the Appellate Chamber of the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by the Administrative Centre in a summary fashion. By decisions rendered in July, August and September 2017, it also summarily rejected the appeals by LROs.

93. Since the date of the Prosecutor General’s liquidation warning to the Administrative Centre, the LROs transferred ownership of their places of worship, to protect them from State seizure, to foreign religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and in a few cases private individuals who in turn agreed to permit congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to continue to use those places of worship on the basis of a contract of free use. The LROs succeeded in transferring 269 properties before the liquidation decision entered into legal force but were unable to transfer the remaining 97 properties.

94. In the months since the liquidation decision entered into legal force, the Russian authorities initiated court proceedings to annul the transfers. In each case, the domestic courts ruled in favour of the State by annulling the transfer and ordering that the property be confiscated by the State based on the liquidation decision. As of 1 September 2021, the Russian authorities have confiscated (1) the 21 properties that were owned by the Administrative Center on the date of the liquidation decision; (2) the 97 properties owned by the LROs on the date of the liquidation decision; and (3) 128 of 269 properties that had been transferred by the LROs to foreign religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the months prior to the liquidation decision.

Criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Prosecution of applicants in Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don (application no. 24622/16)

95. On 5 August 2011 the South Federal Circuit police opened criminal proceedings under Article 282-2 of the Criminal Code against “unidentified individuals” who allegedly sought to resume the activities of the banned Taganrog LRO. Those individuals were suspected of renting out premises on which they had organised meetings of followers, distributed banned literature and incited attendants “to refuse medical assistance, break up family ties and abandon civil duties”.

96. On 4 February 2012 another criminal case under the same provision was opened against ten applicants for “participation in an extremist organisation” which the banned Taganrog LRO was taken to be. They were accused of organising daily meetings of followers and services of worship for the Vostochnoye congregation with a view “to preaching the superiority of Jehovah’s Witnesses and inferiority of the other religions”; some applicants were accused of rendering technical assistance during meetings in the way of setting-up audio equipment and passing microphones to members of the congregation who wished to speak.

97. On 30 May 2012 a third criminal case was opened under Article 150 § 4 of the Criminal Code (“involving a minor in a criminal organisation”). The “elders” of the congregation were alleged to have “lured” the sixteen‑year-old applicant Mr Kruglikov and ten-year-old N.P. into the “organised extremist criminal group congregation Vostochnoye of the Tanganrog LRO”, “assigning them to preaching and distributing literature, and also to providing technical assistance to the elders in the organisation of meetings.”

98. On an unspecified date all criminal proceedings against the applicants were joined into one criminal case and the applicants were required to give an undertaking not to leave the place of their residence.

99. On 5 April 2013 a deputy Prosecutor General approved the list of charges and submitted the case to the Taganrog City Court for trial. The first trial ended with a conviction which was pronounced on 29 July 2014 but later quashed on appeal.

100. The second trial opened on 22 January 2015. The applicants pleaded not guilty. They put forward the following arguments in their defence: (i) the activity of the Taganrog LRO could not have been resumed after the judgment banning and liquidating the organisation; (ii) that judgment did not concern any other legal entities or individuals apart from the Taganrog LRO and did not affect the applicants’ right to practice their religion which they continued to do as an unregistered religious group; (iii) their services of worship were not “extremist”, they did not read or discuss any literature banned as “extremist”; (iv) the elders did not “lure” any minors who had attended the services together with their parents and, according to their testimonies and the statements by their parents, did so voluntarily and enjoyed it.

101. The trial court dismissed their arguments as an “attempt to evade criminal liability”. By the judgment of 30 November 2015, it held that the applicants, while aware of the judgment of the Rostov Regional Court banning the Taganrog LRO, resumed and continued its activities by calling meetings, organising religious events, conscripting new members, including minors, distributing extremist literature, collecting donations, organising preaching and involving other applicants into the organisation. In doing so, they were driven by extremist motives “manifested by [their] expressions debasing human dignity on the basis of religious orientation; inciting hatred, especially for ‘Christendom’; advocating the exclusivity of one religion in relation to another; rejecting medical treatment on religious grounds for people whose life and health are in danger; encouraging citizens to refuse to fulfil legally established civic duties, including performing military service; involving young children and minors in the activity of the organisation”.

102. The trial court held that the applicants had formed a “stable extremist group” which had existed from the day the Rostov Regional Court judgment banning the Taganrog LRO became final and which had (i) a common purpose of resuming and continuing the banned activities, (ii) common organisers, (iii) “interchangeable and mutually complementary character of their actions”, and (iv) an “illegal income” which the applicants had obtained “in the form of voluntary donations from citizens which was used for the purposes of extremist activities.”

103. “The criminal activity of the extremist group” consisted in “inciting religious discord, and advocating the exclusivity and superiority of a religion by degrading other religions”, “organising recruitment of new members”, “breaking up the family, marriage, and family relationships, alienating people from the family circle because their relatives did not, according to this specific religion, have the correct world view”, “choosing only part-time work in order to devote more time to preaching and service considering the work of the organisation to be of primary importance”, “distributing extremist materials and … possessing them with the intent to mass distribute them and use them in religious services, sermons, and speeches”, “inciting citizens to refuse to fulfil their legally established civic duties by not entering military service”, “inciting … to reject medical treatment on religious grounds …. in particular, the transfusion of blood and its components even under grave and life-threatening conditions”, and “involving minor children … in the preaching activity when young children were forced to be in attendance with their parents for discussions at meetings for lengthy periods of time.”

104. The criminal acts committed by the applicants were defined as organising and taking part in a series of religious events in the period between 30 April and 15 August 2011 and giving “extremist speeches” during these meetings. The trial court also found it established that “the elders” of the community “by deceit and by other means” had involved applicant Mr Kruglikov and N.P. in the criminal activity, assigning them to preaching, distributing literature and assisting during the meetings.

105. The Town Court sentenced the “elders” of the community to five years’ imprisonment conditional on five years’ probation and fined them RUB 100,000 each. The other applicants were convicted of membership of an extremist religious organisation and fined between RUB 20,000 and 70,000.

106. The applicants appealed. On 17 March 2016 the Rostov Regional Court corrected an erroneous legal characterisation of the offences in respect of twelve applicants, reduced the amount of their fines and upheld the judgment in the remaining part. On 22 December 2016 and 24 April 2017 the Rostov Regional Court and the Supreme Court of Russia, respectively, refused the applicants leave to appeal to the cassation instance.

Imprisonment of an applicant for “continuing the activities of an extremist organisation” (applications nos. 39417/17 and 44386/19)

107. Mr Dennis Ole Christensen, a national of Denmark, and his wife, a Russian national, were Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Oryol. By judgment of 14 June 2016, as upheld on appeal on 18 October 2016, the Orlovskiy District Court liquidated and banned the Oryol local religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (“the Oryol LRO”) on the grounds of possession of “extremist” publications. Mr Christensen was not a member of the Oryol LRO; he was a member of the Tsentralnoye religious group, one of three congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses without legal-entity status.

108. On 16 February 2017 the Regional Court granted the request of an FSB investigator to conduct covert surveillance of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol. The surveillance recorded Mr Christensen taking part in Bible-themed discussions.

109. On 25 May 2017 the FSB officers first interrupted the religious service in the Kingdom Hall and carried out a personal search of everyone in attendance. Later they searched Mr Christensen’s flat and arrested him on charges of continuing the activities of an extremist organisation, the Oryol LRO. Following Mr Christensen’s overnight detention, the Sovetskiy District Court authorised his detention on remand, holding that his ten-year-long legal residence in Russia, stable income and a Russian wife were all insufficient guarantees against absconding in view of his foreign nationality. On 21 June 2017 the Oryol Regional Court upheld the detention order in a summary fashion. Subsequently, the pre-trial detention was extended several times, each time on the same grounds for an additional three- to four-month period. The detention was maintained even after Mr Christensen had obtained, on 15 September 2017, a letter from the Danish embassy in Moscow giving the assurance that the embassy would not issue him with a new passport or otherwise help him leave Russia.

110. On 9 February 2019 the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court in Oryol sentenced Mr Christensen to a six-year term in a general regime penal colony for having continued the activities of an extremist organisation:

“… the liquidation of the [Oryol LRO] did not deprive that organisation’s participants of the possibility to individually perform religious worship that was not associated with the distribution of extremist religious literature. However, it has been established in the case that D. O. Christensen did not individually perform worship but performed administrative functions within the [LRO] in accordance with its goals and plans and with the intent of continuing the organisation’s activity, which he knew had been banned on the basis of a court decision …

It can be seen from the combined testimony of said individuals that D. O. Christensen was the leader of the LRO … As an elder, he opened and closed the religious premises. He organised the cleaning of the building and adjacent territory. He assigned persons to be on duty at the entrance before the meeting. He determined who gave sermons and other presentations at the meetings, and designated persons to engage in preaching activity. In the absence of religious literature, he recommended that fellow believers study the literature using electronic devices with access to the Internet. He personally conducted meetings, during which he gave advice, explained the meaning of religious literature and designated the persons participating in the discussion of that literature. He reminded people of the need to donate money and collected the money that was received.”

111. In his appeals, Mr Christensen submitted that his religious activities had been part of his worship and were therefore protected by his right to freedom of religion. He emphasised that he had never been a member of the Oryol LRO.

112. On 23 May 2019 the Oryol Regional Court upheld the judgment on the basis that Mr Christensen “harmonised and coordinated his actions in directing the [Oryol LRO] with the [Administrative Centre] liquidated by the Supreme Court’s judgment dated 20 April 2017”. As to the alleged lack of extremist motives in his conduct, the Regional Court noted:

“The fact of organising the activity of a religious association declared extremist and distributing information that incites religious discord and advocates the exclusivity, superiority and inferiority of citizens based on their attitude toward religion, indicates in itself that the motive behind [his] actions was religious hatred.”

Further criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses
113. As of 1 September 2021, 559 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have been charged for allegedly organising, participating in or financing the activity of an “extremist” organisation. Similar to Mr Christensen, 133 Jehovah’s Witnesses have already been convicted and sentenced under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code; at least 255 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been placed in pre-trial detention or under house arrest, and more than 1,547 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been searched by police.

RELEVANT LEGAL FRAMEWORK

RUSSIAN LAW

Suppression of Extremism Act (Law no. 114-FZ of 25 July 2002)

114. Section 1(1) – as worded at the time of the proceedings against the Taganrog LRO – defined “extremist activity (extremism)” as follows:

“– a forcible change of the foundations of the constitutional system and violations of the integrity of the Russian Federation;

– the public justification of terrorism and other terrorist activity;

– the stirring up of social, racial, ethnic or religious discord;

– propaganda about the exceptional nature, superiority or deficiency of persons on the basis of their social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude to religion;

– violations of human and civil rights and freedoms and lawful interests in connection with a person’s social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude to religion;

– public appeals to carry out the above-mentioned acts or the mass dissemination of knowingly extremist materials, and likewise the production or storage thereof with the aim of mass dissemination;

– the organisation of and preparation for the aforementioned actions and inciting others to commit them;

– funding the aforementioned actions or any assistance in organising, preparing or carrying them out, including the provision of training, printing and material/technical support, telephonic or other types of communication links or information services.”

115. Where indicators of extremist activities are identified in the activities of an association, a competent prosecutor or executive body may issue a letter of warning to caution the association against extremist activities. If new indicators of extremist activities are identified within twelve months of the date of the letter, the association is subject to dissolution (section 7).

116. A religious association engaging in “extremist activities resulting in a violation of human and civil rights and freedoms, harm to a person’s health, environment, public order, public safety, property, or the lawful economic interests of individuals or legal entities, society and the State or creating a real threat of causing such harm” may be liquidated by a judicial decision and its property confiscated (section 9).

117. The grounds for the liquidation of a religious organisation and the banning of its activities are set out in section 14(2) of the Religions Act (Law no. 125-FZ of 26 September 1997). They include in particular the “undermining of social order and security”, “actions aimed at inciting extremist activities”, “forcing the breakup of family”, “infringement on the identity, rights and freedoms of a citizen”, “encouraging suicide or refusal on religious grounds of medical help to persons in life-threatening or health endangering situations”, and “inciting citizens to refuse to fulfill their civic obligations established by law” (see, for details, Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others v. Russia, no. 302/02, § 77, 10 June 2010).

Criminal Code

118. Actions aimed at inciting hatred or enmity and undermining the dignity of an individual or a group of individuals on account of, in particular, ethnic origin, religion or membership of a social group, are punishable with a fine, mandatory works or up to two years’ deprivation of liberty (Article 282(1)). The same acts if committed by an organised group are punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment (Article 282(2)(c)).

119. The establishing or leading of a religious or public association whose activities involve violence or harm to a person’s health, inducement to refuse to perform civic duties or to commit other unlawful acts, may be punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment (Article 239(1)). Participation in the activities of such an association may be punishable by deprivation of liberty for up to two years (Article 239(2)).

The Mass Media Act (Law no. 2124-1 of 27 December 1991)

120. Section 4 prohibits mass media from being used for the distribution of extremist materials.

121. Section 32, as worded prior to its repeal on 10 November 2011, established that a broadcasting license could be revoked (1) if it had been obtained fraudulently, (2) if the licencing conditions had been breached and a written warning had been issued, (3) if the license had been secretly transferred to another entity.

Code of Administrative Offences

122. Article 20.29 provides that “mass dissemination of extremist materials listed in the published Federal List of Extremist Materials, and also production or possession thereof with the intent to disseminate”, may be punishable with a fine of between 1,000 and 5,000 Russian roubles or with up to fifteen days’ detention.

Case-law of the Constitutional Court

123. On 21 April 2010 the Constitutional Court gave judgment no. 10-P concerning the exercise of the right to appeal by persons who were not parties to the proceedings at first instance. It affirmed its constant position that hearing a claim in the absence of persons whose rights and obligations might have been affected undermined their right to the judicial protection and the principles of fairness and adversarial nature of the proceedings. If a judicial decision affected the rights or freedoms of, or imposed additional obligations on, the person which was not a party to the proceedings, such person should have the right to submit an appeal which a court of appeals would have to consider (paragraph 3.1).

124. On 2 July 2013 the Constitutional Court declared inadmissible a complaint by a member of the Church of Scientology who had seen his copy of a Ron Hubbard’s book confiscated on the basis of a Moscow court’s decision pronouncing Scientology literature to be extremist material (decision no. 1053-O). In the Constitutional Court’s view, the pronouncement of certain materials to be extremist implied ipso facto that they represented a real threat to human rights and freedoms, to the constitutional foundations, integrity and security of the Russian Federation. Irrespective of where such material was found, kept or used, the finding of their extremist nature cannot but be followed by a confiscation measure seeking to curtail access to such material and to prevent the threat of their negative impact on anyone, including their owners. The owner must be able to take part in the proceedings in which the extremist nature of the materials is established and their confiscation ordered; otherwise, the constitutional right to the judicial protection of private property would not be secured.

Guidance by the Plenary Supreme Court

125. The Plenary Supreme Court’s Resolution on judicial practice in criminal cases concerning extremist offences, no. 11 of 28 June 2011, provides that actions aimed at inciting hatred or enmity were to be understood as comprising in particular the speech justifying or advocating a genocide, mass repression, deportations and other illegal actions, including use of violence against members of a certain ethnicity or race or followers of a certain religion. The criticism of political organisations, ideological and religious associations, political, ideological and religious beliefs, national and religious customs should not, in itself, be regarded as actions aimed at inciting hatred or enmity (paragraph 7).

126. Paragraph 20, as amended by the Plenary Supreme Court on 28 October 2021, reads as follows: “Where there is a final court decision to dissolve or ban the activities of a public or religious association or another organisation in connection with extremist activities, subsequent individual acts unconnected with the continuation or resumption of activities of the extremist organisation concerned that consist solely in the exercise of the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including through individual or joint religious worship, the performance of religious services or other religious rites and ceremonies, do not in themselves constitute criminal offences under Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code provided they do not contain indicators of extremism”.

