The non-profit organization behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been convicted of inciting discrimination and hatred or violence against former members who chose to leave the faith community. The court in Ghent has decided this. Jehovah’s Witnesses are fined €96,000. “The religious rules are not above the law in our society,” emphasizes the judge.
Originally published on vrtNWS by J. Desmecht & H. Decré on March 16, 2021
Patrick Haeck filed a criminal complaint against the religious community on March 27, 2015. He himself was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 35 years, but was dismissed in 2010 for questioning certain practices. “If your relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses goes wrong, you end up a victim of a shunning policy. No one is allowed to talk to you anymore,” Haeck told Radio 2. “Ex-witnesses are often left without family or friends. They slowly wither and have a higher risk of suicide,” he said.
Not the only one
Almost six years after the initial complaint – the investigation took longer than planned – the Belgian non-profit organization behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses was effectively before a criminal judge last month. In the meantime, fifteen ex-witnesses rallied behind Haeck’s criminal complaint and, together with Unia, put themselves forward as a civil party.
“For 42 years I have been excluded and ignored. Only my youngest sister spoke to me. That was until five years ago, when her husband suddenly wanted to become an ‘elder’ within the community,” said ex-witness Jenny Schepens (63), one of the ex-Witnesses who spoke during the trial. She left the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 21 after she developed feelings for someone outside the community. “I was so young. How could I know then that I would be sentenced for life? They label you as a perpetrator, when you are actually the victim. Families are torn apart by that imposed, an impossible choice between family and god.”
The public prosecutor did not prosecute individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and only demanded an “appropriate fine”. According to the prosecutor, this case is mainly about the recognition of the malpractices within the community, not so much about sanctions: “In our opinion, this is a blatant violation of the discrimination law. I hope this can be a signal. This is an extensive, fundamental matter. They target a certain group and they isolate them socially and damage them psychologically.”
Lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that the association is only a legal entity used by the community. How members practice their religion is not the responsibility of the association, according to them. They also said that the criminal court had no jurisdiction to rule on religious customs and at the same time stated that the court should have treated this case as a press offense, ie before the courts of assizes.
Judge: “Religious rules are not above the law in our society”
But these statements were dismissed by the court today. “The duty of neutrality towards religious groups is not absolute. The court has the authority to test these facts against the discrimination law”, the judge said.
The non-profit organization behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses is now fined 96,000 euros for inciting discrimination based on religious beliefs and for inciting hatred. It is the first criminal conviction ever for the religious group in Belgium.
Lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses have 30 days to appeal.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said it was a €12,000 fine. That amount is a multiple of the surcharges, so the actual fine is 96,000 euros.