Russia May Outlaw Religious Group

The Associated Press/February 11, 1999
By Anna Dolgov

MOSCOW (AP) -- A judge in a case on banning Jehovah's Witnesses from Moscow rejected all motions made by the prosecution Thursday, and church officials said prosecutors seemed to be growing ``frustrated.''

The civil trial marks the first time prosecutors have used Russia's controversial religion law to try to disband a religious group.

The religion law, adopted in 1997 under strong pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, gives courts the right to outlaw any religious group found guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

The Moscow prosecutor's office charges that the New York-based Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives. But the prosecutor hasn't produced any specific evidence so far, defense attorneys say.

On Thursday, prosecutors asked the court to be allowed to investigate the operations of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Russian cities of Kazan and St. Petersburg, where they claim problems have been registered.

The motion was denied, with judge Yelena Prokhorcheva saying her court only has jurisdiction in Moscow, said Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Judah Schroeder.

Prosecutors also accused the judge of bias toward the defense and demanded that Canadian defense attorney John Burns be removed from the case.

These and other procedural motions brought Thursday were denied.

``The judge was getting quite impatient with the prosecution. Prosecutors were upset, frustrated ... and the judge was not amused,'' Schroeder said in Moscow.

Prosecutors also refused to answer defense attorneys' questions Thursday about the charge that Jehovah's Witnesses destroy families, Schroeder said.

Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.

They maintain that Jehovah's Witnesses create rifts between family members because of their practice of not celebrating national holidays, and threaten lives by pressuring sick people into refusing medical aid.

Russia's religion law also enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the country's main religion. The church is eager to see a ban on Jehovah's Witnesses, which it accuses of ``aggressive proselytism.''

Representatives of the church seemed cautiously optimistic Thursday about the outcome of the trial. Schroeder predicted that ``things would be coming to a head'' when hearings resume Friday.

Defense lawyers argue that Jehovah's Witnesses are not forced to practice their religion, and that any ban on the group would defy the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The trial opened in September, but was postponed in November when the judge told prosecutors they had not fully prepared their case and had withheld evidence from the defense. It resumed Tuesday.

If outlawed, the Jehovah's Witnesses would no longer have the right to hold public services, rent property, or distribute literature in Moscow.

That would be a major blow to the Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim to be the fifth-largest Christian group in Russia, with about 10,000 members in Moscow and more than 250,000 across the country.

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