127. Experts who carry out a forensic assessment of extremist material may not be requested to resolve issues of law which fall outside their competence and involve a characterisation of the impugned act. Determination of such issues shall be the exclusive competence of a court. In particular, experts may not be requested to answer questions whether a text contains calls for extremist activity or whether material is directed at inciting hatred or enmity (paragraph 23).

COUNCIL OF EUROPE

Parliamentary Assembly

128. In the report on the honouring of obligations and commitments by the Russian Federation (Doc. 13018, 14 September 2012), the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed the concern that the extremism law had been “misused as a tool against the activities of certain religions, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, a large community of 162 000 people in Russia” and that the “misuse has dramatically increased since the introduction of amendments to the law in 2006” which removed the phrase “associated with violence or calls to violence” from the definition of “extremism” (paragraphs 497-98).

Venice Commission

129. The Report by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) on the Relationship Between Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion (CDL-AD(2008)026, 23 October 2008) emphasised that “the purpose of any restriction on freedom of expression must be to protect individuals holding specific beliefs or opinions rather than to protect belief systems from criticism” and that “it should be allowed to scrutinise, openly debate, and criticise, even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual or groups” (§ 49). The Venice Commission underlined that “religious groups must tolerate, as other groups must, critical public statements and debate about their activities, teachings and beliefs, provided that such criticism does not amount to incitement to hatred and does not constitute incitement to disturb the public peace or to discriminate against adherents of a particular religion” (§ 72). It also stressed that “it must be possible to criticise religious ideas, even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feelings” (§ 76).

130. It its revised opinion on Russia’s Suppression of Extremism Act (CDL(2012)011rev, 1 June 2012), the Venice Commission expressed the opinion that “in order to qualify ‘stirring up of social, racial, ethnic or religious discord’ as ‘extremist activity’, the definition should expressly require the element of violence” (§ 38). In the view of the Commission, “to proclaim as extremist any religious teaching or proselytising activity aimed at proving that a certain worldview is a superior explanation of the universe” could “affect the freedom of conscience or religion of many persons” and could “easily be abused in an effort to suppress a certain church thereby affecting not only the freedom of conscience or religion but also the freedom of association” (§ 40). The Commission concluded that the Suppression of Extremism Act “on account of its broad and imprecise wording” gives “too wide discretion in its interpretation and application, thus leading to arbitrariness” and carries “potential dangers to individuals and NGOs” of being “interpreted in harmful ways” (§§ 77-78).

European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

131. ECRI’s General Policy Recommendation No. 15 on combating hate speech, adopted on 8 December 2015 indicated that “hate speech” should be understood as “the advocacy, promotion or incitement, in any form, of the denigration, hatred or vilification of a person or group of persons, as well as any harassment, insult, negative stereotyping, stigmatization or threat in respect of such a person or group of persons [on account of their characteristics]”, while recognising that “forms of expression that offend, shock or disturb will not on that account alone amount to hate speech”. It recommended the Governments of member States to take action “against the use, in a public context, of hate speech which is intended or can reasonably be expected to incite acts of violence, intimidation, hostility or discrimination” (see, for a fuller citation of the ECRI’s Recommendation, Karastelev and Others v. Russia, no. 16435/10, § 44, 6 October 2020).

132. In its fifth periodic report on the Russian Federation (5 March 2019)[1], ECRI reiterated its concern that “the anti-extremism legislation was being used against certain minority religions, notably Jehovah’s Witnesses”. It noted that the situation had “deteriorated substantially” since its previous report on account of the 2017 extremism ruling by the Supreme Court which had “effectively bar[red] Jehovah’s Witnesses from practising their faith throughout the country” (§ 101). As regards Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment and fines, ECRI recalled that “criminal law has a symbolic effect which raises the awareness of society of the seriousness of the conduct and has a strong dissuasive effect” and did not accept that peaceful practice of a religion “could justify criminal prosecution” (§ 102). ECRI was alarmed at the Plenary Supreme Court’s guidance, according to which parents could be stripped of their parental rights “for involving their children in the activity of a banned public or religious association”, and the Ministry of Education’s recommendation on “resocialisation of adolescents subjected to destructive psychological influence” which named specifically children of members of the ISIS and children in families of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. It considered that “the association of Jehovah’s Witnesses with a terrorist organisation” was “seriously misleading and unreasonable” (§ 103). ECRI expressed concern about those developments, noting that “Jehovah’s Witnesses [were] another group whose departure from ‘traditional values’ [had] prompted persecution and repression” (§ 104).

Committee of Ministers
133. At its 1419th meeting (30 November – 2 December 2021), the Committee of Ministers considered the state of execution of the cases concerning the dissolution of the Moscow community of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, no. 302/02) and the dispersal of a peaceful religious ceremony (Krupko and Others, no. 26587/07) (CM/Del/Dec(2021)1419/H46-31). The Ministers’ Deputies reiterated “serious concerns about the 2017 blanket ban criminalising any participation in the activities of this religious group and its alarming effects, evidenced by different sources that, as a consequence of this ban, members of the religious community of the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned merely for manifesting their religious beliefs” (§ 3). They called on the Russian authorities “to take all necessary measures to re-establish the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to freedom of religion, such as by reversing the 2017 ban, re-examining the related criminal cases, as well as reviewing the current anti-extremism legislation” (§ 4).

UNITED NATIONS

Special Rapporteur

134. The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr Frank La Rue, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 16/4, A/67/357, of 7 September 2012, listed the elements essential for determining whether an expression constitutes incitement to hatred: “real and imminent danger of violence resulting from the expression”; “intent of the speaker to incite discrimination, hostility or violence”; and “careful consideration by the judiciary of the context in which hatred was expressed, given that international law prohibits some forms of speech for their consequences, and not for their content as such”. The Special Rapporteur emphasised that “any contextual assessment must include consideration of various factors, including the existence of patterns of tension between religious or racial communities, discrimination against the targeted group, the tone and content of the speech, the person inciting hatred and the means of disseminating the expression of hate” (§ 46). The Special Rapporteur reiterated that “no one should be penalized for the dissemination of hate speech unless it has been shown that they did so with the intention of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence” (§ 50 (b)).

Human Rights Committee
135. The Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee of 31 March 2015 on the seventh periodic report of the Russian Federation on the observance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR/C/RUS/7/CO) reflected the Committee’s concerns that “the vague and open-ended definition of ‘extremist activity’ [in Russian law] [did] not require any element of violence or hatred to be present” and that “numerous reports [indicated] that the law [was] increasingly used to curtail freedom of expression, including political dissent, and freedom of religion, targeting, inter alia, Jehovah’s Witnesses …” (§ 22).

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
136. In 2019 and 2020 the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Human Rights Council adopted three opinions (nos. 11/2019, 34/2019 and 10/2020) concerning more than twenty Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who had been held in pre-trial detention, under house arrest or had been imprisoned following conviction on the charges of continuing the activities of an “extremist organisation”. The Working Group found that their deprivation of liberty was arbitrary on four separate grounds.

First, their pre-trial detention had no legal basis as no reasons for that measure had been provided and as their appeals against the detention order had been summarily dismissed.

Second, the arrest and imprisonment were arbitrary because they resulted from the lawful exercise of their human rights. None of the activities imputed to them could be described as being “extremist”, and the sole reason for their arrest and prosecution was “the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of religion under article 18 of the Covenant”. Their actions had “always been entirely peaceful” and there was no evidence that “[they] or indeed the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation [had] ever been violent or incited others to violence”. The Working Group emphasised that none of the Jehovah’s Witnesses “should have been arrested and held in pre-trial detention and no trial of any of them should take or should have taken place”.

Third, the deprivation of liberty was arbitrary on account of Jehovah’s Witnesses being kept in cages in the courtrooms and the initial arrests being carried out by large numbers of police officers and use of force, even though no one resisted the arrest or was violent, which was indicative of intimidation and a breach of the presumption of innocence.

Fourth, in so far as these individuals were part of a growing number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who had been arrested, detained and charged with criminal activity on the basis of mere exercise of freedom of religion, their deprivation of liberty was discriminatory on the basis of religion. While noting that its opinion concerned the particular situation of the complainants, the Working Group emphasised that “its findings in this opinion [should] apply to all others in similar situations”.

The Working Group requested the Russian Government “to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation” of the affected individuals “without delay and bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms”. It considered that “the appropriate remedy would be to release [the detained individuals] “immediately” and “unconditionally”, “expunge their criminal records” and “accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations”.

THE LAW

JOINDER OF THE APPLICATIONS

137. Having regard to the similar subject matter of the applications, the Court finds it appropriate to examine them jointly in a single judgment.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLES 9, 10 AND 11 OF THE CONVENTION ON ACCOUNT OF FORCED DISSOLUTION OF THE TAGANROG RELIGIOUS ORGANISATION

138. The Court will first consider the complaint of the forced dissolution of the Taganrog local religious organisation (“Taganrog LRO”), the banning of its activities and the declaration of religious literature to be “extremist material” (section A of the Facts). The applicants complained that the measures had breached their rights to freedom of religion, expression and association guaranteed by Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention which read as follows:

Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 10 – Freedom of expression

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority …

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others …”

Article 11 – Freedom of assembly and association

“1. Everyone has the right … to freedom of association with others …

2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others …”

Admissibility
139. The Government submitted that the complaint was inadmissible by virtue of Article 17 of the Convention which prohibits “groups or individuals with totalitarian goals from using the principles provided for in the Convention for their own interests” (they referred to W.P. and Others v. Poland (dec.), no. 42264/98, ECHR 2004‑VII (extracts), and Norwood v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 23131/03, ECHR 2004‑XI). In their view, the Court should use the same approach it had followed to declare inadmissible an application by a militant Islamic group which called for the destruction of Israel and killing of its citizens (Hizb ut-Tahrir and Others v. Germany (dec.), no. 31098/08, 12 June 2012).

140. The applicants replied that it was a well-established fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religion committed to pacifism (they referred to Bayatyan v. Armenia [GC], no. 23459/03, § 111, ECHR 2011). The mere allegation that some persons might be “offended” by their religious publications or by the claim that they displayed a “negative attitude” towards “traditional” religions did not remove them from the protection of Article 10 of the Convention.

141. The Court finds that Article 17 of the Convention has no application to this case. This Article is applicable only “on an exceptional basis” and “in extreme cases”, such as to statements denying crimes against humanity or vilifying entire ethnicities or religions, as is illustrated by the Court’s case-law (see Paksas v. Lithuania [GC], no. 34932/04, §§ 87-88, ECHR 2011 (extracts), with further references). The Court cannot find any such expressions in the applicants’ activities or publications.

142. The Court considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
143. The applicants submitted that the liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organisation deprived believers of a registered religious organisation and exposed them to criminal and administrative liability. The interference was neither “prescribed by law” nor “necessary in a democratic society”. The definition of what constituted “extremism” under Russian law was not sufficiently accessible or foreseeable because it could be misapplied to any religious activities or religious speech, no matter how peaceful. It would be absurd to suggest that Jehovah’s Witnesses had been a threat to “national security” or that the liquidation of their organisations had been necessary to “prevent disorder”. The Russian authorities had previously liquidated the religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow using the same allegations that they had used for dissolving the Taganrog and Samara organisations in the instant case. In Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others v. Russia (no. 302/02, 10 June 2010), the Court had found a violation of Articles 9 and 11 on account of the forced dissolution of the Moscow community of Jehovah’s Witnesses on similar charges and the same conclusions would apply here.

144. The Government submitted that the interference with the applicants’ rights was lawful and justified. The Taganrog LRO had engaged in illegal activities, including by distributing printed materials which proclaimed the superiority of their religion. It had also been active outside of Taganrog, in two adjacent districts in which it had not established local chapters. The courts had established that Jehovah’s Witnesses had imposed their views on Orthodox believers, incited their followers to refuse medical assistance on religious grounds and to carry the No-Blood card, and involved children in door-to-door preaching without the contest of the other parent.

The Court’s assessment

(a) General principles

145. As enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. This freedom is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it (see Kokkinakis v. Greece, 25 May 1993, § 31, Series A no. 260‑A, and İzzettin Doğan and Others v. Turkey [GC], no. 62649/10, § 103, 26 April 2016; for relevant principles under Articles 10 and 11, see Bédat v. Switzerland [GC], no. 56925/08, § 48, 29 March 2016, and Sidiropoulos and Others v. Greece, 10 July 1998, § 40, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1998‑IV).

(b) Existence of interference

146. The Russian courts’ decision to dissolve the Taganrog LRO and ban its activities had the effect of stripping it of legal personality and preventing it from exercising a wide range of rights reserved under Russian law to registered religious organisations, such as the right to establish places of worship or to hold religious services in public places. The Taganrog LRO ceased to exist as a registered religious organisation and the individual applicants, as its members, were deprived of the right to manifest their religion in community with others and to carry out activities which were an integral element of their religious practice. The Court finds that the forced dissolution of the Taganrog LRO amounted to interference with the organisation’s and its members’ rights under Article 9 of the Convention, which must be interpreted in the light of Article 11 since religious communities traditionally exist in the form of organised structures (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 101-03).

147. In so far as the decision also declared a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications to be “extremist” resulting in a State-wide ban on their distribution and use in worship, it also interfered with the organisation and its members’ right to freedom of religion and the right of the applicant publishers of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature to impart information under Article 10 of the Convention (see Association Ekin v. France, no. 39288/98, § 42, ECHR 2001‑VIII).

148. The requirements and structure of the three provisions – Articles 9, 10 or 11 of the Convention – are essentially similar. The interference will infringe the Convention unless it can be shown that it was “prescribed by law”, pursued one or more of the legitimate aims set out in paragraph 2 of the respective provision and was “necessary in a democratic society” to achieve those aims.

(c) Justification for the interference

(i) General principles

149. The Court observes at the outset that the interference in question consisted in the dissolution of the applicant religious and the banning of its activities and religious literature, with immediate effect, which are harsh measures entailing significant consequences for the believers (see Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic v. Russia, no. 33203/08, § 54, 12 June 2014). Such a drastic measure as the forced dissolution would be warranted only in the most serious of cases, as the exceptions to the rights to freedom of religion and association are to be construed strictly and only convincing and compelling reasons can justify restrictions on that freedom (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 102 and 108, and Association Rhino and Others v. Switzerland, no. 48848/07, § 62, 11 October 2011, with further references).

150. When the Court carries out its scrutiny, its task is not to substitute its own view for that of the relevant national authorities but rather to review the decisions they delivered in the exercise of their discretion. This does not mean that it has to confine itself to ascertaining whether the respondent State exercised its discretion reasonably, carefully and in good faith; it must look at the interference complained of in the light of the case as a whole and determine whether it was “proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued” and whether the reasons adduced by the national authorities to justify it are “relevant and sufficient”. In so doing, the Court has to satisfy itself that the national authorities applied standards which were in conformity with the principles embodied in the Convention and, moreover, that they based their decisions on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts (see United Communist Party of Turkey and Others v. Turkey, 30 January 1998, § 47, Reports 1998‑I).

(ii) “Prescribed by law”

151. On the first limb of its inquiry – whether the interference was “prescribed by law” – the Court notes that the sanction imposed was contained within the range of penalties provided for in the Suppression of Extremism Act and the Religions Act. In that sense, it can be said that the interference was “prescribed by law”. However, the Court’s scrutiny of the lawfulness requirement does not stop at ascertaining that there was a statutory basis for the interference. The Court must be satisfied that the statutory basis, as interpreted by the domestic courts, was sufficiently precise and foreseeable in its application so as to enable the applicants to anticipate the legal consequences of their acts and regulate their conduct accordingly. To that end, the Court will consider individually each of the charges raised against the Taganrog LRO.

