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(Washington, D.C.) -- A Russian court ruling which found a Jehovah's Witness guilty of inciting hatred and enmity against other religious groups for distributing literature, is an attack on freedom of expression and religion, Amnesty International said today.
Aleksandr Kalistratov was sentenced to 100 hours of community service by a court in the Altai Republic on Thursday, for handing out Jehovah's Witness brochures which allegedly incited hatred against the Catholic Church.
The City Court in Gorno-Altaisk had already acquitted Aleksandr Kalistratov of the charges on April 14 because of lack of evidence.
However the Supreme Court of the Altai Republic later overturned the acquittal on appeal by the prosecution and ordered that the case be reconsidered by the same court.
"Today's court judgment is a violation of Aleksandr Kalistratov's right to the peaceful expression of his religious views," said John Dalhuisen, deputy director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program. "Alexander Kalistratov's conviction contradicts Russia's own legislation as well as its obligations under international human rights law. It should be quashed."
"This case is the latest in a line of convictions and court rulings targeting Jehovah's Witnesses on the most spurious grounds," added Dalhuisen.
In June, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that a critique of a political organization, religious or ideological group or of national or religious traditions on its own cannot be interpreted as an action aimed at inciting hatred.
The Court said that the onus is on the prosecution to prove that the distribution of banned texts was intended to incite hatred. This has not been proved in the case against Aleksandr Kalistratov.
The charges against Aleksandr Kalistratov, the leader of the Republic of Altai branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, relate to the distribution of books, brochures and magazines such as The Watchtower and Awake!.
Several issues of these two publications have been found by courts to incite hatred and are on a black list of banned texts maintained by the Russian Ministry of Justice. Aleksandr Kalistratov denies having distributed brochures from the black list.
The judge found that sentences, such as the following, extracted from an issue of The Watchtower, incited hatred against the Catholic Church: "We went to the church in Seattle, but that was a pure formality. Religion had no important place in our life until Jamie, a joyful young pioneer and preacher of the Good News rang our bell. She was such a pleasant person that I agreed to study the Bible."
The trial started in October 2010. Similar criminal proceedings are currently ongoing in several Russian regions.
The Jehovah's Witnesses has around seven million followers worldwide, including over 200,000 in Russia. They have been banned in several Russian regions and in some former Soviet republics.
The organization's Moscow branch was dissolved by district court ruling in 2004. In June 2010 the European Court of Human Rights declared the decision violated the right to freedom of religion and freedom of association under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom and dignity are denied.
For more information, please visit www.amnestyusa.org