A court has handed a Russian church that had been targeted by five apparently malicious lawsuits by a government prosecutor in just a few months a huge victory, according to officials with the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, an affiliate of the American Center for Law and Justice.
The ruling comes from the Constitutional Court of Russia, and is expected deter officials from bringing harassing lawsuits against religious organizations.
“This victory is important not only for religious organizations, but for all individuals who fall subject to frivolous or harassing lawsuits,” the organization said in a report on the court decision that will have the prosecutor who brought the inappropriate actions pay the costs of defending against some of those counts.
“Hopefully, this ruling will deter prosecutors from bringing unsubstantiated lawsuits against religious organizations,” the report said.
The SCLJ had challenged ambiguous language in the Russian law that was interpreted by the lower courts to exempt a prosecutor from having to reimburse legal costs incurred in a case brought by the prosecutor.
The report said this would happen when the prosecutor voluntarily waived one or more of the counts during the litigation.
The case developed when a local prosecutor lodged a series of unsuccessful complaints against the Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Blagoveshchensk. He had filed five different lawsuits against the church – both in civil court and the regional commercial court – making allegations that the church’s activities were banned.
It soon “became clear that a young and ambitious prosecutor recently appointed to his office had decided to establish his career as ‘a fighter for the freedom of citizens’ and chose this religious organization as one of his first ‘victims,’” the report said.
Though the church never before had had difficulties with the law, each case had to be defended “because the law on religious organizations specifies that a religious organization may be dissolved if it ‘repeatedly or grossly’ violated the law.”
The lawsuits required an SCLJ attorney, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, to make some 15 trips in a single year from his operating base in Moscow to Blagoveshchensk, a distance equal to a trip from New York to Moscow.
“When the prosecutor began to lose one case after another, he decided to voluntarily dismiss several of his claims. When the church filed for reimbursement of its legal costs, the courts of first and second instance denied its claim, reasoning that by law, the prosecutor is exempt from paying the legal costs,” the report said.
However, the SCLJ warned that following such logic, a prosecutor could repeatedly lodge frivolous and harassing lawsuits, then simply dismiss the claims, costing the targeted church massive amounts of money.
The SCLJ argued before the nation’s high court that such precedents were incorrect and incompatible with the constitutional provisions on equality.
The decision from the Constitutional Court of Russia said the targeted organizations in such situations must have some form of real relief.
Government officials in Russia have a history of crackdowns on Christian churches or organizations, sometimes simply ordering them to shut down.