(α) On the proclamation of the superiority of Jehovah’s Witnesses

152. The first ground for declaring the Taganrog LRO to be an “extremist” organisation was the charge that its texts stoked religious hatred by casting “traditional” Christian denominations in a negative light, undermining respect for their religious figures, urging people to leave those religions, and proclaiming the superiority of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see paragraph 18 above).

153. The Court reiterates that preference for one’s own religion, the perception of it as unique and the only true one or as a “superior explanation of the universe” is a cornerstone of almost any religious system, as is the assessment of the other faiths as “false”, “wrong” or “not conducive to salvation” (see Ibragim Ibragimov and Others v. Russia, nos. 1413/08 and 28621/11, §§ 116-17, 28 August 2018). Proclaiming the superiority of a particular religious dogma or conception of life is an essential aspect of a legitimate exercise of the right to try to convert others by means of non‑coercive persuasion which enjoys the protection under Article 9 of the Convention (see Kokkinakis, cited above, § 48, and Larissis and Others v. Greece, 24 February 1998, §§ 51 and 59, Reports 1998‑I). In the absence of expressions that seek to incite or justify violence or hatred based on religious intolerance, any religious entity or individual believers have the right to proclaim and defend their doctrine as the true and superior one and to engage in religious disputes and criticism seeking to prove the truth of one’s own and the falsity of others’ dogmas or beliefs (see, mutatis mutandis, Gündüz v. Turkey, no. 35071/97, § 51, ECHR 2003‑XI).

154. The Regional Court attached significant weight to the fact that Orthodox priests and believers felt offended by the texts of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Court reiterates that, in a pluralist and democratic society, those who exercise their right to freedom of religion, whether as members of a religious majority or a minority, cannot reasonably expect to be shielded from exposure to ideas that may offend, shock or disturb. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith (see Otto‑Preminger‑Institut v. Austria, 20 September 1994, § 47, Series A no. 295‑A, and Sekmadienis Ltd. v. Lithuania, no. 69317/14, § 81, 30 January 2018). Religious people may be genuinely offended by claims that others’ religion is superior to theirs. However, just because a remark may be perceived as offensive or insulting by particular individuals or groups does not mean that it constitutes “hate speech”. Although such sentiments are understandable, they cannot in themselves set limits on freedom of expression, let alone inhibit the enjoyment of freedom of religion by others (see Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 115, and paragraph 130 above).

155. The key issue is thus whether the expressions in question, when read as a whole and in their context, could be seen as promoting violence, hatred or intolerance (see Perinçek v. Switzerland [GC], no. 27510/08, § 240, ECHR 2015 (extracts)). Inciting to hatred does not necessarily entail a call for an act of violence, or other criminal acts. Attacks on individuals committed by insulting, holding up to ridicule or slandering vulnerable groups of the population can be a sufficient ground warranting the suppression of such speech (see Féret v. Belgium, no. 15615/07, § 73, 16 July 2009, and Vejdeland and Others v. Sweden, no. 1813/07, § 55, 9 February 2012).

156. The Regional Court’s judgment did not identify any expressions promoting violence, hatred or intolerance in the texts of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication which it held to be “extremist”. Even accepting that the texts promoted the idea that the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses was superior to others or that it was better to be a Jehovah’s Witness than a member of another Christian denomination, it is significant that the texts did not insult, hold up to ridicule or slander non-Witnesses; nor did they use abusive terms in respect of them or of matters regarded as sacred by them (see Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 117, with further references). The Court concurs with the Venice Commission in that there is nothing extremist about criticising, “even harshly and unreasonably, belief systems, opinions, and institutions, as long as this does not amount to advocating hatred against an individual or groups” (see paragraph 130 above). Peacefully seeking to convince others of the superiority of one’s own religion and urging them to abandon “false religions” and join the “true one” is a legitimate form of exercise of the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression which enjoys the protection under Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention.

157. For the Court, it is highly significant that no evidence of violence, hatred or coercion was adduced in the proceedings against the Taganrog LRO. Both the applicants’ religious activities and the content of their publications appear to have been peaceful in line with their professed doctrine of non-violence. It was not shown that anyone, whether members of the Taganrog LRO or third parties, had been forced, prevailed upon or pressured into following religious injunctions against his or her will. The courts failed to identify evidence of the use of any improper methods to persuade others to prefer the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not one of the banned publications was found to contain calls or incitement to violence or any insulting, slanderous or discriminatory statements against members of other faiths.

158. It follows that the Russian authorities failed to put forward any elements which, according to the Court’s case-law, could have warranted interference with the applicants’ rights to freedom of religion, expression or association. The Court concurs with the assessment by the Venice Commission, the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the UN Human Rights Committee that the interference with the applicants’ fundamental rights was made possible because of the overly broad definition of “extremism” in Russian law (see paragraphs 128, 130 and 135, and also Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 85). The Court reiterates that it is vitally important that criminal law provisions directed against expressions that stir up, promote or justify violence, hatred or intolerance clearly and precisely define the scope of relevant offences, and that those provisions be strictly construed in order to avoid a situation where the State’s discretion to prosecute for such offences becomes too broad and potentially subject to abuse through selective enforcement (see Savva Terentyev v. Russia, no. 10692/09, § 85, 28 August 2018). The protection against arbitrariness is also an aspect or element or function of the principle of effectiveness as a norm of international law. However, the extremely broad definition of “extremist activities” in section 1 of the Suppression of Extremism Act which does not require any elements of violence or hatred opens up the possibility of having individuals and organisations prosecuted on extremism charges for entirely peaceful forms of expression or worship, such as those pursued by the applicants in the instant case. That broad definition of “extremism” not only could – and did – lead to arbitrary prosecutions, but also prevented individuals or organisations from being able to anticipate that their conduct, however peaceful and devoid of hatred or animosity it was, could be categorised as “extremist” and censured with restrictive measures. As the Venice Commission observed, “where definitions are lacking the necessary precision, a law such as the Extremism Law dealing with very sensitive rights … can be interpreted in harmful ways” and misused for the prosecution of believers or religious ministers on the basis of the content of their beliefs alone (see paragraphs 130 and 135 above).

159. Accordingly, the Court finds that the definitions of “extremism” and “extremist activities” in section 1 of the Suppression of Extremism Act, as formulated and applied in practice by the Russian authorities, fell short of the lawfulness requirement. Furthermore, the facts of the present case demonstrate that a judicial review of the charges against the Taganrog LRO did not provide adequate and effective safeguards against an excessively broad interpretation of the concept of “extremism” by the prosecution authorities. In considering the charges, the courts failed to examine the matter in the light of the principles established in the Court’s case-law. The impermissibly broad definition of “extremism activities”, coupled with a lack of judicial safeguards, is sufficient for a finding of a violation on the basis that the interference on the charge of “proclaiming superiority” was not “prescribed by law”.

(β) The other charges

160. As regards the other charges levelled against the Taganrog LRO under section 14 of the Religions Act, the Court is prepared to assume, as it did in the previous case of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow, that the interference was “prescribed by law” and pursued the legitimate aims of the protection of health and the rights of others (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 105 and 107). It will consider the justification for those charges from the standpoint of the necessity requirement (ibid., § 108).

(iii) “Necessary in a democratic society”

(α) On the refusal of medical assistance

161. The Rostov court held the Taganrog LRO responsible for causing death of its founding member S. by encouraging her to refuse a blood transfusion (see paragraph 19 above).

162. The Court has found that the provisions of Russian law on “the incitement to refuse medical assistance” reflect the assumption that the State’s power to protect believers from the harmful consequences of their medical choices ought to override the right to respect for their private life and the freedom to manifest their religion in practice and observance (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 134). However, the freedom to accept or refuse specific medical treatment or to select the alternative form of treatment is vital to the principles of self-determination and personal autonomy. For this freedom to be meaningful, patients must have the right to make choices that accord with their own views and values, regardless of how irrational, unwise or imprudent such choices may appear to others. A competent adult patient is free to decide, for instance, whether or not to undergo surgery or, by the same token, to have a live blood transfusion or to prefer artificial blood substitutes. Free choice and self‑determination are fundamental constituents of life and that, absent any indication of the need to protect public health, the State must abstain from interfering with the individual freedom of choice in the sphere of health care, for such interference can only lessen and not enhance the value of life (ibid., §§ 135-36, and Vavřička and Others v. the Czech Republic [GC], nos. 47621/13 and 5 others, § 276, 8 April 2021).

163. This position has been reflected in Russian law which safeguards the patients’ freedom of choice in the sphere of medical assistance. The Fundamentals of Russian Legislation on Health Protection, in force at the material time, and the Health Protection Act (Law no. 323-FZ of 21 November 2011), which replaced it with effect from 1 January 2012, have established the patients’ right to refuse a specific medical treatment or to request its discontinuation on condition that they have received full and accessible information about the possible consequences of that decision (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 137).

164. The informed-consent requirement is particularly relevant in the circumstances of the instant case in which the refusal of blood transfusion had been formulated by an adult Jehovah’s Witness having capacity to make medical decisions for herself. However, the fact that she had exercised her legal right to refuse a specific form of medical treatment was not addressed or mentioned in the domestic judgments. For the Court, the crucial legal test in this situation is whether the refusal was an expression of the person’s authentic will or whether the degree of external influence brought to bear on the person had been such as to persuade him or her to depart from his or her own wishes (ibid., § 138). Yet, nothing in the domestic judgments suggests that any form of improper pressure or undue influence was applied. There is no evidence that she wavered in her refusal of a blood transfusion upon admission to hospital. There was accordingly no factual basis for claiming that her will was overborne or that the refusal of a blood transfer did not represent her true or genuine decision.

165. In the absence of any evidence of improper pressure, the refusal of blood transfusion was an expression of free will of a community member exercising her right to personal autonomy in the sphere of health care protected both under the Convention and in Russian law. The imputation of Ms S.’s death to the Taganrog LRO solely because Jehovah’s Witnesses preach the doctrinal importance of abstaining from blood transfusions in their religious literature amounted to a declaration that their religious beliefs relating to the sacred nature of blood were illegitimate (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 141). The Court reiterates that States do not have the right under the Convention to decide what beliefs may or may not be taught because the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate (see Manoussakis and Others v. Greece, 26 September 1996, § 47, Reports 1996‑IV, and Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria [GC], no. 30985/96, § 78, ECHR 2000‑XI).

(β) On the abandonment of civic duties

166. The Rostov court further held it against the Taganrog LRO that a conscript had requested alternative civilian service unconnected with military facilities as a result of talking to other conscripts who tried to convince him “not to serve” (see paragraph 20 above).

167. It is a well-known fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious group committed to pacifism and that their doctrine prevents individual members from performing military service, wearing uniform or taking up weapons (see Thlimmenos v. Greece [GC], no. 34369/97, § 42, ECHR 2000‑IV). Jehovah’s Witnesses agree to carry out alternative civilian service on condition it is not connected with military organisations (see Faizov v. Russia (dec.), no. 19820/04, 15 January 2009). Russia’s Constitution (Article 59 § 3) and the Religions Act (section 3 § 4) explicitly recognise the right of Russian nationals to conscientious objection to military service in which case it may be substituted with alternative civilian service. The right to alternative civilian service has been consistently upheld by the Russian courts, including in cases where it was exercised by a Jehovah’s Witness (see Faizov, cited above).

168. The Court reiterates that the right “to try to convince one’s neighbour” is an essential element of religious freedom (see Kokkinakis, cited above, § 31, and Larissis and Others, cited above, § 45). In the Larissis case the Court drew a distinction between the position of servicemen who had found it difficult to withdraw from religious conversations initiated by their superiors, and that of civilians who had not been subject to pressures and constraints of the same kind as military personnel. The former could be viewed as a form of harassment or the application of improper pressure, whereas the latter would be seen as an innocuous exchange of ideas (see Larissis and Others, §§ 51, 54, and 59).

169. In the instant case, the discussion about military service took place among conscripts, with Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to convince others of the virtue of their pacifist beliefs and sharing their religious literature with them. The conscripts were peers, there was no formal hierarchy among them, no superiors or subordinates. The domestic courts did not establish that any harassment or improper pressure had been brought to bear on the conscripts who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were free to withdraw from the conversation or refuse to engage with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ arguments. The religious admonishment to refuse military service did not break any Russian laws and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were entitled to seek to persuade others that they should prefer alternative civilian service instead of taking up weapons.

170. For the Court, it is obvious that choosing one of the two legally available alternatives does not amount to incitement to abandon the civil duties. In the absence of any evidence of improper pressure, holding the Taganrog LRO responsible for disseminating pacifist convictions among conscripts also amounted to an impermissible judgment on the legitimacy of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs and means of their expression.

(γ) On the involvement of minors

171. The Rostov court held the Taganrog LRO liable for violating children’s right to leisure and recreation as a result of their participation in door-to-door preaching and religious meetings, despite the objections of a non-religious parent. It also held that the children did not thrive because all recreational activities were taking place “with the participation of other members of the organisation” and because they did not attend any sports, music or hobby groups (see paragraph 21 above).

172. The Court has held that the decisions of Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding their employment, celebration of events significant to them, and allocation of free time are all matters falling the sphere of “private life” of community members (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 117). It is a common feature of many religions that they determine doctrinal standards of behaviour by which their followers must abide in their private lives, including matters such as attendance at church services, performance of rituals, wearing specific clothes or observing dietary restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ regulations on engaging in door-to-door preaching and attendance at religious meetings are no different from similar limitations that other religions impose on their followers’ private lives. By obeying these precepts in their daily lives, believers manifest their desire to comply strictly with the religious doctrine they profess and their freedom to do so is guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention (ibid., § 118). An interference with that freedom may only be permissible if their choices are incompatible with the key principles underlying the Convention, such as polygamous or underage marriage or a flagrant breach of gender equality, or if they are imposed on the believers by force or coercion, against their will (ibid., § 119, with further references).

173. The Court reiterates that Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 requires the State to respect the rights of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious convictions and that Article 5 of Protocol No. 7 establishes that spouses enjoy equality of rights in their relations with their children. Russia’s Religions Act does not make religious education of children conditional on the existence of an agreement between the parents. Both parents, even in a situation where they adhere to differing doctrines or beliefs, have the right to raise their children in accordance with their religious or non-religious convictions and any disagreements between them in relation to the necessity and extent of the children’s participation in religious practices and education are private disputes that are to be resolved according to the procedure established in family law (ibid., § 125).

174. The Court finds no legal or factual basis for the Regional Court’s finding that the children’s alleged lack of participation in sports, music or hobby groups was detrimental to their development or imputable to the Taganrog LRO. There is no single normative parenting style or mandatory set of parenting practices, and the general conclusion that such are elements of a harmonious development, regardless of the age or circumstances of a child, would normally be supported by evidence of scientific, legal or social consensus, which was not the case here. It is significant that, in reaching its findings, the Regional Court did not hear any evidence from the children themselves and did not identify any instances of abuse, coercion or non-consensual involvement of children in the religious practices.

175. As long as there is no evidence of abuse, violence or unlawful coercion, decisions about whether to give a child a religious or non-religious education, whether to involve him or her in sports, science, arts or music, whether to provide unstructured free time or a strict daily routine, and whether to keep company with like-minded people, are to be made exclusively by the child’s parents or, as the case may be, the custodial parent. Such decisions fall within the sphere of the private and family life which is protected from unjustified State interference. It follows that what was taken by the Russian courts to constitute impermissible involvement of minors was in fact a manifestation of the parents’ beliefs in their private lives in the sense protected by Article 9 (ibid., § 121).

