Jehovah's Witnesses Case Postponed

The Associated Press/February 12, 1999

MOSCOW (AP) -- A judge postponed a trial Friday on banning Jehovah's Witnesses from Moscow because the prosecutor fell ill, a day after church officials said the defense won a major victory.

The case to outlaw the Jehovah's Witnesses from operating in Russia's capital will resume Monday if the prosecutor is feeling better, the judge said.

The Moscow prosecutor's office says the Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives. It seeks to have the group banned under a controversial religion law that gives courts the right to outlaw any religious group that they find guilty of inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

The law was passed under heavy pressure from the Orthodox Church, which is protective of its religious dominance in Russia and has accused the Jehovah's Witnesses of ``aggressive proselytism.''

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.

On Thursday, Judge Yelena Prokhorcheva denied five of the prosecutor's motions, which included widening the investigation against Jehovah's Witnesses to two other Russian cities and asking the judge to remove herself from the case for a perceived bias toward the defense.

Jehovah's Witness spokesman Judah Schroeder said the decisions had left prosecutors ``frustrated.'' He seemed cautiously optimistic about the trial's outcome.

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

The Jehovah's Witnesses 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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