The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Ivan Matsitsky
Ivan Matsitsky is the spiritual leader of the Church of Scientology of St. Petersburg. He has been detained since June 2017, facing criminal charges relating to his involvement with Scientology.
On June 6, 2017, the FSB and riot police searched the St. Petersburg Church of Scientology, as well as the apartments of some of its parishioners. Five individuals who performed administrative functions in the church, including Matsitsky, were arrested and charged with creating an extremist community (Criminal Code Article 282.1(1)), degrading the human dignity of church members (Article 282(2)(c)), and illegal business activities (Article 171(2)). The extremism charge was based on a prior court ruling that certain works by L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) were extremist. The human dignity charge was based on sanctions issued against parishioners who violated the church’s ethical rules; however, as Memorial HRC has pointed out, such practices are common in many religions. Finally, by offering paid courses and programs without registering as a legal entity, the defendants allegedly engaged in illegal business activities. However, the group had repeatedly tried to register but was denied each time, and the European Court of Human Rights held that those denials violated the group’s right to freedom of religion. In fact, Matsitsky and two of the other St. Petersburg Scientologists currently facing charges were applicants in that case before European Court of Human Rights.
Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists in Russia have faced long-standing persecution. For example, courts in Russia banned local Scientology organizations in 2007, 2008, and 2009. More recently, in November 2015, the Moscow City Court banned the activities of the Moscow Scientology branch, and this decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2016.
Matsitsky has been recognized as prisoner of conscience by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, with Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga describing his case as “emblematic of the Russian government’s complete disregard for religious freedom.” More generally, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, in at least three cases, that government officials violated the rights of Scientologists by refusing to grant them legal recognition.