176. Lastly, the Regional Court did not give any reasons for the finding that the Taganrog LRO should be held responsible for the parents’ decision to involve their children in religious activities. Russia’s Religions Act prohibits those who are not parents or substitute parents from coercing a child into participation in religious practices or education (ibid., §§ 73 and 124). In holding the Taganrog LRO responsible, the Regional Court did not point to any evidence showing that the organisation itself or any non-parent members of the organisation had resorted to improper methods for involving minors in its activities, whether against their own will or that of their parents. On the contrary, the involvement of children in the community’s religious life appears to have been approved and encouraged by one of the parents who had been a Jehovah’s Witness himself or herself. Thus, the situation which had been imputed to the organisation had not actually been related to anything the organisation did or did not do, but to the actions of its individual members who were parents of those children (ibid., § 124).

(δ) On the destruction of family relationships

177. The Rostov court found that the Taganrog LRO encouraged the “destruction of family relationships” in that it had forced the families of its members to break up (see paragraph 22 above).

178. The Court has previously found, in relation of a similar charge, that, in so far as the Russian courts did not give examples of any coercive, forceful or threatening action on the part of the applicant organisation, what was taken by the courts to constitute “coercion into destroying the family” was the frustration that non-Witness family members experienced as a consequence of disagreements over the manner in which their Witness relatives decided to organise their lives in accordance with the religious precepts, and their increasing isolation resulting from having been left outside the life of the community to which their Witness relatives adhered. It is a known fact that a religious way of life requires from its followers both abidance by religious rules and self-dedication to religious work that can take up a significant portion of the believer’s time. Nevertheless, as long as self-dedication to religious matters is the product of the believer’s independent and free decision and however unhappy his or her family members may feel about that decision, the ensuing estrangement cannot be taken to mean that the religion caused the break-up in the family. Quite often, the opposite is true: it is the resistance and unwillingness of non‑religious family members to accept and to respect their religious relative’s freedom to manifest and practise his or her religion that is the source of conflict. It is true that friction often exists in marriages where the spouses belong to different religious denominations or one of the spouses is a non-believer. However, this situation is common to all mixed-belief marriages and Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception (ibid., §§ 110-11).

179. The Court is not satisfied that the Regional Court’s findings were based on an acceptable assessment of facts. There was nothing to indicate that the religious organisation had made any demands on its members as a condition for continuing their family relationship or, in the other sense, that it had imposed any kind of condition or made any demands on non-Witness members of the families of its followers under threat of breaking up their family relationship.

180. In addition, the way in which the Regional Court dealt with witness evidence was tainted by bias against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Its decision on the credibility of testimony had nothing to do with its factual accuracy but referred, as the sole criterion, to the witnesses’ affiliation with the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The evidence of a harmonious family life given by four Jehovah’s Witnesses and the non-religious spouse of a Jehovah’s Witness had not been shown to be untrue. However, the Regional Court refused to accept it, finding the members of the Taganrog LRO to be inherently unreliable witnesses, while at the same time accepting as reliable the evidence from the aggrieved non-believer spouses and a member of an Orthodox entity (see paragraph 22 above).

(ε) On the encroachment on the rights of others

181. Lastly, the Rostov court established that the Taganrog LRO had encroached on the rights of its members by determining how they were spending their free time and prohibiting them from celebrating holidays and birthdays. It also encroached on the rights of those whom Jehovah’s Witnesses had visited at their homes without invitation (see paragraph 23 above).

182. On the first limb of the charge, the Court reiterates that the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to organise their lives, including their daily routines, in accordance with the precepts of their religion is protected by Article 9 of the Convention (see paragraph 172 above). The Russian courts did not cite any evidence showing that members of the Taganrog LRO had been forced or prevailed upon to devote their free time to preaching and Bible study or to abstain from celebrating State holidays or personal events (ibid., § 120). Moreover, the Court reiterates that “participation in celebrations during State holidays” is not a civil duty as defined by law. In fact, there is no law compelling celebration of any holidays, whether secular or religious, and such compulsory participation in celebrations, had it been elevated to the rank of a legal obligation, could arguably have raised an issue under Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention (compare Efstratiou v. Greece, 18 December 1996, § 32, Reports 1996‑VI, concerning the participation of Jehovah’s Witness children in a school parade).

183. The allegation that the Witnesses’ practice of door-to-door preaching had invaded the privacy of others was not supported with any evidence. As the Court observed in the Kokkinakis case, “bearing Christian witness … [is] an essential mission and a responsibility of every Christian and every Church” which has to be distinguished from improper proselytism that takes the form of offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a church, exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need or even using violence or brainwashing (see Kokkinakis, cited above, § 48). The Regional Court did not cite a single case in which members of the Taganrog LRO had resorted to such abusive or improper methods or had trespassed into anyone’s home. There is nothing to indicate that non-religious people were forced to talk to them or compelled to open the door and let them in.

(στ) Nature and severity of the penalty

184. The Court has thus found that none of the charges against the Taganrog LRO were borne out by an adequate assessment of facts or justified with “relevant and sufficient” reasons. It considers nevertheless that the particular character of the interference in the present case entailing as it does significant consequences for the believers requires it to consider briefly the issue whether a sanction of that nature and severity could be justified as being “necessary in a democratic society” (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 154).

185. The Court reiterates that, to discharge their duty to uphold the right to freedom of religion in democratic societies in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, States have responsibility for ensuring, neutrally and impartially, the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs. Their role is to help maintain public order, religious harmony and tolerance, including in relations between the adherents of various religions, faiths and beliefs. Since States are not allowed to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the ways in which those beliefs are expressed, the role of the authorities is not to remove the cause of tension by eliminating pluralism, but to ensure that the competing groups tolerate each other (see Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 90, with further references).

186. As in a previous case concerning the forced dissolution of the Moscow congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court finds that a blanket ban on the activities of a religious community belonging to a known Christian denomination is an extraordinary occurrence (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 155). It is even more extraordinary when such measure is imposed on grounds of the protection of members of a majority religion from attempts to convince them peacefully of the superiority of a minority religion (see paragraphs 153-156 above). The free exchange of ideas is what characterises a democratic society. As the Court has held, democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair treatment of people from minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position (see İzzettin Doğan and Others, cited above, § 109).

187. As the Court has found above, the proceedings resulting in the banning of the Taganrog LRO were based on the assessment of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious beliefs and practices rather than on any evidence of incitement to hatred or violence (see paragraphs 165 and 170 above). Before the decision dissolving it was made, the local religious organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog had been in existence and operated legally for more than seventeen years, from 1992 to 2009. Throughout that period, the organisation, its elders or members had not been held liable for any criminal or administrative offence or a civil wrong; no such evidence was produced in the domestic dissolution proceedings or before the Court. Remarkably, an inquiry into the cause of death of a founding member of the organisation in 2004 did not begin until three years later, after first the deputy Prosecutor General and later the regional prosecutor had instructed their subordinates to investigate communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and lodge applications for liquidation of their organisations (see paragraphs 8 and 10 above). The regional prosecutor’s letter appeared to consider “violations of law [committed by Jehovah’s Witnesses]” to be an established fact, disclosing a predisposed bias against Jehovah’s Witnesses and a determination to achieve the desired outcome of terminating the legal existence of their organisation. By instituting and conducting the extremism proceedings in the absence of any evidence of hatred or violence on the part of the applicants, the Russian authorities had not acted in good faith and had breached the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis the applicants’ religious organisation (see Kuznetsov and Others v. Russia, no. 184/02, § 74, 11 January 2007; Members of the Gldani Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others v. Georgia, no. 71156/01, §§ 131 and 132, 3 May 2007; and Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 157). This was also incompatible with the principle of effectiveness which requires that the permissible exceptions to the right to freedom of association must be narrowly interpreted so as to give practical and effective protection to that freedom (see Sidiropoulos and Others, cited above, § 38, and Demir and Baykara v. Turkey [GC], no. 34503/97, § 146, ECHR 2008).

188. The judicial decisions brought an end to the legal form of existence of an entire religious community and imposed an indefinite ban on its activities. The Court reiterates that this was obviously the most severe form of interference, affecting, as it did, the rights of many local congregations and hundreds of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses who were consequently denied the possibility of joining with fellow believers in prayer and observance (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 159). The additional confiscation order deprived the applicants of many items of religious literature and the prayer hall, leaving them without a place where to come for worship and Bible study. The Court reiterates that, if a religious community cannot have a place to worship, the right to freedom of religion in its collective dimension will be devoid of all substance (see Association for Solidarity with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others v. Turkey, nos. 36915/10 and 8606/13, § 90, 24 May 2016). Most importantly, the finding of the “extremist” nature of the religious organisation and their publications exposed the applicants to the risk of criminal prosecution which did not fail to materialise (see paragraphs 95‑106 above). The domestic courts, faced with a decision of such a sweeping scope which was to curtail the fundamental rights of many believers, did not even acknowledge, let alone consider at any length, the effect of the dissolution, banning and confiscation orders on the applicants’ rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention or their domestic-law equivalents (see Perinçek, cited above, § 277, and Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 107). Accordingly, the Court finds that the interference was also not “necessary in a democratic society”.

(iv) Conclusion

189. Having regard to the foregoing, the Court concludes that the interference was not “prescribed by law” in so far as it was based on the provisions of section 1(1) of the Suppression of Extremism Act and that it was also not “necessary in a democratic society”. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11, on account of the forced dissolution of Taganrog LRO and a violation of Article 10 of the Convention on account of the declaration of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications “extremist”.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLES 9, 10 AND 11 OF THE CONVENTION ON ACCOUNT OF THE BANNING OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES PUBLICATIONS AND PROSECUTION FOR THEIR USE IN RELIGIOUS MINISTRY

190. The Court will next consider the applicants’ complaints relating to the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious publications as extremist material (section B of the Facts) and also the prosecution of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and forced dissolution of their organisations for using such publications in religious ministry (sections C and D of the Facts). The applicants complained that such actions by the Russian authorities had been in breach of Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention.

Admissibility
191. The Government submitted that the complaints by Mr Fedorin and Ms Chekhovskaya in application no. 17552/11 were belated as the application form was dated more than six months after the final decisions in their cases. The applicants replied that the date of introduction should be the date of the letter stating their intention to lodge an application with the Court. As that letter had been sent within six months of the final decisions, their complaints were not belated.

192. In accordance with its practice and the Rules of Court, as they applied at the material time, the Court considered the date of the introduction of an application to be the date of the first communication indicating an intention to lodge an application and giving some indication of its nature. Such first communication was in principle sufficient to interrupt the running of the six-month period, provided that it was followed up by the submission of the completed application form within the time-limit fixed by the Court (see Yartsev v. Russia (dec.), no. 13776/11, §§ 21-22, 26 March 2013). In application no. 17552/11, on 28 March 2011 the Court acknowledged receipt of the introductory letter of 11 March and asked the applicants to return the completed application form no later than 23 May, which they actually did on 20 May. The date of introduction is therefore 11 March 2011. As that date was less than six months from the dates of the final decisions (see paragraphs 53-54 above), the complaints are not belated.

193. The Government also claimed that the complaint was inadmissible by virtue of Article 17 of the Convention. The Court has dismissed the Government’s identical objection in paragraph 141 above and does not need to revisit this finding.

194. The Court further notes that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention or inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
195. The applicants submitted that the ban on religious publications had interfered with their ability to study and discuss religious texts and exposed them to criminal and administrative liability for using the publications the courts declared “extremist”. The courts had banned the publications simply because they demonstrated a negative attitude toward various elements of traditional Christianity and urged people to leave other Christian religions. Yet peaceful disagreements about religious doctrine and practices were at the heart of religious pluralism guaranteed by Article 9, and the right “to try to convince one’s neighbour” was an essential element of religious freedom. The expert assessment of the publications amounted to an impermissible State evaluation of the legitimacy of their religious beliefs but, even so, the experts concurred that the publications did not contain calls or incitement to violence, and the Government did not argue otherwise. The publications had not been gratuitously offensive, disrespectful or hateful. They had been sincere statements of religious belief on the interpretation and application of scriptures from the Bible. In the case of the Samara LRO, the applicants alleged that the banned literature had been planted on its premises by police officers disguised as “electricity inspectors”. When they had come back in uniform, they had known where precisely to look and found seven copies of brochures in a closed box in the cloakroom. Using planted evidence as a basis for dissolving the organisation rendered the interference unlawful. In addition, holding the Samara LRO liable for the activities of its congregations contradicted the position of Russia’s Supreme Court which held that religious groups, such as congregations, could not be part of the structure of religious organisations. Mr Moskvin had not been the director or member of the Samara LRO, and his conviction was not imputable to the organisation. Finally, it was disproportionate to punish the Samara LRO with a modest fine in the administrative proceedings and, less than three months later, to pronounce the most severe sanction, the forced dissolution, without any further alleged violations by the Samara LRO.

196. The Government submitted the applicants’ rights to freedom of religion and expression had to be weighed against the public interest in the protection of national security and the prevention of disorder or extremist offences. Distribution of extremist material was not a form of lawful exercise of the applicant’s rights under Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention. The Russian courts had thoroughly and comprehensively scrutinised the publications and upheld the prosecutor’s claim that, even though the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not contain direct calls for violence or incitement to violence, it nevertheless offended religious feelings, incited religious enmity, provoked inter-faith conflicts and encouraged relinquishment of civil duties. The individual applicants had been brought to administrative liability for breaching the ban on disseminating extremist material, not for their religious convictions or for the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. In the case of the Samara LRO, there had existed a close connection between the Novokuybyshevsk community and the Samara LRO. The latter had rented the place where the former had celebrated religious services. The Novokuybyshevsk community had not sent a notice to the municipal authorities to inform them of its existence as an independent religious group; instead, it had functioned as part of the Samara LRO. By keeping the publications which it ought to have known to have been extremist, the Samara LRO had maliciously carried on its extremist activities after the prosecutor’s warning. In those circumstances, after preventive measures had turned out to be ineffective, the Russian courts had deemed liquidation to be the only appropriate sanction.

The Court’s assessment
(a) Existence of interference

197. There is no dispute between the parties that declaring Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications “extremist” and sanctioning the applicants for the possession or distribution of the publications amounted to “interference by a public authority” with their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention which must be interpreted in the light of Article 9 to take account of the religious nature of the publications and their intended use it for religious purposes. As the Court stated, the “collective study and discussion of religious texts by the members of the religious group of Jehovah’s Witnesses [is] a recognised form of manifestation of their religion in worship and teaching” (see Kuznetsov and Others, cited above, § 57). The ban on publications also interfered with the rights of the applicant publishers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature (see paragraph 147 above).

198. In so far as possession of prohibited publications was relied upon as a ground for the forced dissolution of a religious organisation, the complaint must be considered as an instance of interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of association safeguarded by Article 11 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 9. Such interference will infringe the Convention unless it can be shown that it has satisfied the requirements of the second paragraph of those provisions.

(b) Justification for the interference

199. The general principles regarding freedom of expression and religion have been summarised in the case of Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, §§ 88-99. In its assessment of the interference with freedom of expression in cases concerning allegedly extremist speech, the Court takes into account such factors as the existence of a tense political or social background; the presence of calls for – or a justification of – violence, hatred or intolerance, the manner in which the statements were made, and their potential to lead to harmful consequences. It is normally not sufficient that the interference was imposed because its subject-matter fell within a particular category or was caught by a legal rule formulated in general terms; what is rather required is that it was necessary in the specific circumstances (see also Perinçek, cited above, §§ 205-08).

200. The Court notes that the Russian courts banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications as “extremist” on the grounds that they incited religious hatred and discord by proclaiming the “superiority” of the “true” religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and “hostility” to other “false” religions or their ministers and that they encouraged relinquishment of civic duties and military service. However, no elements of violence, hatred, abuse, insults, ridicule or calls for anyone’s exclusion or discrimination have been identified in any of the publications (see paragraphs 30, 31, 34, 36, 40, 43, 45 and 47 above). There is no indication that the domestic courts perceived the texts in question as capable of leading to public disturbances or unrest. Neither the domestic courts nor the Government referred to any circumstances indicative of a sensitive background at the material time. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications have been widely available in many countries for decades, including in Russia, the Government have not submitted any evidence that they have caused interreligious tensions or led to any harmful consequences or violence, in Russia or elsewhere (see, for similar reasoning, Öztürk v. Turkey [GC], no. 22479/93, § 69, ECHR 1999‑VI).

