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Ambiguous Definition of Religious Extremism Leads to Harrassment in Russia

(Washington, DC--June 2, 2005) The three-year old "Law on Countering Extremist Activity" in Russia has led to the harassment of a wide spectrum of religious groups, according to an expert on religion and law. Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Information and Analysis Center told a recent RFE/RL audience in Washington that the law's broad definition of terrorism, which includes groups advocating "exclusive truth," needs to be amended to stop the arbitrary application of the law to people's "ideology, rather than their actions."

During the briefing, co-sponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the US government on how best to promote it, Verkhovsky noted that the law has led to a reliance by the Russian government on police to deal with religious intolerance in Russian society--something Verkhovsky said is "not solved by turning to the police." For example, the Russian Supreme Count has declared the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization simply because other nations had also banned it. In Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a small, "rather aggressive" organization that is "spreading rather rapidly" and advocates "a violent jihad to spread its message," said Verkhovsky. However, according to Verkhovsky, there is "no proven instance where Hizb ut-Tahrir has used violence [in Russia]." Many Hizb ut-Tahrir members have, however, been "arrested and charged with being members of an extremist organization" as a result of the Russian Supreme Court decision, Verkhovsky said.

In Russia's Dagestan Republic, the local parliament has adopted a law that prohibits activities by Wahhabist groups, while defining Wahhabism "vaguely," Verkhovsky said. The law has led to "religious censorship," Verkhovsky said, with a "spiritual board" approving the publication of all religious material in Dagestan. "As a result, the classic Russian translation of the Koran was forbidden," Verkhovsky said, many mosques were closed, and Russian domestic intelligence officers removed books from stores simply because "a mufti gave a list [of books] he thought dangerous" to the police.

In following "the letter of the law" there have been "some unexpected results," Verkhovsky said, including an appeal by a neo-pagan group to the Russian Supreme Court to ban the Bible and the Russian Orthodox Church, on the grounds that they "advocate the exclusive truth of their own religion." A letter signed by over 10,000 people, including 19 Duma members, was sent to the General Prosecutor, asking that many Jewish organizations be closed on the basis of the existence of a 16th century book, said Verkhovsky. The "Caution! Religion" art exhibit at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow as vandalized in January 2003 by orthodox believers -- yet the organizers of the art exhibit were the ones, Verkhovsky said, who were found guilty of violating the law, because "the art show offended religious sensibilities."