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In a letter to President Boris Yeltsin today, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki urges him not to sign the draft of a highly discriminatory Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations which was adopted by the Russian parliament last week.

    "If the president signs this law, it will be the first time since the Soviet era that Russia replaces a federal law which adequately protects the rights and freedoms of citizens with a highly restrictive one," declared Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. She added:"The adoption of this law would be a real setback, not only in the field of religious freedom but also for respect for human rights in Russia in general. It will set a dangerous precedent."

The draft law establishes a highly discriminatory system dividing religious communities into "religious groups" and "religious organizations." Under the law, only religious communities which have been registered for more than 15 years can enjoy full religious freedoms and state privileges. All other religious communities are classified as religious groups which are severely restricted in their rights. In practice, this means that only the religious communities which were recognized in Soviet times can qualify as religious organizations.

A copy of the letter is attached.

July 8, 1997
President Boris Yeltsin
By Fax: 095 206 3961

Dear Mr. President,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki I extend my greetings. As you may know, Human Rights Watch is an international, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization, the largest such organization based in the United States. Its Helsinki division (formerly known as Helsinki Watch) has monitored and urged compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords in signatory countries since the organization was formed in 1978. Our reports are widely distributed at the United Nations (Human Rights Watch has enjoyed consultative status with ECOSOC since 1993), the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. Congress, as well as among the media and other influential actors, to galvanize support for compliance with international legal obligations and principles of human rights protection.

I am writing to ask you to ensure that the draft Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion which the State Duma adopted in third reading on Monday, June 23, 1997, meets international human rights standards. A careful analysis of the draft law has led Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to the conclusion that several provisions in the law are not compatible with Russia's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),which although it has not yet been ratified must be observed by Russia as a member of the Council of Europe, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was ratified on October 16, 1973, nor with the Russian constitution. In particular, the law establishes a system of differential treatment of religions which appears to be in violation of the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in articles 14 and 19 of the Russian constitution, article 14 of the ECHR and article 2 of the ICCPR. Furthermore, the law contains a series of provisions that are vaguely worded and could easily be interpreted in a manner that violates the right to freedom of religion, as enshrined in article 28 of the Russian constitution, article 9 of the ECHR and article 18 of the ICCPR.

The draft law introduces a division of religious communities into so-called"religious groups" and "religious organizations." According to the draft law, "religious groups" can only become "religious organizations" and obtain legal status after they have been registered with the local interior department for fifteen years. In practice, this means that apart from the so-called traditional churches, the Orthodox Church, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, almost all other religious communities will be categorized as"religious groups." "Religious organizations" have a clearly advantageous position over"religious groups," as they have legal personality and "religious groups" do not. "Religious organizations" can therefore, in contrast to "religious groups," own property, hire employees and enjoy other rights connected to having legal personality.

In accordance with article 7 of the draft law as adopted by the State Duma on Monday June 23, 1997, "religious groups" have "the right to conduct worship services, to carry out religious rituals and ceremonies." Under the draft law that was adopted by the State Duma in second reading on Wednesday June 18, 1997, "religious groups" were also granted the right to "to conduct charitable and other activities which do not require the legal capacities of a legal personality." The fact that the right to "conduct other activities...." was omitted in the third reading points to a specific wish from the side of the State Duma to limit the activities of "religious groups" to conducting worship services, and carrying out religious rituals and ceremonies.

In contrast to "religious groups," " religious organizations" are granted a large number of rights. Some of these rights are exclusively attributed to religious organizations and can thus not be exercised by "religious groups." For example, "religious organizations" may create educational institutions; receive state aid for church-affiliated schools; invite foreign missionaries; request the president to exempt clergy from military service; enjoy tax privileges; receive state subsidies for restoration of historic church buildings; and have their religious holidays proclaimed as general public holidays.

A number of other rights are granted to "religious organizations" without a specific exclusion of "religious groups" from exercising them. These include, among others, the right to publish religious materials and conduct ceremonies in places such as hospitals (see below for further discussion).Under the draft law adopted in second reading, one could argue that"religious groups" would be able to exercise these rights as well because"religious groups" were not explicitly excluded from exercising them and article 7 provided a legal basis for such exercise. However, after the amendment of article 7, it appears that "religious groups" are excluded from exercising these rights.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes that the differential treatment described above is not consistent with article 14 of the ECHR, which states that "[t]he enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status." The European Court for Human Rights has established in its case-law that differential treatment of subjects does not per se constitute a violation of article 14 of the ECHR. Such treatment can be legitimate if the distinction has an objective with a reasonable justification and provided that the means employed are proportional to the aim sought to be realized.

