Russian court to consider ban on "extremist" Jehovah's Witnesses HQ

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s Supreme Court is to consider whether Jehovah’s Witnesses is an “extremist” organisation after the justice ministry applied for an order to shut down the group’s national headquarters near St Petersburg.

Stacks of booklets distributed by Alexander Kalistratov (L), the local leader of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation, are seen during the court session in the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, December 16, 2010. REUTERS/Alexandr Tyryshkin/Files

The U.S.-founded Jehovah’s Witnesses says it numbers about 8 million people worldwide.

The religious organisation is known for its foreign ministries as well as its door-to-door campaigns, but has had problems for years with Russian authorities, who view it as a pernicious cult, an allegation it denies.

Authorities have put several of its publications on a list of banned extremist literature, and prosecutors have long cast it as an organisation that destroys families, fosters hatred and threatens lives, a description the organisation says is false.

A filing on the Supreme Court’s website said it would convene on April 5 to consider the justice ministry’s application to order the closure of the organisation’s Russian headquarters and ban its activity.

The Russian branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses said it rejected the charge it was an extremist organisation. It said such a ban would directly affect around 400 of its groups and impact on all of its 2,277 religious groups in Russia which it said united 175,000 followers.

“Millions of believers all over the world consider the ministry’s actions a big mistake,” it said in a statement. “If this lawsuit is successful, it will entail catastrophic consequences for freedom of religious worship in Russia.”

Russian investigators conducted a large-scale inspection of its national headquarters near St. Petersburg earlier this year, carting off many documents.

According to Amnesty International, 16 members of the group in southern Russia were found guilty of organising and participating in a banned “extremist organisation” in late 2015.

Rights activists have criticised Russia for the way it applies a 2006 law which widened the definition of extremism.

Reporting by Dasha Afanasieva and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Toby Davis