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RUSSIA: European Court repeats calls for Religion Law change

In 2007, Russia liquidated a Pentecostal Biblical Centre, citing unlicensed teaching and violations of fire and sanitary regulations as justification. The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled against Russia in favor of the Centre, noting that other religious groups taught in the same city without licensing and that the Centre was never given opportunity to rectify its alleged violations (none of which posed “a clear and imminent danger” to the students). Time will tell how well Russia meets its legal obligation to abide by the court’s ruling and make the appropriate changes.

By Victoria Arnold

8/5/2014 Russia (Forum 18) – The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg has ruled against Russia in two more cases affecting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during a police raid on their meeting for worship in Moscow, and a Pentecostal centre in Chuvashia which was liquidated for alleged violations of educational, fire and sanitary regulations both won their cases.

The ECtHR also ruled that Russia must bring the Religion Law into line with both the country’s international obligations and with the case-law of the Russian Supreme and Constitutional Courts.

ECtHR judges ruled on 12 June that the liquidation of the Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic for alleged violation of education, fire and sanitary regulations violated the Pentecostals’ right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under Article 9, and was “a harsh measure entailing significant consequences for the believers…”

The Chuvashia Biblical Centre ceased to exist as a legal entity, losing the ability to as itself own or rent property, hire staff, hold bank accounts. In losing its status as a registered religious organisation, it was also deprived of a number of other rights, including the right to distribute religious literature, to establish educational institutions, and to hold services in publicly accessible places.

The Centre was forced to cease operations in August 2007 after the Novocheboksarsk city prosecutor took it to court over alleged infringements of sanitary and fire regulations on its premises, and providing education without a licence. Assistant Pastor Fyodor Matlash of its associated Pentecostal church told Forum 18 in November 2007 that Bible study courses took place, and that “state representatives saw this and said it was unlicensed – and so illegal – educational activity. We told them that it wasn’t that, just discussion about the Holy Scriptures and communal prayer.”

The court case followed visits by officials of Novocheboksarsk Public Prosecutor’s Office, local police and the FSB security service. Matlash stated that “their first question was whether we were publishing extremist literature! We explained that we don’t publish literature of any kind; we don’t have the equipment.” However, the Supreme Court upheld the liquidation in October 2007…

In the Biblical Centre case at the ECtHR, the Russian government argued that the Centre had committed “gross and repeated violations” of the Religion Law and the Education Law by failing to obtain a licence and by teaching “on premises that fell short of sanitary requirements, which created a danger to the life and health of its students.” The Centre countered that it did not offer education under the terms of the Education Law and so could not be bound by the sanitary standards of a formal educational institution, nor did it need to seek a licence for the bible study it provided.

The ECtHR pointed out that other religious organisations in Chuvashia were freely operating Sunday schools at the time without a licence, and that the Centre should have been given the chance to remedy its alleged transgressions, none of which were “irremediable or constituted a clear and imminent danger to the life and limb of the students.”

The ECtHR also found that Article 14 of the Religion Law does not allow for any penalty against religious organisations which contravene it, apart from dissolution, which in this case “put an end to the existence of a long-standing religious organisation and constituted a most severe form of interference, which cannot be regarded as proportionate to whatever legitimate aims were pursued.”

The June 2014 ECtHR judgment legally obliges Russia to “put an end to the violation [..] and to redress, in so far as possible, its effects.” The ECtHR considered a review of the original liquidation order to be the most appropriate means.

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