Russia’s Supreme Court is reviewing a government request to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses and designate the religious group as an extremist organization.
The Justice Ministry in Moscow has been investigating the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Russian headquarters near St. Petersburg over the last year and claimed it discovered violations of a Russian law banning extremism. The ministry accused the organization of disseminating “extremist” pamphlets and said the center, and nearly 400 other local branches of the group, should be “liquidated.”
One pamphlet the ministry reportedly took issue with quoted the novelist Leo Tolstoy and described the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church as superstition and sorcery, according to the BBC.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a counter lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, calling its actions unlawful and asking the court to recognize the organization’s members as victims of political repression. The Supreme Court dismissed the counter lawsuit on Wednesday, reportedly saying it wasn’t eligible to rule on issues of political repression, according the Russian Legal Information Agency. The court adjourned the hearing until Thursday.
The ministry filed its claim on March 15, urging the court to shut down all worship activities by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. David A. Semonian, a spokesman at the Witnesses’ world headquarters, responded in a statement, saying: “Prosecuting non-violent, law-abiding citizens as if they were terrorists is clearly a misapplication of anti-extremist laws. Such prosecution is based on completely false grounds.”
There are more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, according to the U.S.-based religion’s website. Like Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and other religious minorities in the country, they have recently been subject to Russian anti-extremism laws that ban proselytizing and curtail the dissemination of religious literature.
The government has cracked down on the group in recent years, imposing fines on congregations and occasionally arresting leaders perceived to be stoking anti-government sentiment.
Andrei Sivak, a Russian elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was arrested in 2010 after undercover security officers infiltrated services and secretly filmed him leading worship. The government accused Sivak and another elder, Vyacheslav Stepanov, of “inciting hatred and disparaging the human dignity of citizens.”
“Their disregard for the state erodes any sense of civic affiliation and promotes the destruction of national and state security,” claimed a report prepared for the prosecution, according to The New York Times.
The current crackdown echoes previous eras of antagonism toward the religious group. Vasily Kalin, chairman of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Russian arm, was deported with his family to Siberia when he was a child ― during a time when the Soviet Union outlawed the religion and deported thousands of members.
“It is sad and reprehensible that my children and grandchildren should be facing a similar fate,” Kalin told The New York Times. “Never did I expect that we would again face the threat of religious
persecution in modern Russia.”
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement: “The Russian government’s latest actions appear designed to eliminate the legal existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia…. USCIRF calls on the Russian government to stop its harassment of this peaceful religious group.”
Russian spy deported
A New Yorker long-suspected of being part of a spy ring that had been in contact with a former adviser of President Donald Trump has been shipped back to Moscow, reports The Hill.
According to a statement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Evgeny Buryakov, 42, was dispatched to Moscow on Wednesday.
“Removing individuals like Mr. Buryakov represents ICE’s highest enforcement priority, which is protecting the national security of the United States,” said spokesperson Rebecca Adducci, before adding, “ICE will continue to move aggressively against those who engage in actions that could potentially compromise the security of our nation.”
Buryakov pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiring to work as a Russian agent in the U.S., following a probe of a suspected spy ring involving Victor Podobnyy and Igor Sporyshev.
On Monday, a government report stated that Podobnyy had met with former Trump adviser Page back in 2013 at which time Page handed over documents as Podobnyy attempted to recruit him.
According to a transcript of Podobnyy speaking with government officials, he claimed, ““I think he [Page] is an idiot and forgot who I a He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up. I also promised him a lot … this is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go f*ck himself.”
Buryakov’s deportation comes at a time when both congressional intelligence committees are investigating ties between Russian agents and President Donald Trump’s campaign aides — including Page.
According to interview with CNN, Page insisted he hid his Russian involvement from the Trump campaign.
Former Breitbart News reporter joins Russian propaganda news agency Sputnik
Former Breitbart News investigative reporter Lee Stranahan is launching a radio show for Sputnik, a news organization owned and operated by the Russian government, the Atlantic reports.
“I’m on the Russian payroll now, when you work at Sputnik you’re being paid by the Russians,” Stranahan told the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray. “That’s what it is. I don’t have any qualms about it. Nothing about it really affects my position on stuff that I’ve had for years now.”
In a series of Twitter posts Wednesday, Stranahan promoted his new Sputnik radio show, a Crossfire-style debate show called “Fault Lines with [Garland] Nixon and Stranahan.” Stranahan promises the show, which launches Monday, will be “original, provocative and entertaining.”
As Gray reports, Stranahan quit Breitbart last month after he claimed he was prevented from covering the White House. He said the upside of working with Sputnik is the freedom that comes from working with a Russian propaganda network.
“There’s no restrictions on what I can say, what I can do, anything like that,” Stranahan said. “I’m not easily controllable.”
Breitbart News’s, formerly chaired by Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, is reportedly being examined by the FBI as part of its ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties with Russian operative trying to influence the 2016 election. Breitbart was decidedly pro-Trump throughout the campaign.
Stranahan tried to downplay any relation between the Trump campaign and Russia, calling the story “bogus.”
“I think the whole narrative trying to tie Trump to Russia is a huge problem,” Stranahan said.