201. The Court has found above that peaceful and non-violent attempts to persuade others of the virtues of one’s own religion and the flaws of others and to urge them to abandon “false religions” and join the “true one” is a legitimate form of exercising the rights to freedom of religion and expression, and that it was also permissible to seek to convince others to prefer alternative civilian service (see paragraphs 156 and 170 above). It has also found that the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications solely on that basis, in the absence of any statements advocating violence, hatred or intimidation, was only possible because the definition of “extremism” in Russian law was overly broad and could be, and had been, applied to entirely peaceful forms of expression (see paragraph 158 above). This sweeping definition enabled the Russian authorities to restrict the distribution of non-violent religious publications but also prevented publishers and users of the publications to anticipate, on account of its lacking the necessary precision, which publications could be categorised as “extremist” and banned on that account. It thus failed to meet the quality-of-law requirement which is a key element of the test of whether the interference was “prescribed by law” (see paragraph 159 above).

202. Apart from the above elements, the principle of effectiveness and the procedural guarantees afforded are the factors which may have to be taken into account when assessing the interference with freedom of expression (see Karácsony and Others v. Hungary [GC], nos. 42461/13 and 44357/13, § 133, 17 May 2016, with further references). The Court reiterates that it was first of all for the national authorities to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the statements in the context, putting forward relevant and sufficient reasons for justifying the interference and considering the applicant community’s right to freedom of expression and religion (see Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Azerbaijan, no. 52884/09, § 36, 20 February 2020).

203. The Court has previously identified a number of fundamental procedural flaws in the manner in which Russian courts have considered applications to categorise materials as “extremist”. The first such flaw is the courts’ relinquishment of their duty to rule on issues of law in favour of a wholesale endorsement of expert conclusions which go beyond addressing purely specialist issues, such as clarifying the import or meaning of particular words and expressions, and provide what is in effect a legal assessment of publications. The Court has found that situation unacceptable and stressed that all issues of law should be determined exclusively by judges (see Mariya Alekhina and Others v. Russia, no. 38004/12, § 262, 17 July 2018, and Dmitriyevskiy v. Russia, no. 42168/06, § 113, 3 October 2017). This position has been also reflected in the binding guidance by the Supreme Court of Russia (see paragraph 127 above). A second procedural flaw stems from the fact that Russian law does not establish explicitly the right for affected parties, such as authors or publishers of the texts liable to be banned, to participate in the proceedings under the Suppression of Extremism Act. The Court has held that a domestic court would not be in a position to provide “relevant and sufficient” reasons for the interference without some form of adversarial proceedings in which the arguments put forward by the prosecutor could be weighed up against those of the affected party (see Mariya Alekhina and Others, cited above, §§ 265-67).

204. In the instant case, the domestic courts’ decisions were based on expert reports obtained by the prosecutors or police from experts in linguistics or in religious studies, and, in one case, on a statement by an Orthodox priest who offered his opinion on the “extremist” nature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications (see paragraph 47 above). The courts limited their analysis to reproducing a summary of findings by expert witnesses which they endorsed in their entirety without drawing any legal conclusions from them, stating simply that they had no reason to doubt them. It is apparent from the judgments that it was not the court that made the decisive findings as to the “extremist” nature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses publications but the experts selected by the prosecutors and police (see Dmitriyevskiy, cited above, § 113). The courts made no attempt to conduct their own legal analysis of the allegedly “extremist” statements and consider them in the broader context of publications, seeking to establish the ideas they sought to impart. Nor did they apply the Court’s case-law relating to the extremist speech and freedom of expression in general or assess the effect of the ban on the applicants’ rights under Article 9 of the Convention or its domestic-law equivalent (see Ibragim Ibragimov and Others, cited above, § 107). The Court cannot therefore accept the reasons provided by the Russian courts as “relevant and sufficient” for the purpose of justifying the interference in question.

205. Furthermore, not only did the courts fail to provide relevant and sufficient reasons to justify the interference, they also failed to uphold the adversarial nature of the proceedings. Some applicants were unable to effectively put forward arguments in defence of their position, as the courts rejected their evidence, including alternative expert opinions, on the grounds that they had been prepared by a party to the case (see paragraph 35 above). Other applicants had not been even informed of the banning proceedings and denied the possibility to challenge the first-instance judgment by way of appeal (see paragraphs 37-39 above). This brings the Court to the conclusion that the applicants were stripped of the procedural protection that they were entitled to enjoy by virtue of their rights under Article 10 of the Convention (see Dmitriyevskiy, cited above, § 116).

206. As regards the applicants who were convicted on charges of “mass dissemination of extremist literature” for using the previously banned publications in religious ministry, the Court notes that an offence of mass dissemination of extremist material under Article 20.29 of the CAO is conceptualised under Russian law as a formal offence. It is sufficient to establish that the publication in question was included in the Federal List of Extremist Material and that the offender engaged in its dissemination or possessed it with a view to disseminating. The law does not require the courts hearing the charges to evaluate the context in which the dissemination occurred, to examine the intentions of the offender, or to assess its actual or likely deleterious consequences. Because of the formal nature of the offence, the court decisions holding the applicants liable for the dissemination of extremist material did not contain any assessment of the context of dissemination or its potential for harmful consequences. However, the fact that domestic law does not require proof that the offence has had any concrete effect does not obviate the need to justify the interference and to show that it was necessary in the specific circumstances (see Öztürk, cited above, § 69, and Perinçek, cited above, § 275). By focusing exclusively on the formal elements of an offence under Article 20.29 of the CAO, the domestic courts failed to consider the criteria developed by the Court in cases relating to freedom of expression and religion and adduce “relevant and sufficient” reasons for the interference (see Gözel and Özer v. Turkey, nos. 43453/04 and 31098/05, § 51, 6 July 2010). In the case of the Samara LRO, the domestic courts neither considered a very serious allegation that the extremist publications had been planted on their premises (see paragraph 195 above) nor assessed the proportionality and necessity of such a drastic measure as the dissolution of a religious organisation in a situation where copies of the “extremist” publications were apparently kept in a locked cabinet. The failure to carry out a balancing exercise leads the Court to the conclusion that the interference did not pursue any “pressing social need” and was therefore not “necessary in a democratic society”.

207. There has therefore been a violation of Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the declaration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications “extremist” and the prosecution of individual applicants and the forced dissolution of the Samara LRO for using those publications in their religious ministry.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 10 OF THE CONVENTION, READ IN THE LIGHT OF ARTICLE 9, ON ACCOUNT OF THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE DISTRIBUTION PERMIT

208. The applicants complained that the decision to withdraw the permit to distribute religious magazines (see section E of the Facts) had had no basis in Russian law and was not necessary in a democratic society. They relied in particular on Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention which have been cited above.

Admissibility
209. The Government submitted that the complaints by Mr Ebeling and Mr Konyukhov in application no. 17552/11 were belated. The Court has dismissed a similar objection in paragraph 192 above in which it established the date of introduction of that application to be 11 March 2011. As that date was less than six months from the dates of the final decisions (see paragraph 73 above), the complaints were not belated.

210. The Court considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
211. The applicants emphasised that the application of section 32 of the Mass Media Act “by analogy”, without any advance notice, without a court hearing or court order and by reference to the Rostov and Gorno-Altaysk proceedings, to which neither the applicant nor the Roskomnadzor had been parties, was not foreseeable. Section 32 related exclusively to television and radio broadcasting; it had never been applied to print media. The Roskomnadzor had not invoked that provision when making the 2010 order. It was raised for the first time in the Federal Commercial Court’s decision of 29 May 2012. By that time, however, section 32 was no longer in force, having been replaced in 2011 with a new procedure in which a license could be revoked only on notice and only by court order. The applicants submitted that they could not have foreseen which of many provisions the Roskomnadzor would apply “by analogy”, for it could have issued instead a “warning” or make an application to a court to suspend the circulation of periodicals. Finally, the decision did not pursue any “pressing social need”. Contrary to the Government’s assertion, the publications had not incited “religious hatred”, as mere comparison of religions and beliefs, even unfavourable, was not tantamount to inciting “hatred”.

212. The Government submitted that the Watchtower and Awake! magazines were foreign printed media which could be distributed in Russia on the basis of a permit. After the Rostov and Gorno-Altaysk courts had identified certain publications to be extremist, the applicants should have faced the consequences of publishing such materials. Since the Russian legislation at that time had not established a clear procedure for annulling the distribution permit, section 32 of the Mass Media Act had been applied by analogy which, in the Government’s view, was the only accessible mechanism for exercising State control over distribution of extremist materials in Russia. The decision to revoke the permit had pursued the legitimate aims of the protection of national security, prevention of disorders and crimes of extremist nature. There had been a trend towards an increasing number of extremist publications: of the twenty-six publications printed between 1998 and 2009, eleven had been issued after 2007.

The Court’s assessment
213. The Court notes that under Russian law, distribution of foreign printed periodicals in Russia requires a distribution permit. The decision to withdraw the permit had prevented both the German publisher of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazines and the Administrative Centre from distributing them in Russian territory and exposed individual applicants to administrative sanctions for doing so. Accordingly, it amounted to an interference with their freedom to impart information under Article 10 of the Convention which must also be examined in the light of the requirements of Article 9 (see Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, cited above, §§ 24-25).

214. On the legal basis for the interference, the Court reiterates that the expression “prescribed by law” not only refers to a statutory basis in domestic law, but also requires that the law be formulated with sufficient precision to enable the individual to foresee the consequences which a given action may entail. The law must afford a measure of legal protection against arbitrary interferences by public authorities with the rights safeguarded by the Convention, and indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of any discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise (see Hasan and Chaush, cited above, § 84). The scope of a restriction must not be extended to the detriment of the person concerned, for instance by analogy (see Karademirci and Others v. Turkey, nos. 37096/97 and 37101/97, § 40, ECHR 2005‑I).

215. In the instant case, the domestic courts at all levels of jurisdiction recognised that Russian law did not specify the conditions under which a permit to distribute foreign printed periodicals could be withdrawn (see paragraphs 68, 69 and 70 above). The reference to section 32 of the Mass Media Act was not part of the original decision to revoke the permit and appeared for a first time in a judicial decision taken six months after that provision had been repealed (see paragraphs 71 and 121 above). In any event, that provision set out the conditions for revoking broadcasting licences which were granted and regulated by their own set of norms. The court did not explain why that particular provision and not another should be applied “by analogy”, did not refer to any jurisprudence in which such an application “by analogy” had been previously made and did not indicate which of the three conditions set out in that provision had not been met. In these circumstances, the Court finds that the interference did not have a clear and foreseeable legal basis.

216. The Court also considers that, in addition to lacking a clear and foreseeable legal basis, the interference was not “necessary in a democratic society”. The decision to withdraw the permit had not been preceded with any advance notice or warning to the applicants, depriving them of the opportunity to put right the alleged violation (see Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic, cited above, § 57). The Court also concurs in the assessment made by the Moscow City Commercial Court that the measure was excessively broad in its effects in that it affected the distribution of any and all issues of the magazines, of which only certain issues were declared extremist (see paragraph 68 above). After the Moscow City Commercial Court’s decision had been overturned on appeal, no assessment of the proportionality of the measure was conducted in the subsequent proceedings.

217. As regards the individual applicants prosecuted for “distributing” unregistered media, the Court notes that the proceedings against them were brought at a time when the judicial challenge to the withdrawal decision was still being considered. It does not appear that the applicants were aware that they were breaking the law by continuing to use the magazines in their religious ministry or that they had in fact engaged in the “distribution” in so far as the publications had been obtained by the authorities on their own initiative including through the use of special police measures (see paragraph 72 above). By seeking to sanction the applicants without waiting for the outcome of the proceedings, the domestic authorities revealed their determination to impose undue burden on the exercise of the right to freedom of religion by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses (compare Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic, cited above, § 57). Accordingly, the interference with their rights was not “necessary in a democratic society”.

218. There has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the withdrawal of the distribution permit and the prosecution of the applicants for distributing unregistered media.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 10 OF THE CONVENTION, READ IN THE LIGHT OF ARTICLE 9, ON ACCOUNT OF DECLARING THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES’ WEBSITE “EXTREMIST”
219. The applicants complained that the decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website “extremist” (see section G of the Facts) had no basis in Russian law and was not necessary in a democratic society. They relied in particular on Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention which have been cited above.

Admissibility
220. The Court considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
221. The applicants submitted that the material on jw.org was crucially important to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ public ministry of and Bible study, as religious publications and videos were available in more than 900 spoken languages and also in many of the world’s sign languages. The website was also accessible to the visually impaired believers by being compatible with software that audibly reports cursor movements. Blocking access to jw.org had deprived the individual applicants of a significant means of exercising their right to freedom to receive information and ideas and deprived applicant Watchtower New York of its right to impart information to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and other interested persons in Russia. The banning of the website as extremist had also exposed all Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia to criminal sanctions for attempting to access it or encouraging others to do so. That interference had to be seen in the light of the Russian authorities’ simultaneous decision to prohibit all imports of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature and to seize thousands of copies of the Bible and other literature. The interference was not “prescribed by law” because the applicants could not foresee that the entire website would be declared extremist due to the presence of three “extremist” publications, representing a miniscule fraction (0.07%) of the 3,900 religious items available on the site. Watchtower New York had not received a prior warning or notice of the impending ban. The interference also did not pursue a legitimate aim because as soon as Watchtower New York had found out of the first-instance court’s decision it had blocked access to the three “extremist” publication from within Russia. That happened more than fourteen months before the Supreme Court had ruled to ban the entire website. Lastly, the interference had not been necessary in a democratic society. The website did not contain “extremist material” and none of the publications had contained calls to violence, hatred or intolerance. In any event, declaring the entire website “extremist” was disproportionate. If the authorities had a legitimate concern, they could have blocked access to the offending web pages only. This was done in many other cases: the Federal List of Extremist Materials included hundreds of “extremist” web pages from YouTube or social network websites which however had not been declared “extremist” in their entirety.

222. The Government reiterated that a number of publications which had been available on the website had been found to be extremist by the Rostov court. The fact that those publications were available for downloading from the website had been sufficient to restrict access to that website. Access to the blocked website could be restored if the offending information had been removed. However, Watchtower New York had not produced evidence that it had deleted such information and had informed the telecoms regulator accordingly. Watchtower New York had been informed by registered mail about the date and time of the cassation hearing before the Supreme Court.

The Court’s assessment
(a) General principles

223. The Court reiterates that owing to its accessibility and capacity to store and communicate vast amounts of information, the Internet has now become one of the principal means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom of expression and information. The Internet provides essential tools for participation in activities and discussions concerning political issues and issues of general interest, it enhances the public’s access to news and facilitates the dissemination of information in general. Article 10 of the Convention guarantees “everyone” the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas. It applies not only to the content of information but also to the means of its dissemination, for any restriction imposed on the latter necessarily interferes with that freedom. The measures blocking access to websites are bound to have an influence on the accessibility of the Internet and, accordingly, engage the responsibility of the respondent State under Article 10 (see Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, no. 3111/10, §§ 48-54, ECHR 2012).

