(Photo: Alexander Kalistratov leaves a court building in Gorno-Altaysk, December 16, 2010/Alexandr Tyryshkin)
When armed Russian security officers forced their way into Alexander Kalistratov’s home, he hardly imagined they were after his books. The local leader of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia now faces up to two years in prison if found guilty this week of inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs.
“They swept everything from my shelves without even bothering to sort it, even my Bible,” Kalistratov, a street sweeper, said by telephone from the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow. His trial is the first of a dozen pending against Jehovah’s Witnesses and scores of others caught up in the widening net of criminal prosecutions brought under Russia’s anti-extremism law.
Rights activists say the vaguely worded legislation, first passed in 2002, is increasingly being exploited by the authorities to persecute religious minorities, intimidate the media and clamp down on opposition activists.
“It can be used to target anybody … political, religious or even completely apolitical groups such as labor union activists,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, whose SOVA rights group monitors hate crimes, extremism and religious freedoms. “In practice, it’s a universal tool.
In the case against Kalistratov, activists say local authorities are really aiming at cracking down on groups frowned upon by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has undergone a revival since the fall of the Soviet Union ended decades of repression under Communism and it has strong ties to the state. It has repeatedly complained that other churches are poaching converts in its territory.