Russia and the European Court of Human Rights have not always enjoyed an easy relationship.
Though the court dates back to 1959, Russia only accepted its jurisdiction 37 years later in 1996. Even so, according to the court’s records, Russia has continuously ranked as the second-most notorious human rights offender over the years.
With its new “extremism” law targeting religious minorities, Russia is on the fast track to becoming first on the list.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed this controversial piece of legislation into law in June 2016. In Russia, it is known as the “Yarovaya law” and is named after its leading co-author, Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party.
Russian authorities defend the law as a necessary security measure in the fight against radical, fundamentalist groups. While the law’s stated aim is to enable authorities to crack down on militant terrorists and extremist threats, the law has so far primarily been a threat to religious minorities that are anything but militant.
Just recently, ADF International, the global partner of Alliance Defending Freedom, intervened at the European Court of Human Rights in a landmark case concerning religious freedom in Russia. In this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses turned to Europe’s highest court in a desperate attempt to avoid a complete shutdown in Russia.
In 2017, the Russian law was used to label the group as “extremist.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ administrative center and 395 local congregations were subsequently closed.
Though a complete shutdown is drastic, the penalties could have been even worse. Under the new law, engaging in “extremist” activities can be punished with up to six years’ imprisonment and heavy fines. Foreigners face deportation.
But what exactly is considered “extremist” in Russia? Yarovaya and her fellow legislators are rather generous with their definition.
All “missionary activities” have become off-limits without prior government approval. They are defined broadly as “sharing one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbeliever with the aim of involving these individuals in the ‘structure’ or the religious association.”
Any faith group could potentially become an offender. This concern must have crossed the minds of Russian legislators as well, as they exempted certain registered religious groups, namely the Orthodox Church.
Still, even those belonging to a registered group must carry permits showing that they belong to a state-approved group. Unsurprisingly, religious minority groups have a hard time obtaining such permits.
Though very few Russian government officials seem to disagree with the implementation of the new law, the Russian Constitution stands in clear opposition.
Article 28 of the constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, as well as the freedom to profess no religion at all. Everyone should be allowed to freely choose, posses, and disseminate religious and other beliefs and act according to them.
The constitution does not impose registrations, permits, or specific geographic restrictions. It clearly protects religious liberty.
Before the new Yarovaya law, people like Pastor Donald Ossewaarde lived for decades in Russia under constitutional protections. A Baptist minister originally from the United States, Ossewaarde moved to a small town south of Moscow and for over 20 years built and shepherded the Christian community.
In summer 2016, his life’s efforts to spread the gospel in Russia came to a halt. During a gathering in his home, four policemen entered and sat down. They took notes during the meeting. Afterward, they escorted Ossewaarde to the police station where they charged him with a criminal act of “extremism.”
Ossewaarde’s case is only one among many others. To cite but a few, a Russian court recently fined an African Pentecostal pastor for conducting religious ceremonies while not having the necessary permit. Russian prosecutors pursued a pastor of the Church of Free Christians of Seventh-Day Adventists for delivering religious books. Local law enforcement interrogated American tourists for merely standing up to greet and congratulate the Word of Life Church in its own buildings during a Sunday service. Two of them were fined.
Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ossewaarde has appealed to the European court. If the judges find that the recent extremism law has indeed compromised the right to religious freedom, indicted pastors and entire faith groups might be able to take up their work again.
The court’s judgment will affect the rest of the court’s 47 member states, including countries such as the United Kingdom.
In Britain, the government has been trying to introduce a law on “extremism” for years, as well as an extremism commission to investigate the alleged extremists. Such attempts have not been very successful, not least because the government’s own lawyers have failed to define the concept of “extremism.”
Similar attempts to eradicate free speech are being promoted in many European countries.
Thus, the European court’s decision is of capital importance. The court has the opportunity to counter not just Russia’s “extremism” law, but to ward off a menace that threatens all of Europe. The court could expose “anti-extremism” laws for what they really are: legal vehicles threatening democratic pluralism and curbing religious freedom.
The impact of the court’s decision could ensure the rights to freedom of religion, speech, and conscience not just for Russians but also for all of the 822 million citizens living under its jurisdiction.
While many European countries seem to have let their guard down in the wake of numerous wicked acts of terrorism, the court could now become the last line of defense for liberty and religious freedom.