(b) Existence of interference

224. For the Court, it is clear that the declaration of an extremist nature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website which was owned and operated by applicant Watchtower New York (see paragraph 79 above) interfered with its right to impart information to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and other interested persons in Russia. The measure which prevented visitors to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website from accessing its content from within Russia amounted to “interference by a public authority” with the right to receive and impart information since Article 10 guarantees not only the right to impart information but also the right of the public to receive it (see Cengiz and Others v. Turkey, nos. 48226/10 and 14027/11, § 56, ECHR 2015 (extracts), and OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, nos. 12468/15 and 2 others, § 29, 23 June 2020). Since the affected material was of a religious nature, the interference must also be examined in the light of the requirements of Article 9 of the Convention.

225. As regards the individual applicants, the Court reiterates that the answer to the question whether an applicant can claim to be a victim of a measure blocking access to a website will depend on an assessment of all circumstances of each case, in particular the way in which the person concerned uses the website and the potential impact of the measure on him or her. For the applicants having various types of perceptive limitations, such as a visual or hearing impairment, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website was the only accessible source of downloadable religious materials addressing their specific needs: audio books and descriptions, sign language commentaries, etc. It follows that the blocking of those applicants’ access to the specifically adapted religious materials available on jw.org amounted to interference with their right to receive information under Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9.

226. Lastly, in so far as the blocking of access to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website affected the religious literature accessible from within Russia which was a crucial element of religious ministry, it also constituted interference with the Administrative Centre’s right to receive and impart information under Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, which the Administrative Centre enjoyed as a collective body established to uphold and defend the rights and interests of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see Association for Solidarity with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others, cited above, § 87).

(c) Justification for the interference

227. The Court reiterates that interference must be “prescribed by law”, pursue one or more of the legitimate aims and be “necessary in a democratic society” to achieve those aims. In the present case the questions of compliance with the law and of the existence of a legitimate aim cannot be dissociated from the question of whether the interference was “necessary in a democratic society”. The Court will therefore examine them together, having regard to its findings in similar cases concerning the blocking of access to websites in Russia (see, among others, OOO Flavus and Others, cited above, and Bulgakov v. Russia, no. 20159/15, 23 June 2020).

228. As the Court has previously found, Russian law contains no procedural safeguards capable of protecting website owners from arbitrary interference. It does not provide for any form of their participation in the blocking proceedings and does not give them an opportunity to remove the offending content before the blocking decision takes effect. Nor does it require the authorities to assess the impact of the blocking measure, to justify the necessity and proportionality of the interference with the freedom of expression online, and to ascertain that the blocking measure strictly targets the unlawful content and has no arbitrary or excessive effects, including those arising from blocking access to the entire website (see OOO Flavus and Others, cited above, §§ 40-41).

229. In the instant case, Watchtower New York as the owner of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website had not received a warning or any other notice that the website was allegedly in breach of the extremism legislation. The prosecutor’s application for a blocking order had been prepared without advance notification to the parties whose rights and interests were likely to be affected. Watchtower New York had not been informed of the prosecutor’s application or afforded the opportunity to remove the allegedly illegal content before the application was lodged with the court. Nor had it been invited to participate in the blocking hearing on the basis that the blocking would not interfere with its rights (see paragraph 80 above). Even after the court of appeals acknowledged that its participation in the proceedings was essential, it had not been properly summoned to the Supreme Court hearing at which the blocking decision was reinstated (see paragraph 84 above). The Court finds that the blocking proceedings which were conducted in the website owner’s absence were not adversarial in nature and did not provide a forum in which the interested parties could have been heard (see Bulgakov, cited above, §§ 35-36).

230. Turning next to the scope of the decision declaring the entire website “extremist”, the Court reiterates that the wholesale blocking of access to a website is an extreme measure which deliberately disregards the distinction between lawful and unlawful information that a website may contain and renders inaccessible a large amount of content which has not been identified as unlawful. Blocking access to the entire website has the practical effect of extending the scope of the blocking order far beyond the unlawful content that was originally targeted (see OOO Flavus and Others, cited above, § 37).

231. The Court has found above that the decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious publications “extremist” disclosed a violation of the Convention. This finding applies to the publications, brochures and magazines which had been referenced in the request for a blocking order. However, even if there had been exceptional circumstances justifying the blocking of unlawful content, the measure blocking access to the entire website would have needed a justification of its own, separately and distinctly from the justification underlying the order targeting unlawful content, and by reference to the criteria established by the Court under Article 10 of the Convention. Blocking access to legitimate content can never be an automatic consequence of another, more restricted blocking measure because indiscriminate blocking measure – interfering as it does with lawful content as a collateral effect of a measure aimed solely at illegal content – amounts to arbitrary interference with the rights of website owners (see OOO Flavus and Others, cited above, § 38).

232. The Government did not indicate a statutory basis or put forward a justification for the wholesale blocking order affecting the international website of Jehovah’s Witnesses in its entirety. They did not explain what legitimate aim or “pressing social need” the domestic authorities pursued by blocking access to the entire website which contained a large amount of undisputedly lawful content, including material meeting the particular perceptive needs of the individual applicants. The failure to provide a justification for that broad blocking measure is particularly salient in the light of the fact that Watchtower New York had taken down the offending publications upon learning of the District Court’s decision. This fact was acknowledged in the Regional Court’s appeal judgment of 22 January 2014 which also considered that the blocking of the entire website was excessive (see paragraph 82 above). By the time the Supreme Court decided to reinstate the blocking order in December 2014, there had been no arguably unlawful content on the website. Accordingly, the Court finds that the decision to block access to the entire website was unlawful and disproportionate already at a time when the website contained a few items of the allegedly extremist material. This finding applies a fortiori to the blocking of the entire website after that material had been removed (see Bulgakov, cited above, § 38).

233. As the interference was not “prescribed by law” and was not “necessary in a democratic society”, there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the declaration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website “extremist”.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 9 OF THE CONVENTION, READ IN THE LIGHT OF ARTICLE 11, ON ACCOUNT OF THE FORCED DISSOLUTION OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRE AND LOCAL RELIGIOUS ORGANISATIONS

234. The applicants complained that the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre and the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses (section H of the Facts) had violated their rights to freedom of religion and association. The Court will consider this complaint under Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11.

Admissibility
235. The Government submitted that the complaint was inadmissible by virtue of Article 17 of the Convention. The Court dismisses the objection for the same reasons as above. It further considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention or inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
236. The applicants submitted that that the liquidation decision had been the culmination of the State’s decades-long attack against Jehovah’s Witnesses to silence and outlaw a peaceful religious minority with had begun in January 2007 when a deputy Prosecutor General directed subordinate prosecutors to find “extremist material” in the religious literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses. During the liquidation proceedings, the Supreme Court denied the Administrative Centre and the 395 LROs the most basic procedural rights, refusing to ensure their effective participation in the proceedings. The liquidation decision had been grossly disproportionate, as 387 out of the 395 local organisations had never been charged, much less convicted, of any “extremist” activity in the twenty or more years of their legal existence and the decision to ban them as “extremist” was nothing but arbitrary. The Administrative Centre had likewise in all the years of its existence never been charged, much less convicted, of any “extremist” activity. Liquidating the Administrative Centre for the alleged activity of third parties had been also disproportionate. The true effect of the liquidation decision had been severe. It had criminalised the peaceful religious activity of the more than 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia by making it a criminal offence for them to meet together to read and study the Bible, to publicly share religious beliefs, and to teach their children their beliefs and practices. In April 2018 alone four religious ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been arrested and put in pre-trial detention for conducting a meeting of worship. The Ministry of Education had issued a circular letter to specify that children of Jehovah’s Witnesses should be “re-socialised”. Hundreds of families who are Jehovah’s Witnesses had fled Russia. Such severe measures could not be justified as “necessary” in a free and democratic society.

237. The Government submitted that the court decisions to dissolve the Administrative Centre and the LROs had been based on the provisions of the Constitution, the Religions Act and the Suppression of Extremism Act. They had also pursued the important public interests to protect the rights of others, public order and national security and to oppose extremist activities. Diligent action was required to avoid a situation where the cumulative adverse effect of extremist activities would reach the point of turning the risk of harm to individual rights or public order into actual harm to citizens’ health or life, public order or other public and State interests. The interference had also been necessary in a democratic society as over the previous seven-year period, a total of eighty-eight publications had been declared extremist, eighteen warning letters had been issued cautioning against the continuation of extremist activities, eight LROs had been dissolved for extremist activities and further extremist acts had been committed after the Ministry of Justice’s warning letter. In those circumstances, forced dissolution had been the only measure capable of preventing harm to the health and lives of citizens, public order and national security. The Government emphasised that the liquidation decision did not restrict or prohibit anyone from practising the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses on an individual basis.

238. The third party, ADF International, submitted that the Russian authorities had enforced restrictions on religious minorities which had been often framed as protection against “extremism”. They referred, by way of example, to the 2016 “anti-terrorism” legislation which prohibited foreigners from engaging in “missionary activities” and required anyone engaged in “evangelisation” to carry permits that showed their connection to a registered religious group. The third party also provided a summary of the Court’s case-law under Articles 9 and 14 of the Convention.

239. Responding to the AFD International’s submissions, the Government asserted that the allegations of undue pressure being brought to bear on religious minorities in Russia were unsubstantiated. In their view, holding a religious organisation liable for engaging in extremist activities did not violate the constitutional right to freedom of association.

The Court’s assessment
(a) Existence of interference

240. The Court holds that the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre and the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses amounted to interference with these organisations’ and their members’ rights under Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11. The dissolution decision had the effect of stripping the organisations of legal personality and preventing them from exercising a wide range of rights reserved under Russian law to registered religious organisations. It also deprived the individual applicants, as their members, of the right to manifest their religion in community with others and to carry out activities which were an integral element of their religious practice (see paragraph 146 above).

(b) Justification for the interference

241. The Court refers to a summary of general principles concerning forced dissolution of associations in paragraphs 149 and 150 above. It emphasises that the right of believers to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that believers will be allowed to associate freely, without arbitrary State intervention, and that the dissolution of an existing religious organisation requires very serious reasons by way of justification in order to be recognised as “necessary in a democratic society” (see Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic, cited above, § 54). It also reiterates that the principle of effectiveness – an overarching principle of the Convention underlying every Convention provision securing a human right – requires that all human rights enshrined and guaranteed therein must be protected practically and effectively and not in a theoretical or illusory manner.

242. The decision on the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre and the LROs relied crucially on earlier decisions to ban the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and to declare their publications “extremist”. Since the Court has found that these earlier decisions violated the applicants’ Convention rights because they lacked a sufficiently foreseeable legal basis (see paragraphs 189 and 207 above), this finding also vitiates the dissolution decision. Nevertheless, it considers the applicants’ claim that the dissolution decision was “the culmination of the State’s decades-long attack against Jehovah’s Witnesses to silence and outlaw a peaceful religious minority” to be sufficiently serious to warrant an examination of its merits from the standpoint of the requirement that the authorities must in good faith fulfil the duty of neutrality and impartiality towards all religious organisations (see the case-law cited in paragraph 187 above).

243. The Court stresses that legal formalities should not be used to hinder the freedom of association of groups disliked by the authorities or advocating ideas that the authorities would like to suppress. In cases where the circumstances are such as to raise doubts in that regard, the Court must verify whether an apparently neutral measure interfering with an organisation’s activities in effect seeks to penalise it on account of the views that it promotes (see The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden – PIRIN and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 2), nos. 41561/07 and 20972/08, § 83, 18 October 2011). To consider the applicants’ allegation that the Russian authorities singled out Jehovah’s Witnesses for a campaign of harassment and persecution, the Court will need to review the sequence of events in their entirety, rather than as separate and distinct incidents, in order to place the interference in its proper context (see Ivanova v. Bulgaria, no. 52435/99, § 83, 12 April 2007).

244. Since their emergence in the late nineteenth century Jehovah’s Witnesses have established a legal presence in many parts in the world, including all European States which are now members of the Council of Europe. In those States, they have been allowed to practise their religion in community with others, although they may have experienced delays and difficulties in obtaining formal recognition (see, among others, Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 155). Since the early 1990s Jehovah’s Witnesses had also been allowed to practice their religion lawfully in Russia and register their religious organisations at the federal and regional levels. Almost four hundred local regional organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were established throughout Russia (ibid., § 156).

245. After the introduction of the new Religions Act which required religious organisations to apply for new registration, Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have been singled out for a differential treatment, along with other religious organisations deemed to be “non-traditional religions”, including the Salvation Army and the Church of Scientology. The Court found that they had all been denied new registration on spurious legal grounds and that, in doing so, the Russian authorities in the capital city of Moscow had not “acted in good faith” and had “neglected their duty of neutrality and impartiality” (see Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v. Russia, no. 72881/01, § 97, ECHR 2006‑XI; Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia, no. 18147/02, § 97, 5 April 2007; and Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 157 and 181).

246. In parallel, the authorities had instituted forced dissolution proceedings against the Moscow organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses under the provisions of the new Religions Act. The proceedings ended in 2004 with a decision on the forced dissolution of the organisation and a permanent ban on its activities (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 54-67). Following a detailed analysis of the different justifications advanced by the authorities in support of that decision, the Court found that the domestic courts did not adduce “relevant and sufficient” reasons to show that the Moscow community forced families to break up, infringed the rights and freedoms of its members or third parties, incited its followers to commit suicide or refuse medical care, impinged on the rights of non-Witness parents or their children, or encouraged members to refuse to fulfil any duties established by law. It also held that the sanction of dissolution had been disproportionate to whatever legitimate aim that had been pursued and found a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11 (ibid., § 160).

247. The subsequent developments are particularly significant for the present case. In 2006 the extremism legislation was amended to expand the definition of “extremist activities” by removing the requirement that the allegedly “extremist” activities must contain elements of violence in order to be categorised as such (see paragraph 158 above). Thereafter, a deputy Prosecutor General sent out a circular letter which targeted all “foreign religious associations” in general and named Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. While acknowledging that they had committed no violations of Russian law, the letter instructed regional prosecutors – as part of their oversight powers over other State agencies – to verify whether the media regulator had properly fulfilled its duty to search for indicators of extremism in the publications of “foreign religious organisations”. Jehovah’s Witnesses came under particular scrutiny due to the fact that they owned printing facilities (see paragraph 8 above).

248. A newly expanded definition of “extremist activities” and the instructions from the deputy Prosecutor General spurred prosecutors in various regions of Russia to seek court decisions declaring dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses religious publications “extremist”, in the absence of any elements of violence or hatred (see paragraphs 10 and 27-49 above). The categorisation of the publications as “extremist” exposed individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious organisations using them in religious ministry and worship to the prosecution on charges of “mass dissemination of extremist material” and the forced dissolution (see paragraphs 62 and 107 above). As the Court has found above, the formal nature of the offence of “mass dissemination” left no room for assessing the proportionality of the interference in the light of the Convention standards (see paragraph 206 above). The “extremist” categorisation was also used to ban the distribution of all issues of two Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazines and to block access to the entire website of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Court has held that those decisions were not lawful and were not justified in their excessive breadth (see paragraphs 216 and 233 above).

249. The authorities’ campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses did not stop at targeting the organisations and individuals found to be in possession of the banned “extremist” literature. In 2016 a deputy Prosecutor General issued an anti-extremism warning to the national organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Administrative Centre (see paragraph 86 above). Although the Administrative Centre had not been found guilty of a single violation of Russian law in the more than twenty years of its existence, the Suppression of Extremism Act allowed the authorities to hold it objectively liable for any transgressions committed by the LROs which were considered to be part of its structure. Under the Suppression of Extremism Act, the warning was the first step in the procedure leading to the dissolution of the warned organisation if new “indicators of extremism” had been identified within twelve months of the date of warning (see paragraph 115 above).