The draft Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations provides for differential treatment of religions based on the length of time they have been registered or, one could argue, on the grounds of being a traditional or non-traditional religion in the Russian Federation. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes that this division of religious communities goes a long way beyond justified differential treatment and amounts to discrimination of the so-called non-traditional religions that violates Russia's obligations under international law.

Some proponents of the law have mentioned that the law is meant to protect Russian society from cults that may constitute a threat to it. While Human Rights Watch/Helsinki recognizes that states have the right to ensure that any community, including religious ones, does not constitute a threat to society, the discriminatory treatment introduced by the draft law in no way adds to such efforts.

Apart from the above-mentioned discriminatory provisions, the law also contains provisions which may be in direct contradiction of international standards on freedom of religion or which are open to interpretation that would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of religion. Some examples are:

Article 16(3) - "Religious organizations have the right to carry out religious rites in health centers and hospitals, in children's homes, in old-people's homes and institutions for physically or mentally challenged, and in institutions applying sentences of imprisonment for criminal offences at the request of the citizens held there in premises specially designated by the administration for these purposes..."

Article 17(1) - "Religious organizations have the right to produce, acquire, export, import and distribute religious literature, printed, audio and video material and other articles of religious significance."

Such a state of affairs would not be consistent with article 9(2) of the ECHR, which states that "[f]reedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to those limitations as ... are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Imposing restrictions on religious groups in carrying out religious rites in hospitals or in distributing religious literature can clearly not be seen as restrictions that are necessary in a democratic society and therefore would run counter to article 9(2) of the ECHR.

Even if religious groups are ultimately determined to have the rights contained in articles 16(3) and 17(1) and others, the vagueness of the provisions can easily lead to interpretation by local authorities which would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of religion. Such vagueness of the law is especially troubling given that legislation is generally poorly implemented in Russia, and local authorities tend to interpret legislation more restrictively than it was meant by the legislature. In addition, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki has received various reports from people belonging to non-traditional religions who spoke of harassment by local authorities and a negative attitude of many local authorities towards so-called non-traditional religions. It is therefore of special importance to ensure that legislation is clearly worded and leaves as little room as possible for differing interpretations. If this draft law enters into force, there is a real danger that harassment will increase because the law appears to give a legislative legitimation for such actions.

Finally, there are a number of vaguely worded provisions in article 14 of the draft law which may lead to arbitrary restrictions of the right to freedom of religion. The article lists a number of grounds on which religious organizations can be liquidated and religious groups banned. Although this article is meant to protect society from possibly dangerous religious cults, some of its provisions may arbitrarily limit freedom of religion by imposing restrictions on the activities of certain religious groups that are not necessary in a democratic society. These provisions include, among others, the following grounds for liquidating or banning a religious association: "forcing a family to disintegrate"; and "forcing members and followers of the religious association or other persons to alienate property which belongs to them for the use of the religious association."

Mr. President, you recently announced that 1998 would be the year of Human Rights in Russia. We whole-heartedly welcomed that announcement and sincerely hope that respect for and knowledge about human rights in Russia will grow during that year. We believe, however, that the introduction of this law on religion in the run-up to 1998 would signify a false start. It would mean a return to the Soviet practice of restricting basic human rights and freedom by legislative means and set a dangerous precedent for the future. As executive director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, I therefore strongly urge you to take all the necessary steps to ensure that the draft law is brought into conformity to the Russian constitution and international human rights standards.

I look forward to your reply,

Yours sincerely,


Holly Cartner

Executive Director
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki
cc: Mikhail Krasnov, Presidential Advisor on Legal Affairs
Georgi Satarov, Presidential Advisor on Political Affairs
Teimuraz Ramishvili, Head, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Department for International Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights
Viktor Zorkaltsev, Chairman, Committee on Religion, State Duma
Genri Mikhailov, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Church-State Relations
Andrei Sebentsov, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Church-State Relations
Vladimir Kartashkin, Chairman, Presidential Human Rights Commission
Rudolf Bindig, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Special Rapporteur

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