Nosisa Shiba. Source: YouTube. All rights reserved.
As the opening of 2018 FIFA World Cup approaches, security issues in Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s host cities, are hotting up. And the clinical symptoms of this “fever” are shocking even those who have long since ceased to be amazed.
In May, Nizhny Novgorod’s Sormovsky district court charged Nosisa Shiba, a citizen of Swaziland in her final year at Nizhny Novgorod Medical Academy, with an administrative offence for publicly singing hymns at an Easter service in the city’s Embassy of Jesus Pentecostal church. The local police and legal authorities interpreted this behaviour as missionary activity, incompatible with Shiba’s stated aims when entering the Russian Federation. As it turned out, Shiba’s actual “offence” took place in 2017, but her trial has only just concluded. The outcome was a fine of 7,000 roubles and deportation from Russia, but the court has shown some leniency and deferred her expulsion until 30 June, after Shiba’s final exams and degree conferral.
The trial established that the charge, based on article 18.8 of part 4 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law of the Russian Federation, was put forward by Major Tatarov, a Senior Special Inspector of the Nizhny Novgorod Regional Immigration Control Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and that it was, in fact, the second time Shiba had been charged with a breach of residence regulations.
The charge, of which I have a copy, reads that Nosisa, having come to study in Russia, “effectively took part in a missionary conference called ‘To Save One More Soul’”, organised by the Russian Association of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (RACEFP) in Nizhny Novgorod. In other words, the inspector concluded that, by singing about Jesus, she was engaging in religious activity. This activity included the fact that Shiba sang about Jesus at a public concert.
The case documents show that Major Tatarov didn’t take an interest in a foreign student singing in church off his own bat. The documents include a file sent to the Regional Immigration Control Department by the FSB on 18 April, in which Lieutenant-Colonel Malyshev, the deputy head of an FSB department in the Nizhny Novgorod region, informs his senior officer that “in the course of FSB operations in the Nizhny Novgorod region it was discovered that a foreign national had breached Russian residence regulations” – Shiba had engaged in activity incompatible with the stated aim of her coming to Russia. In his file, Malyshev states that the “unlawful religious activity” engaged in by Nosisa Shiba could be seen on a YouTube video.
Drawing up the charge, Major Tatarov mentions the fact that Shiba had already been charged earlier under the same article, and that she had been fined and required to leave Russia by 30 June.
While Nosisa Shiba was prosecuted for publicly singing about Jesus, Kudzay Nyamarebva, another foreign student at the Nizhny Novgorod Medical Academy and member of the Embassy of Jesus church, was threatened with prosecution for reposting a video in which her fellow-parishioners and friends talk about how God had helped them.
The police, again at the instigation of the FSB, charged Nyamarebva with an administrative offence, in this case a breach of the law concerning Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of Religion and Religious Associations.
Kudzay Nyamarebva. Source: YouTube. All rights reserved.
The public outcry about Nyamarebva’s prosecution, however, evidently led the police to announce that legal time limitations meant that the case could no longer go ahead. Kudzay was earlier prosecuted for inviting people to come to an event at the Embassy of Jesus via her social media page. Nyamarebva too has been required to leave Russia by 30 June, after receiving her degree.
It’s worth mentioning that the two articles under which Shiba and Nyamarebva were charged form part of the so-called “Yarovaya law” – a package of amendments passed in 2016, supposedly designed as anti-terrorism measures but which civil rights campaigners believe violate privacy and freedom.
“The law is intended as a means of combating terrorism, but so far has only affected Protestant churches and anyone connected with them”, says the Embassy of Jesus press officer Yulia Ermoshina. “The amendments to the earlier, 1997 law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’ are very vague, and in practice the Law has turned into a very convenient tool for the law enforcement bodies to use against Protestant churches. And now it has the ‘Embassy of Jesus’ in its sights.
“This church has been around for over 20 years, during which it has carried out an enormous amount of social work throughout the Nizhny Novgorod region: rehabilitating alcoholics and drug users, rehousing the homeless and supporting children’ homes, families living in poverty and other socially vulnerable citizens as well as disabled people. And all without any state support.”
Since the “Yarovaya Law” was passed, Ermoshina tells me, Russian security services have been subjecting the Embassy of Jesus to numerous inspections: “We are being charged with new offences by the courts and threatened with cumulative fines of over a million roubles (£12,015). We are accused of failing to put information on a video about faith in God. Just think: they want to take a church to court for incomplete listings on a video talking about Christian values such as faith, love and mercy,” she says angrily.
How does the court respond on the matter? “These things are essential for the protection of the foundations of our constitutional order, ethical basis, health, the rights and interests of others and our country’s defence and state security.”
We should remind ourselves here that all this is taking place in a city where earlier this year the police removed Russian citizenship from Al-Tbahi Visam Mohamed Farhat, a father of seven children.The court took the side of law enforcement: it seems that 17 years ago, when the Palestinian man received Russian citizenship, the head of the police directorate, whether by accident or design, failed to sign one of the necessary documents.
All this needs to be borne in mind not only by the football fans who are risking a trip to Russia to watch the World Cup, but also by young people who choose to go to Russia to receive their higher education: they can’t rely that their civil rights will be observed or their safety guaranteed in a situation where the FSB spends its time searching social networks for possible signs of dissidence.