250. Less than two weeks after the twelve-month time-limit had expired, the Ministry of Justice applied for the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre, claiming that more LROs had been found guilty of possessing or using “extremist” religious publications in the intervening period and that the Administrative Centre had allegedly failed to prevent such “extremist activities” on their part (see paragraph 87 above). Significantly for the Court’s analysis, the claim for the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre cited no evidence of “extremist activities” on its own part and no conviction of extremist offences or explained how it could have been possible to foresee that publications it had imported years ago would be subsequently declared “extremist”. The suspension of the activities of the Administrative Centre by the same-day decision, on the authority of an executive agency, without waiting for the outcome of judicial review, is indicative of the authorities’ determination in seeking to put an end to the existence of the organisation (see Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic, cited above, § 57).

251. The scope of the claim for the forced dissolution of the Administrative Centre went beyond resolving the fate of the national organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as the existence of any and all religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Russia was also at stake in those proceedings. This was so because the authorities claimed that LROs should be liquidated along with the Administrative Centre as part of its structure, notwithstanding their legal status as separate and independent legal entities. Leaving aside the question whether or not such course of action was compatible with Russian law, the Court notes that 387 out of the 395 LROs had not been charged, much less convicted, of any “extremist” activity in the twenty or more years of their legal existence and that no extremist charges against them were levelled in the proceedings against the Administrative Centre. The only justification for their forced dissolution was that they were “financed, coordinated and directed” by the same organisation (the Administrative Centre) as the remaining eight LROs liquidated on extremist charges. The Court considers this connection too tenuous to meet the “very serious reasons” standard which needs to be satisfied in case of a forced dissolution of an association.

252. However, of even greater concern to the Court is the fact that the forced dissolution proceedings were fundamentally flawed in that the LROs, whose very legal existence was in jeopardy, were not informed of the proceedings and were not invited to participate. Their representatives learned of the proceedings from media reports and unsuccessfully attempted to join them. Their application to that effect, and another one from the Administrative Centre, were rejected and an appeal was not even considered (see paragraph 88 above). The LROs were thus prevented from making submissions and putting forward arguments against their forced dissolution. They were also barred from lodging an appeal after the judgment had been passed (see paragraph 91 above). The Court considers that the Supreme Court’s finding that the judgment which ordered their liquidation and confiscation of their property “did not concern their rights and obligations” was arbitrary.

253. The Court lastly reiterates that it fell to the Supreme Court, as the ultimate guardian of individual rights and freedoms, to consider the matter in the light of the Convention standards and to carry out a balancing exercise by examining whether the interference with the applicants’ rights was proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued. Yet the Court cannot find that a genuine balancing exercise has been undertaken in the present case. As noted above, the Supreme Court did not allow the organisations directly affected by its judgment to submit arguments in their defence. Nor did it acknowledge, much less consider at any length, the effect of its dissolution, banning and confiscation decision on the rights of 175,000 individual Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who were put before a stark and impossible choice: to reduce their religious activities to praying in isolation, without the company and support of fellow believers and without a place for worship, or to face criminal prosecution on charges of “continuing the activities of an extremist organisation”. It did not explain who the “others” were whose rights were supposedly in need of protection, given that Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been found to have used any coercion or improper methods of conversion, or what kind of “real threat” to public order and security the avowedly peaceful and non-violent religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses posed. The Court finds that the Supreme Court’s judgment relied on generalities instead of actually engaging in reasoning and trying to find a balance between competing rights. These shortcomings were not remedied on appeal.

254. Considering the above elements and the sequence of events, the Court finds that the forced dissolution of all religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia was not merely the result of a neutral application of legal provisions but disclosed indications of a policy of intolerance by the Russian authorities towards the religious practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses designed to cause Jehovah’s Witnesses to abandon their faith and to prevent others from joining it. The use of an excessively broad wording of the extremism legislation to disband the communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses across Russia, the breaking-up of their religious meetings, the confiscation of their religious publications, searches in their homes and places of worship, surveillance by the security services, and other forms of interference with their religious practices reinforce this conclusion. The Court reiterates that respect for religious diversity undoubtedly represents one of the most important challenges to be faced today; for that reason, the authorities must perceive religious diversity not as a threat but as a source of enrichment (see İzzettin Doğan and Others, cited above, § 109). By seeking to suppress the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses as they did, the Russian authorities failed to act in good faith and breached the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality vis‑à‑vis the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

255. There has therefore been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11, on account of the dissolution of the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLES 5 AND 9 OF THE CONVENTION ON ACCOUNT OF CRIMINAL PROSECUTION OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES

256. The applicants concerned complained that their criminal conviction on charges of “continuing the activities of an extremist organisation” for organising services of worship and practicing their religion in community with others (see section I of the Facts) had violated their rights to freedom of religion and association under Articles 9 and 11 of the Convention. Mr Christensen also complained that his pre-trial detention had been incompatible with the requirements of Article 5 of the Convention, of which the relevant parts read as follows:

“1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law:

(c) the lawful arrest or detention of a person effected for the purpose of bringing him before the competent legal authority on reasonable suspicion of having committed an offence …

3. Everyone arrested or detained in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1 (c) of this Article shall be … entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial. Release may be conditioned by guarantees to appear for trial.”

Admissibility
257. As regards Mr Christensen’s initial application concerning his pre‑trial detention imposed for what he considered to be a legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of religion (no. 39417/17), the Government submitted that the complaint under Article 9 was premature and inadmissible for non‑exhaustion of domestic remedies, as the sentence had not yet been passed.

258. The Court reiterates that measures capable of having a chilling effect on the exercise of a Convention right may confer on the affected individuals the status of a “victim” of an alleged violation even in the absence of a final conviction and that the existence of a deprivation of liberty would be indicative of interference with that right (see Dilipak v. Turkey, no. 29680/05, § 50, 15 September 2015, and Döner and Others v. Turkey, no. 29994/02, § 88, 7 March 2017). In so far as Mr Christensen’s arrest and detention prevented him from continuing to hold services of worship in community with his fellow believers, it falls to the Court to verify whether that measure was designed to repress the exercise of his Convention rights and stifle the spreading of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see Nolan and K. v. Russia, no. 2512/04, § 62, 12 February 2009, and Cox v. Turkey, no. 2933/03, § 28, 20 May 2010). By lodging an appeal against the detention order, he afforded the Russian authorities the opportunity to redress, through their own legal system, the alleged violation of his right to freedom of religion and has therefore exhausted the domestic remedies. In any event, the Government’s objection has become moot now that Mr Christensen’s conviction was pronounced and became final.

259. The Court considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
260. The applicants emphasised that prosecuting and criminally convicting them for organising and attending religious services was a form of State coercion calculated to intimidate them and also their co-believers into abandoning their faith. The trial courts had considered dozens of hours of covert audio and video recordings of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ meetings but had not identified a single “extremist” expression allegedly uttered by any of them or any “extremist” activities such as those that incite violence or religious hatred. In any event, not one of the applicants’ activities had been prohibited by law. Possessing and using religious texts enjoyed the protection of Article 9. It was not illegal to meet together for peaceful religious worship, and the right of “conducting services of worship not associated with the distribution of extremist literature” was recognised in the liquidation decision concerning the Oryol LRO. Nor was it illegal to receive donations to meet the costs of renting a place for religious services. Minors had taken part in the religious services at the initiative of their parents who were also Jehovah’s Witnesses. The interference did not pursue any legitimate aim. By holding the applicants criminally liable, simply for continuing religious services, the Russian authorities imposed a disproportionate and unjustifiable burden on the exercise of their freedom of religion and association. In addition, the applicants’ criminal records had limited available employment and exposed them to risk of imprisonment should they “re-offend”. Two applicants who were parents of a young girl had left Russia and successfully applied for asylum abroad.

261. The Government submitted that the founding members of the Taganrog LRO could not have been unaware of the liquidation decision which had been published on the websites of the Regional Court and the Ministry of Justice. Nevertheless, acting in an organised group, they had continued the activities of the banned LRO and involved minors into those activities. In the case of Mr Christensen, the court remanded him in custody because it was determined that he could put pressure on witnesses, destroy evidence or flee Russia. Mr Christensen must have been well aware that he was engaging in unlawful activities as he had restricted access to the Kingdom Hall only to pass holders and urged his fellow believers to exercise caution and discretion in the performance of their duties. His activities fully overlapped with those of the banned Oryol LRO; they were carried out in a place of worship supported by donations and included the distribution of religious literature, which is characteristic of a religious organisation since, under Russian law, religious groups cannot own places of worship and distribute literature. Correspondence with the banned Administrative Centre had been found on his computer, and audio surveillance had recorded him discussing the names of persons who could be sent for training to the Administrative Centre’s management school. The Government concluded that all applicants had been prosecuted and convicted for organising, and participating in, the activities of the banned organisations. Their conviction was not related to their religious beliefs and was balanced against the public interest in protecting national security and preventing extremist offences.

262. The Government of Denmark, in their comments on Mr Christensen’s case, submitted that there had been no basis for the charges against him. He had never been a member of the Oryol LRO, nor had it ever been possible for him to become a member because foreign nationals were prohibited from being members of religious organisations under Russian law. Moreover, the liquidation decision had explicitly stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not prohibited from conducting services of worship not associated with the distribution of “extremist” literature. Mr Christensen had reasonably expected that he would be entitled to conduct services of worship of the Tsentralnoye congregation.

263. In response to the Government of Denmark’s comments, the Government submitted that Mr Christensen had been found criminally liable for extremist activities rather than for a manifestation of his religious beliefs.

The Court’s assessment
(a) Existence of interference

264. The Court reiterates that the imposition of criminal sanctions for manifestation of religious beliefs amounts to an interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 § 1 of the Convention (see Kokkinakis, cited above, § 36, and Manoussakis and Others, cited above, § 36).

265. The parties disagreed on the nature of the activities which had been sanctioned by the Russian authorities. For the Government, the prosecution and conviction of the applicants were related not to the exercise of their right to freedom of religion but to their attempts to revive the activities of a banned extremist organisation and to participate in them. The applicants maintained that they had been punished for merely practising their faith and conducting services of worship together with fellow believers. The Court will therefore review the findings of the domestic courts to determine whether or not the sanction was imposed on them for practising their religion in community with others.

266. In the Taganrog and Oryol trials, the Russian courts held that the continuation of the activities of the banned religious organisations consisted of the following elements: organising and conducting religious meetings; opening, closing and cleaning the premises where religious meetings were held and determining the order of speakers at meetings (Mr Christensen); studying and discussing religious literature available on paper or on the Internet; preaching Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine on blood transfusion and conscientious objection; assigning members of the congregation, including minors, to perform religious duties; bringing new members into the congregation, and collecting donations for the needs of the congregation (see paragraphs 101-104 and 110 above).

267. The Court reiterates that Article 9 lists a number of forms which manifestation of one’s religion or belief may take, namely worship, teaching, practice and observance. It protects the right of believers to meet peacefully in order to worship in the manner prescribed by their religion and also the right to provide, open and maintain places or buildings devoted to religious worship (see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. the United Kingdom, no. 7552/09, § 30, 4 March 2014, and Cumhuriyetçi Eğitim ve Kültür Merkezi Vakfi v. Turkey, no. 32093/10, § 41, 2 December 2014). Collecting donations is also an important aspect of freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention, for without financial resources, religious associations might be unable to provide religious services or ensure their survival (see Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah v. France, no. 8916/05, §§ 49 and 53, 30 June 2011).

268. In so far as the domestic judgments appeared to suggest that it was sufficient that the right to manifest one’s religion “individually” was allowed (see paragraph 110 above), the Court reiterates that the right to manifest one’s religion “in community with others” has always been regarded as an essential part of the freedom of religion and that the two alternatives “either alone or in community with others” in Article 9 of the Convention cannot be considered as mutually exclusive, or as leaving a choice to the authorities, but only as recognising that religion may be practised in either form (see X. v. the United Kingdom, no. 8160/78, Commission decision of 12 March 1981, Decisions and Reports 22, p. 27).

269. Accordingly, the Court finds that the applicants were sanctioned for the conduct which amounted to the exercise of their right to freedom of religion in community with others. It notes in this connection that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reached the same conclusion in the cases concerning the arrest and prosecution of other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia on substantially similar charges (see paragraph 136 above). There has therefore been an interference with the applicants’ rights protected under Article 9 of the Convention.

(b) Justification for the interference

270. The Court has found above that both the decision to liquidate the Taganrog LRO as an “extremist” organisation and the various decisions to categorise the Jehovah’s Witnesses publication as “extremist” – which subsequently laid the basis for the decision to liquidate the Oryol LRO – rested on an arbitrarily broad definition of “extremist activities” in Russian law and disclosed, in particular, a violation of Article 9 of the Convention (see paragraphs 157-159 and 201 above).

271. These findings are applicable to the complaint of the applicants’ criminal prosecution and conviction, as the grounds for the prosecution and conviction of the applicants were no different from the reasons underlying the decisions to dissolve the Taganrog LRO and to ban the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Court reiterates that only religious statements and actions involving or calling for violence, hatred or discrimination may warrant suppression as being “extremist”. Accordingly, the authorities were required to demonstrate that the applicants had made any such statements or engaged in any such acts. Yet the texts of the judgments in the Taganrog or Oryol proceedings go no further than paraphrasing the definition of “extremist activities” in the Suppression of Extremism Act and holding that the “extremist motives” in the applicants’ conduct were manifested in particular through proclaiming the superiority of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, rejecting medical assistance in the form of blood transfusions, inciting refusal of military service, and involving minors in religious activities (see paragraphs 101 and 112 above). The courts did not identify any word, deed or action by the applicants which would be motivated or tainted by violence, hatred or discrimination against others. The claim that Mr Christensen’s actions were motivated by religious hatred because he had resumed the activities of an organisation banned as “extremist” was flawed because it conflated alleged actions with motives for such actions and because it cited no evidence in support of the conclusion.

272. The State has a narrow margin of appreciation in the sphere of religious freedom and must advance serious and compelling reasons for an interference with the choices that people may make in pursuance of the religious doctrines provided that such choices remain compatible with the key principles underlying the Convention and are the result of a free and independent decision (see Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, §§ 111-19). Since the authorities failed to demonstrate that the applicants were involved in any socially dangerous activities of an extremist nature, the Court holds that their prosecution and conviction for peacefully practising the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in community with others was based on the impermissibly broad formulation and application of the extremism legislation and also did not pursue any legitimate aim or “pressing social need”.

273. There has therefore been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention on account of the criminal prosecution of the applicants. Having thus found that the entire criminal procedure was tainted with arbitrariness, the Court finds that Mr Christensen’s pre-trial detention and imprisonment were not based on a “reasonable suspicion” of his having committed any offence and was therefore in breach of the requirements of Article 5 of the Convention.

ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 1 OF PROTOCOL No. 1
274. The applicant organisations complained that the decisions to confiscate their publications, places of worship and other property (sections A, B, D and F of the Facts) had violated their right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 provides as follows:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law …

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest …”

Admissibility
275. The Court considers that this complaint is not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.

Merits
Submissions by the parties
276. The applicants submitted that, in addition to “extremist” publications confiscated pursuant to the court orders, a substantial amount of “non-extremist” printed material and electronic devices had been seized from the premises of the applicant organisations and from the individual applicants and never returned. Simple possession of “extremist” material was not an administrative or criminal offence, as only the “mass dissemination” of such material was prohibited under Article 20.29 of the CAO. The interference did not have a legal basis and was arbitrary. As regards the properties transferred to foreign organisations prior to the liquidation decision, the Russian courts had confirmed in their decisions annulling the transfers that the LROs had remained the owners of the properties up to the date on which the liquidation decision became effective.

277. The Government submitted that the confiscation orders had been based on section 13 of the Suppression of Extremism Act, as upheld by the Constitutional Court (see paragraph 124 above). The confiscation orders had pursued the legitimate aim of the protection of rights and freedoms and constitutional order. The authorities had sought to bar access to extremist material for the purpose of preventing its negative impact on the constitutionally important values. Since the LROs had intentionally alienated 269 places of worship, they were no longer the legal owners of those properties and had thus renounced any claim to them.

