In July 2019, the District Court of Zurich acquitted a cult expert and former infoSekta employee on all charges of libel brought by the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses Switzerland. These charges came following an interview in the Tages-Anzeiger (2015) and a media release (2015). From March 2020 on, it became apparent that the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Switzerland were not going to file an appeal.“ The court ruling devastating for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is therefore final.
To the best of our knowledge, this verdict is unprecedented, both in Switzerland and internationally. Based on extensive evidence, the court examined the cult expert’s statements regarding key points of criticism of the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, and concluded that the criticism was justified: The religious practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses violate the fundamental rights of their members, and their loved ones.
This verdict is also crucial concerning a clarification of the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is a doctrine that is binding on all members worldwide. It also entails questions about the statutory body recognition (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts) of the denomination in Germany.What was the trial about? Click here to reveal the answer.Dr. Phil. Regina Spiess, an expert on cults, was accused of defamation, the crime of attacking and/or damaging the honour of a person or an organization (article 173 of the penal code). Because true defamatory statements are usually exempt from punishment, the aim of the court trial was to demonstrate that the statements made by her were true. For all relevant points, the expert succeeded in proving that the statements were in fact true (Proof of Truth) or that they could be considered true in good faith (Proof of Good Faith). During the trial, it could also be proven that all of her the statements were made in respect of the public interest.
For the trial, twenty-four witnesses had been named; however, the court decided not to call on them because the proof of exoneration had already been provided through extensive written evidence.
The court acquitted the sect expert of all charges, and she was awarded a trial compensation of CHF 20,500 for legal fees and an additional personal harm allowance of CHF 4,000 from the court treasury, a considerable amount by Swiss standards.
Initially, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Switzerland announced an appeal. After the written verdict was issued in January 2020, however, they allowed the deadline for filing and substantiating an appeal to expire, with the consequence that the court ruling is now binding.
Proof of truth in all key points
Dr. phil. Regina Spiess, an expert on cults who now works for the association association JW Opfer Hilfe e.V., was able to prove the truth (Proof of Truth) of her main arguments and/or her explanations were recognised by the court as “known to the court” (“gerichtsnotorisch” – known the court because of previous processes).
- The practice of shunning (ostracism) exists and is at least to some extent a violation of human rights (Proof of Truth). Shunning can be understood as prescribed bullying and violates the integrity and implicit freedom of belief and conscience of the persons concerned (Proof of Truth).
- Children and young people too are affected by shunning (Proof of Truth). Children experience severe fear due to this religious practice (Proof of Truth).
- It still occurs repeatedly that Jehovah’s Witnesses die as a result of the ban on blood transfusions (“gerichtsnotorisch”/known to the court).
- The “Two-Witness rule” exists (Proof of Truth).
What is Shunning (ostracism)? Click here to reveal the answer.Baptized members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who turn away from the faith or break rules are expelled from the community. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses may no longer have contact with them or even acknowledge them. This also applies to close family members.
Those affected often lose all of their loved ones at once, including those closest to them: parents, children, siblings, partners, grandparents, and friends. Ostracized persons often learn about the marriage, birth or death of their closest relatives from third parties.
Today, children are often baptized at the age of 11 or younger. After that, they can no longer freely decide how they want to live and what they want to believe in – because otherwise they will lose their family and loved ones.
The expert was able to provide Proof of Good Faith with regard to these statements:
- The above-mentioned „Two-Witness rule“ and other guidelines of the organisation facilitate sexual abuse, especially of children (Proof of Good Faith).
- The community is problematic, displaying severe forms of violence: psychological violence through shunning and social violence through manipulation, punishment, and an exclusionary mentality. Watchtower media aims at frightening children (Proof of Good Faith).
- The group is highly problematic, manipulates their members and violates their physical, psychological and social integrity (Proof of Good Faith).
- By shunning, the Watchtower Organisation implicitly denies its members freedom of faith and conscience (Proof of Good Faith).
Why this judgment is so important
Until now, Switzerland has tolerated religious guidelines which endanger the psychological and physical integrity of children and adults within the Jehovah’s Witness community. In response to this judgement, Swiss politicians will be called upon to take action to review legislation and decide what political measures to take.
Germany and Austria must now explain why they, as states, approve religious guidelines that:
- silence children and women affected by (sexual) violence,
- call on parents to shun their underage children and
- abandon people whose lives are in danger.
The judgment also makes it clear that the Jehovah’s Witnesses obviously did not tell the state the truth during their application process to become a public corporation (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts), because shunning also affects the nuclear family, including parent-child, sibling- and couple-relationships. Shunning tears families apart, and in Germany and Austria this happens with the approval of the state.
This judgement is also important because the denomination tries to intimidate cult experts, journalists, and activists with legal action all around the world.Assistance for politicians, media representatives and other professionals.In the meantime, the comprehensive evidence provided by the cult expert was further supplemented by the Association JW Opfer Hilfe. On several occasions, these pieces of evidence have been made available to journalists and experts who have criticized Jehovah’s Witnesses and who have subsequently been threatened with legal action.
The Association JW Opfer Hilfe is happy to provide information to media professionals, lawyers, psychotherapists, government officials, and politicians regarding the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It maintains an extensive archive and has a wide range of expertise.
This verdict is the first of its kind. Many thanks to all who contributed to this victory, especially the affected persons, activists and experts who were available as witnesses and contributed their knowledge. Special thanks to RA Dr. Urs Eschmann, whose defense reflected his years of experience and knowledge in relation to cults.