The United States is “deeply concerned” by a Russian court’s recent decision to suppress a regional branch of the Falun Gong faith group by branding it as “extremist,” the State Department said on July 9.
The court decision criminalized the “peaceful practice of [the group’s] spiritual beliefs,” the department said.
“Russian authorities harass, fine, and imprison Falun Gong practitioners for such simple acts as meditating and possessing spiritual texts,” Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement one day after a Russian court upheld a ban on the Khakassia regional branch of Falun Gong.
“We urge the Russian government to end its practice of misusing the ‘extremist’ designation as a way to restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms,” he said, adding that the court decision was “another example of Russian authorities labeling peaceful groups as ‘extremist,’ ‘terrorist,’ or ‘undesirable’ solely to stigmatize their supporters, justify abuses against them, and restrict their peaceful religious and civic activities.”
He noted that a Moscow court last month moved to classify three groups linked to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny as “extremist,” which he said further demonstrated “Russia’s arbitrary and expansive application of this label.”
In China, the meditation discipline Falun Gong has faced continued repression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party since 1999, with adherents subjected to imprisonment, forced labor, physical and psychiatric torture, and even organ harvesting for persisting in their belief.
Over the years, more than a dozen Falun Gong practitioners have been forced to leave Russia even though some of them were granted U.N. refugee status. In 2007, Russian immigration officers forcibly put Falun Gong practitioners Ma Hui and her 8-year-old daughter, both designated refugees, on a plane to deport them back to China.
In a report titled “Inventing Extremists” in 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that the “vague and problematic definition of ‘extremism’” had given Russian authorities broad powers to persecute religious believers.
Between 2011 and 2017, there were at least three cases related to distributing or possessing Falun Gong-related materials.
In 2013, prosecutors issued a warning to Vladimir Sheremetyev, a local official for the United Russia Party, the country’s largest political party, after he used the Falun Gong book “Zhuan Falun” in group lessons. The book was banned in the country in 2011.
In a 2012 resolution, the European Parliament censured Russia for its “improper banning” of the practice’s literature.