The Court’s assessment
(a) Existence of interference and the applicable rule

278. The complaint concerns three types of “possessions”: (i) the allegedly “extremist” publications which were seized from the applicants’ homes, places of worship and other premises; (ii) the publications which had not been declared “extremist” and other personal property of the applicants including their computers, notebooks and printed material; (iii) immovable property owned by the Administrative Centre and the LROs.

279. While the Government did not dispute that the applicants were the legal owners of the first and second types of possessions, they did assert that the Administrative Centre and the LROs no longer owned the properties which they had reassigned to foreign entities. Their position however is inconsistent with the view taken by the domestic courts which considered that the transfer deeds had been null and void under Russian law and that the Administrative Centre or the LROs had been the legal owners of the property on the date of the liquidation decision which incorporated an order for their confiscation (see paragraph 94 above).

280. The Court reiterates that both the seizure and retention of objects in criminal proceedings and confiscation measures fall to be considered from the standpoint of the State’s right to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest (see Smirnov v. Russia, no. 71362/01, § 54, 7 June 2007, and Silickienė v. Lithuania, no. 20496/02, § 62, 10 April 2012).

(b) Justification for the interference

281. The first and most important requirement of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is that any interference by a public authority with the peaceful enjoyment of possessions should be “lawful”. In particular, the second paragraph of Article 1, while recognising that States have the right to control the use of property, subjects their right to the condition that it be exercised by enforcing “laws”. The principle of lawfulness presupposes that the applicable provisions of domestic law are sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable in their application (see Smirnov, cited above, § 55).

(i) “Extremist” publications and confiscated property

282. The Court has found above that the decisions to declare the publications “extremist” and to dissolve the religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses were based on an unforeseeable application of extremism legislation (see paragraphs 159, 201 and 242 above). As the confiscation orders in respect of the “extremist” publications and immovable property of the liquidated organisations were integral part of those decisions, the Court finds that they also lacked a clear and foreseeable legal basis and that the interference with the applicants’ “possessions” was not lawful.

(ii) Non-extremist publications and personal property

283. The Court reiterates that retention of material evidence may be necessary in the interests of proper administration of justice, which is a “legitimate aim” in the “general interest” of the community. It has found however that continued retention of personal property items had no justification where such objects were not in themselves an object, instrument or product of any criminal offence, and constituted thus a disproportionate interference with the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions (see Kruglov and Others v. Russia, nos. 11264/04 and 15 others, §§ 144-46, 4 February 2020).

284. The Government did not challenge the applicants’ contention that the consignment of religious literature had not contained any items pronounced “extremist” or otherwise restricted in circulation under Russian law (see paragraphs 74 and 76 above). Similarly, the applicants’ personal items, such as notebooks, magazines and electronic devices, were not in themselves objects, instruments or products of any criminal offence. Nor did the authorities claim that those items had any evidentiary value for the criminal proceedings. In these circumstances, the Court cannot find any legal basis for the domestic authorities’ continued retention of the applicants’ religious literature and personal property.

(iii) Conclusion

285. There has therefore been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 in respect of all types of possessions.

OTHER ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE CONVENTION
286. Lastly, the applicants complained under Article 14 of the Convention, taken in conjunction with Article 9, that they had been discriminated against on account of their religious beliefs, and under Article 6 of the Convention that the applicants who wished to join the dissolution proceedings had been denied that possibility.

287. As Article 6 is applicable to disputes involving the right to freedom of expression and restrictions on dissemination of information (see Kenedi v. Hungary, no. 31475/05, § 33, 26 May 2009), the Court declares these complaints admissible. However, having regard to the facts of the case, the submissions of the parties and its findings above, the Court considers that there is no need to give a separate ruling on the merits of these complaints.

APPLICATION OF ARTICLES 41 AND 46 OF THE CONVENTION

Individual measures
288. Article 46 of the Convention provides in the relevant part:

“1. The High Contracting Parties undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.

2. The final judgment of the Court shall be transmitted to the Committee of Ministers, which shall supervise its execution.”

289. The Court has found above that the criminal prosecution and sentencing of Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of religion has disclosed a violation of the Convention. The Court emphasises that the execution measures that must now be taken by the respondent State, under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers, must be compatible with the conclusions and spirit of this judgment (see Ilgar Mammadov v. Azerbaijan (infringement proceedings) [GC], no. 15172/13, § 182, 29 May 2019).

290. However, where the nature of the violation found is such as to leave no real choice as to the measures required to remedy it, the Court may decide to indicate a specific individual measure (see Assanidze v. Georgia [GC], no. 71503/01, §§ 202-03, ECHR 2004‑II; Del Río Prada v. Spain [GC], no. 42750/09, §§ 138-39, ECHR 2013; and Selahattin Demirtaş v. Turkey (no. 2) [GC], no. 14305/17, § 442, 22 December 2020, with further references). In the present case, it is apparent that the continued prosecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses would entail a prolongation of the violation of their rights and a breach of the obligation on the respondent State to abide by the Court’s judgment in accordance with Article 46 § 1 of the Convention. This view is also consistent with the requirement of release of all imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses addressed to the Russian Government in the Opinion No. 10/2020 by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (see paragraph 136 above). Accordingly, the Court holds that the respondent State must take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses, including by reference to the recently amended guidance by the Supreme Court of Russia (see paragraph 126 above), and release of all Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been deprived of their liberty.

Just satisfaction
291. Article 41 of the Convention provides:

“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”

Pecuniary damage
292. The applicants asked the Court to give the Russian authorities a period of no more than six months to restore the registration of the dissolved organisations and the ownership of the confiscated property. In the alternative, they claimed the value of the properties, reconstruction costs incurred to return them to the state in which they had been seized, and the cost of items which had been held there at the time of seizure. The value of the immovable and movable property, converted into euros (EUR) on the date of submission of the claims and adjusted for inflation, amounted to EUR 91,140 in the case of the Taganrog LRO and EUR 73,276 in the case of the Samara LRO. The twenty-one properties owned by the Administrative Centre and the ninety-seven properties owned by LROs on the date of the liquidation decision were valued at EUR 40,568,252, and the 280 properties which had been transferred to foreign religious organisations of Jehovah’s Witnesses before the liquidation and in respect of which the Russian authorities were seeking to annul transfer deeds, had a total value of EUR 25,510,994. The loss of enjoyment of use of those properties was estimated at EUR 500,000 for the national headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, EUR 300,000 and EUR 200,000 for the St Petersburg and Moscow Assembly Halls respectively, and EUR 10,000 for each of the 395 other properties. In addition, the Administrative Centre claimed EUR 6,243, representing the amount of cash seized from its bank accounts.

293. The individual applicants claimed, in respect of pecuniary damage, the amount of the fines they had paid and the replacement value of the property which had been seized from them. Mr Christensen claimed, in two applications, EUR 1,500 for the replacement value of his computer and other personal items seized from him and EUR 16,344 for the loss of income.

294. The Government submitted that no compensation in respect of pecuniary damage should be awarded because there had been no violation of the applicants’ rights. In their view, the confiscation orders in respect of the applicants’ funds in banks had been “a legitimate act” which could not be considered a violation of the applicants’ rights. They pointed out that the Samara LRO did not complain of a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and disputed the ownership of properties in respect of which the Administrative Centre claimed compensation. They also submitted that a statement of Mr Christensen’s past income was not sufficient evidence of future losses he claimed. Finally, they added that no compensation for loss of enjoyment was due because there had been no violation.

295. The Court reiterates that a clear causal connection must be established between the pecuniary damage alleged and the violation of the Convention that has been found. It has refused to accept claims for loss of income which allegedly resulted from the domestic authorities’ decision to maintain pre-trial detention without sufficient reasons (see Bykov v. Russia [GC], no. 4378/02, § 110, 10 March 2009). The situation in Mr Christensen’s case is however different in that the Court found that not only his pre-trial detention but also his prosecution and imprisonment had been effected in breach of the Convention. It is therefore satisfied that, had it not been for his arrest, detention and conviction on the extremism charges, he would have continued to earn the established and regular income he had had before his imprisonment. Accordingly, the Court awards Mr Christensen the amount of EUR 16,344 in respect of the loss of income. It also awards Mr Christensen and the other applicants the amounts they claimed for the loss of the seized personal property (see the amounts in Appendix II) and the fines they had paid, plus any tax that may be chargeable.

296. The Court further notes that a judgment in which it finds a violation of the Convention imposes on the respondent State a legal obligation to put an end to the breach and make reparation for its consequences in such a way as to restore as far as possible the situation existing before the breach (status quo ante). If the nature of the violation allows for restitutio in integrum, it is the duty of the State held liable to effect it, the Court having neither the power nor the practical possibility of doing so itself. If, however, national law does not allow – or allows only partial – reparation to be made for the consequences of the breach, Article 41 empowers the Court to afford the injured party such satisfaction as appears to it to be appropriate (see Iatridis v. Greece (just satisfaction) [GC], no. 31107/96 § 32, ECHR 2000-XI, and Guiso-Gallisay v. Italy (just satisfaction) [GC], no. 58858/00, § 90, 22 December 2009).

297. The Court has found above that the decisions to dissolve the applicant organisations and confiscate their property had been made in breach of the Convention requirements. The Court’s finding of a violation of the Convention is a ground for reopening domestic proceedings with a view to reviewing the final judgments in the light of the Convention principles (see, among others, Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic, cited above, § 66). The Court considers that such a review would be the most appropriate means of making reparation for the consequences of the violations it has found and restoring the status quo ante, including the return of the confiscated properties to the applicants. Alternatively, should the return of the confiscated properties not be effected within three months of the present judgment becoming final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the respondent State is to pay, in respect of pecuniary damage, the amounts specified in Appendix II, plus any tax that may be chargeable on these amounts.

Non-pecuniary damage
298. The applicants claimed: EUR 20,000 to the Taganrog LRO and the Administrative Centre and EUR 250 to each individual applicant in the case of the Taganrog LRO; EUR 5,000 to the Gorno-Altaysk LRO, EUR 250 to each member of its congregation and EUR 20,000 to the Administrative Centre and two publishers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature; EUR 30,000 to the Samara LRO; EUR 10,000 to Mr Aliyev; EUR 100,000 each to the publisher and distributor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications in the case concerning the withdrawal of the distribution permit; EUR 25,000 each to Watchtower New York and the Administrative Centre and EUR 10,000 to the individual applicants in the case concerning the declaration of the website extremist; EUR 15,000 to each applicant in the case concerning the criminal conviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog; EUR 115,000 to Mr Christensen; EUR 250,000 to the Administrative Centre and EUR 30,000 to each LRO in the cases concerning their forced dissolution.

299. The Government submitted that the claims were excessive and that the finding of a violation, if any, would constitute sufficient just satisfaction.

300. The Court awards EUR 15,000 each or such smaller amount as was actually claimed to the individual applicants who were convicted in criminal proceedings; EUR 7,500 each or such smaller amount as was actually claimed to the liquidated or banned applicant organisations and congregations and to the applicants who were convicted in administrative proceedings; and EUR 1,000 each or such smaller amount as was actually claimed to the other applicants, in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus any tax that may be chargeable (see Appendix II for the amounts awarded).

Punitive damages
301. Some applicants also claimed punitive damages to reflect the particular character of the violations they suffered and to serve as a deterrent in respect of violations of a similar nature by the respondent State.

302. The Court has declined to award “punitive damages” in the past (see Carter v. Russia, no. 20914/07, § 180, 21 September 2021) and finds no reason to depart from its established case-law. It rejects the claims under this head.

Costs and expenses

303. The applicants claimed: EUR 9,000 for the work of their representatives before the Court in the case of Taganrog LRO; EUR 4,483 and EUR 4,500 for the work in the domestic and Strasbourg proceedings respectively in the case of Samara LRO; EUR 9,000 in the case of the Gorno-Altaysk LRO; EUR 3,500 in the case of Mr Aliyev; EUR 22,000 in the case concerning the withdrawal of the distribution permit; EUR 4,500 in the case concerning the banning of the website; EUR 91,078 for the defence of Mr Trotsyuk and other applicants by a team of eight lawyers on 158 court days over a four-year trial and EUR 4,500 for their representation before the Court; EUR 48,450 for Mr Christensen’s representation in the domestic and Strasbourg proceedings; and a total of EUR 35,190 for the work in the cases concerning the dissolution of the Administrative Centre and LROs.

304. The Government submitted that the amounts claimed for costs and expenses were excessive and that evidence of disbursements had not been provided.

305. According to the Court’s case-law, an applicant is entitled to the reimbursement of costs and expenses only in so far as it has been shown that these have been actually and necessarily incurred and are reasonable as to quantum. The dissolution, administrative and criminal proceedings initiated by the Russian authorities to suppress the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Russia were exceptionally complex and generated a substantial amount of legal costs and expenses (compare Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others, cited above, § 211). Making a global assessment of costs and expenses on the basis of the documents submitted, the Court awards the applicants jointly EUR 125,000, plus any tax that may be chargeable to them on that amount, payable into the bank account specified by their representative before the Court.

Default interest
306. The Court considers it appropriate that the default interest rate should be based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank, to which should be added three percentage points.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT

Decides, by a majority, to join the applications;

Declares, unanimously, the applications admissible;

Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11, on account of the forced dissolution of Taganrog LRO and a violation of Article 10 of the Convention on account of the declaration of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications “extremist”;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the declaration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publications “extremist” and the prosecution of individual applicants and the forced dissolution of the Samara LRO for using those publications in their religious ministry;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the withdrawal of the distribution permit and the prosecution of the applicants for distributing unregistered media;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 9, on account of the declaration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ international website “extremist”;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, read in the light of Article 11, on account of the dissolution of the Administrative Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the LROs of Jehovah’s Witnesses;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention on account of the criminal prosecution of the applicants for continuing to practice their religion and a violation of Article 5 of the Convention in respect of Mr Christensen;
Holds, by six votes to one, that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
Holds, unanimously, that it is not necessary to give a separate ruling on the merits of the remaining complaints;
Holds, by four votes to three, that the respondent State is to take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses and release of the imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses;
Holds, by six votes to one, that the respondent State, in order to satisfy the applicants’ claim for pecuniary damage incurred through the confiscation of their properties, is to ensure that the properties be returned to the applicants, within three months of the present judgment becoming final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention;
Holds, by six votes to one, in the alternative that should the respondent State fail to return the properties as specified in the preceding paragraph, it is to pay, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the amounts specified in Appendix II, to be converted into the currency of the respondent State at the rate applicable at the date of settlement in case of the applicants who are resident in Russia;
Holds, by six votes to one,
(a) that the respondent State is to pay, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the amounts specified below and detailed in Appendix II, to be converted into the currency of the respondent State at the rate applicable at the date of settlement in case of the applicants who are resident in Russia:

(i) the amounts claimed, plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of pecuniary damage;

(ii) EUR 15,000 (fifteen thousand euros) each to the individual applicants who were convicted in criminal proceedings; EUR 7,500 (seven thousand five hundred euros) each to the liquidated or banned applicant organisations and congregations and to the applicants who were convicted in administrative proceedings; and EUR 1,000 (one thousand euros) each or such smaller amount as was actually claimed to the other applicants, plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage;

(iii) EUR 125,000 (one hundred and twenty-five thousand euros) jointly to all applicants in respect of costs and expenses, plus any tax that may be chargeable to them, payable into the bank account specified by their representative before the Court;

(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amounts at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points;

Dismisses, unanimously, the remainder of the applicants’ claims in respect of non-pecuniary damage and costs and expenses.

Done in English, and notified in writing on 7 June 2022, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

Milan Blaško Georges Ravarani
Registrar President

DATE: 7 June 2022

APPENDIX I: LIST OF APPLICATIONS ( NOT ADDED)


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