By Elizabeth Owen
Breakaway South Ossetia is jumping on board with a Russian crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization, with one separatist official suggesting that followers of the US-based religious community act in Tbilisi’s interests.
The October 11 decision by South Ossetia’s de facto Supreme Court to outlaw the group, a self-described Christian organization headquartered in Wallkill, New York, follows roughly three months after Russia’s own ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses came into force.
In explaining their ban, Russian officials, always wary of foreign influences ahead of a presidential election, have focused largely on the group’s rejection of blood transfusions, which Moscow presents as a public-health threat.
The official grounds for South Ossetia’s ban appear to hover around the supposed presence of “extremist” pamphlets at the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Without an appeal, the South Ossetia decision will become law by October 21, according to the region’s de facto justice minister, Zalina Lalieva.
But the Jehovah’s Witnesses intend to appeal.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Ossetia will appeal this decision because there is no evidence or legal basis for such a ruling,” the Office of Public Information of Jehovah’s Witnesses wrote in response to emailed questions from Tamada Tales.
“As is recognized by governments worldwide that are familiar with our activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses are peaceful citizens that obey the laws of the land,” it said. “We do not protest against the government or participate in any activity that could be considered a ‘threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security.’”
The group says that it is “clear” that South Ossetia’s decision is “a direct result” of the Russian Supreme Court’s own April 20 decision to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, now under appeal in the European Court of Human Rights after an earlier petition failed in Russia.
Sonia Khubaevaya, religious advisor to South Ossetia’s de facto president, Anatoly Bibilov, rejects the notion that Tskhinvali is just following Moscow’s lead, however. The territory has its own concerns, she claims.
Its first Jehovah’s Witnesses were ethnic Ossetians who arrived from Georgian-controlled territory during Ossetian separatists’ 1991-1992 fight with Tbilisi, and with a mission to disseminate Georgian followers’ beliefs, she warned in a September interview with Nykhas.ru, a South Ossetian outlet.
Their refusal to bear arms and what she describes as their rejection of government – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not go into politics or vote — means they pose a security threat, she argued.
“This all works against us, against our national identity. . . if in Russia they don’t present a threat by way of percentage [of the population], for South Ossetia their numbering a thousand people presents an enormous danger.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have never been registered in South Ossetia, she added.
Citing concerns for their welfare, the Office of Public Information of Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to say how many followers live in South Ossetia.
South Ossetia has not arrested any alleged Jehovah’s Witnesses yet, but de facto Justice Minister Laliyeva has stated that “the competent organs” have got an eye out for underground activities.
One South Ossetian observer, however, sees explanations for Tskhinvali’s alarm apart from any talk about Tbilisi.
Coordination with Russia’s prosecutor general, informal nudges or just the “hope of big brother’s approval” all could have played a role, wrote Мурат Гукемухов for Ekho Kavkaza this July.
South Ossetia’s de facto officials plan to hold a referendum on joining Russia, which provides the bulk of the region’s budget and stations hundreds of troops there.
Similarly, breakaway Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed region, has had a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1995, but, this April, also felt the need to raise the alarm about their followers.
Aside from the Jehovah’s Witnesses objection to military service, underlined the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company, “[t]he main question is what relationship do the USA and Georgia have to this [group]?” Its literature, it observed, is printed in Brooklyn and in Abkhaz.
The group also has not been registered in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh.
Perceptions of the supposed risks of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, can change according to the situation.
In August, in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk, Russia-linked de facto authorities also outlawed the group’s activities, claiming they were working with Ukraine’s security service and “neo-Nazis.” Takeovers of Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting spots and harassment and abuse of their members have been reported throughout eastern Ukraine for the past few years.
Meanwhile, in Russia, which has been plagued by attacks by Islamist radicals, police have often responded to Jehovah’s Witnesses as if dealing with terrorists.
Footage from May, aired on national television, shows mega-muscular police in black face masks and bulletproof vests scaling a wooden fence to enter a building in the southwestern town of Oryol and shut down a Jehovah’s Witness service. A Danish man attending the gathering, Dennis Christensen, now faces a possible ten-year prison sentence for supposed membership in an “extremist organization.”
In August, a woman was arrested in Kursk for allegedly handing out pamphlets in what appears to be the first criminal prosecution of a Jehovah’s Witness under the ban, Forum18 reported. The unidentified woman faces a potential eight-year prison sentence.
Get-tough measures have also been scattered throughout the North Caucasus and beyond.
Nonetheless, the Jehovah’s Witnesses state that they are “confident” that their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against Russia’s ban will prevail, as did a 2010 case.
After all, they point out, the Kremlin itself has recognized them as exemplary community members.
In May, President Vladimir Putin awarded one Russian couple with his Order of Parental Glory. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses.