20 April 2017

April fool

Reuters via The Independent.  
Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, as a church, are one big step closer to liquidation. Earlier this evening, after 30 hours of hearings, Russian Supreme Court judge Yuri Ivanenko announced his decision in favor of the Ministry of Justice's petition that the central office and all local units of this church would be closed, their activities banned as extremist, and all property confiscated by the state.

There is a slim thread of hope that the JW defense's appeal to a three-judge Supreme Court panel will reverse the decision, and, in the longer term, the European Court of Human Rights will have its own say. And of course church leaders are calling on believers to pray for justice. 

Coverage of today's decision:

Russian Baptists, who have little in common doctrinally with Jehovah's Witnesses, have been fierce in their defense of JWs' rights. The current president of the Baptist union in Russia, Aleksei Smirnov, wrote to Vladimir Putin, "We ask you, as the guarantor of the constitution of the Russian federation, to protect the right of freedom of conscience of citizens of the Russian federation and do not permit the closing of religious organizations of the Jehovah's Witnesses."

(I don't know how significant it is, but I've been struck by how often such appeals have been addressed directly and personally to the president. In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, such appeals were routinely addressed to the councils of state and party, as Zoya Svetova points out. Now, it's different: "Today in Russia there’s only one addressee for such letters and appeals....")

Smirnov's predecessor in Baptist leadership, Yuri Sipko, has been blunt in assessing the larger threat:
It is bitter to realize that the people of the government, who are called to observe and defend justice and law, create lawlessness, denying the most vital rights of citizens of Russia. Deputies and judges, mayors and ministers, as I have frequently heard with my own ears, lie publicly, without even blushing, and sell their honor for nothing. Depravity and permissiveness, in the absence of restraining forces, spill out the lowest passions. Such trends give evidence of the profound moral disintegration of the ruling elite.
Why did I title this post "April fool"? Simple. I actually thought for a couple of weeks that, in this case, justice would prevail.

I take comfort that I was not alone: The Portal-Credo site quoted Ivan Belinko, a Jehovah's Witnesses press representative, who said, "In the course of the judicial proceedings, no stone was left on stone in all of the arguments of the justice ministry, and therefore I was surprised when the court announced the decision." He obviously heard the same thing going on session after session that I read about in the daily coverage: Judge Ivanenko's questions directed to the Ministry of Justice lawyers ranged from mildly skeptical to scathing. Time and time again he seemed to hint that he was aware of the utter absurdity of the case, which made his ultimate ruling an unexpected shock.

There is a larger context for this outcome, of course. Some people will conclude that "telephone justice" (that is, the idea that the judge isn't independent and, instead, is conforming to a political imperative) explains everything. It's a hard explanation to swallow: what political gain could come from suppressing believers who are both apolitical and notoriously stubborn? Neither Nazi concentration camps nor Stalinist repressions could wipe them out, and their current trials have provoked international attention and support. But even if the "telephone justice" theory were true, that alone wouldn't explain my surprise. Maybe I'm the problem.

In an April article four years ago, "Linguistic Look at Russia's Human Rights Record," Olesya Zakharova explained why Russians and Westerners often speak right past each other. Westerners tend to rely on legal guarantees, due process, and so on, considering that these concepts (as Zakharova says) are self-evident. Russians tend to make judgments based on more abstract moral considerations and feelings and traditions. I remember her words when I hear Russians commenting off-handedly that those Jehovah's Witnesses had it coming, because they are irritatingly persistent in their evangelization activities. What does their being irritating and persistent have to do with their rights under the Russian constitution? Arguably nothing, but written legal guarantees are not definitive here.

In making comparisons between Russia and (say) the USA, glib conclusions of "we're polar opposites" would not be fair. There is plenty of evidence that many Americans believe in human rights in the abstract, but in concrete situations might be equally willing to sell their irritating sectarian neighbors down the river. (I cited Prothro and Grigg in this post.)  Many Americans seemed to approve of Donald Trump's praise of waterboarding and unjustified accusations of immigrant criminality, for example. It may be flagrantly unfair to block Middle East refugees despite our contributions in making them refugees, but to millions of American voters, it somehow comes across as obvious common sense.

However, years of hard-fought litigation around equal protection, habeas corpus, and due process, have given Americans some investment in the rule of law. Russians often give greater weight to communal values, and I sympathize with some of their arguments that rigid Western concepts of human rights can marginalize such values. On the other hand, those communal values, and their flexible application, have been exploited for generations by the people at the very top as a cover for their own interests. In the absence of a truly independent justice system, even granting the validity of folk wisdom as an important factor for judges to weigh, all vagueness and flexibility and undefined "common sense" seem ultimately to favor tyranny.

At least that's how it looks on this bleak evening.

Remembering Christine Greenland.

Christine was the contact person for the Tract Association of Friends. Here's one of the gems published by the Tract Association: Eva Hermann's "In Prison, Yet Free."

Danny Sjursen tells us how to lose the next war in the Middle East: fight it!

Russia's not-so-scary Institute of Strategic Studies, where old spooks are sent to retire.

eTown webisode #836 - Eric Bibb - New Home from eTown on Vimeo.

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