This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 9 January 2020.
Law enforcement authorities across Russia have dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past 12 months, Human Rights Watch said today. One year after President Vladimir Putin said that the crackdown against them should be “looked into,” the numbers of house raids and people under criminal investigation have more than doubled, and 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses worshipers are behind bars for peacefully practicing their faith.
At least 313 people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal “extremism” for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases. About two-thirds of them found out about their status as suspect or accused in 2019. Authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in more than 70 towns and cities across Russia, more than half of them in 2019. Courts convicted 18 people in 2019, nine of whom received prison sentences ranging from two to six years, for such activities as leading or participating in prayer meetings. Verdicts are expected in several cases later in January.
“For Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, practicing their faith means risking their freedom,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is nothing remotely justifiable about this. It’s time for President Putin to ensure that law enforcement stop this harmful persecution.”
Russian authorities should release detained Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately, drop any outstanding charges, expunge all related criminal records, and halt their persecution, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed two lawyers defending Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous regions, and the spouses of seven men convicted or facing charges of engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses activity. Human Rights Watch also reviewed court verdicts and other documents, media reports, and Russian government statements.
The raids and arrests stem from an April 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling that banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations in Russia. It declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center, the head office for 395 Jehovah’s Witnesses branches throughout Russia, an extremist organization and ruled that all branches should be shut down. The ruling blatantly violates Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
Russian authorities should reverse the ban on the organization’s activities and remove the “extremist” designation, Human Rights Watch said. They should allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to freely practice their faith.
In his December 2018 meeting with the Presidential Human Rights Council, Putin said that people of all faiths should be treated equally, and that it was “nonsense” to treat people who practice faiths that are not “traditional” for Russia like members of “destructive” organizations. He said he was not aware of the Jehovah’s Witnesses prosecutions and that he would speak with the chair of Russia’s Supreme Court to analyze the matter.
Most of those targeted are men, though at least 39 women have faced charges. Most targeted are middle-aged, although ages have ranged from an 89-year-old woman named as a suspect in a December 2019 criminal investigation in Stavropol region and an 85-year-old woman on trial in Vladivostok to a 19-year-old woman in Sverdlovsk region charged in May 2019. Most are charged under art. 282.2 of the criminal code, for either organizing or participating in the activities of an organization banned by a court as “extremist.”
Local police carried out the house raids, often with armed and masked Rosgvardia (National Guard) personnel, special rapid reaction police, and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. They confiscated Bibles and other religious materials, computers, phones, and other personal items and rounded up residents for questioning.
In many cases, including those Human Rights Watch documented, the authorities had been conducting surveillance on people for months, including recording or photographing them at prayer meetings, praying, singing, or reading.
In late December, 12 people were released from pretrial detention pending trial, including two people who had been detained for 521 days. At least 23 of those under criminal investigation remain in pretrial detention. Since the crackdown began in 2017, almost 150 people have spent time in pretrial custody, 41 for six months or more, according to data provided by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. Andrzej Oniszczuk, a Polish citizen, spent 344 days in pretrial detention in Kirov, until his release in September 2019, pending trial. During this time, he was unable to see his wife or family. At least 28 are being held under house arrest.
Polls show a rising concern in Russia about freedom of speech, information, and religion. An October Levada Center poll found that 40 percent of people surveyed viewed freedom of religion as the most important right, a double digit increase since a similar 2017 poll.
In April and August, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued opinions on two cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested for their religious activity. In both, the working group found the detentions were arbitrary, lacked legal basis, and violated the rights to freedom of religion, to liberty and security, and to equality before the law.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has a case pending against the Russian government, filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses over the Supreme Court ruling. In 2010, the ECtHR held Russia in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, for closing the Moscow branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and refusing to allow the group to re-register. The court found violations of arts. 9 and 11 of the convention, which protect freedom of religion and association, respectively.
“This persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their faith is wrong and unlawful,” Denber said. “They should be allowed to worship on an equal basis with everyone else, without fear of being arrested or harassed.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to prison in 2019 include: In Oryol, Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, six years; In Saratov, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, Aleksey Miretsky, Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexey Budenchuk, and Felix Makhammadiyev, two to three-and-a-half years; In Tomsk, Sergei Klimov, six years; and in Penza, Vladimir Alushkin, six years.
Also in 2019, five other people received suspended prison sentences and are subject to travel restrictions, several were fined, and one person was sentenced to 2.2 years’ community service.
“Evidence” and Surveillance
Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses under prosecution are charged with engaging in the activities of an “extremist” organization (art. 282.2, part 2 of the Russian criminal code). Some have also been charged with organizing activities of an “extremist” organization (art. 282.2, part 1). Evidence of “criminal” conduct in these cases includes regular aspects of communal religious life, including reading the Bible at a Bible study session, participating in a worship gathering, or hosting people in a home for Bible readings or worship.
Human Rights Watch reviewed four verdicts against people convicted under art. 282.2 part 2. Key evidence used in the September 2019 guilty verdict against Valery Moskalenko was that he had participated in a three-hour worship and Bible study session in a hotel conference room in Khabarvosk. A court in Khabarovsk sentenced Moskalenko to two years and two months of community service, barred him from leaving his municipality for the duration of his community service, and imposed other restrictions.
Among the actions grounding the July 2019 guilty verdict against Aleksandr Solovev was that he tried to persuade people to continue to worship with Jehovah’s Witnesses, after they had criticized the faith and expressed an intent to cease their involvement; that he participated in a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting, where he stood near the door and “maintained order”; and that he recruited members. The court fined him 300,000 rubles (approximately US$4,830).
For further details about the criminal cases and house searches, read the full HRW statement.
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Source: MEDIA FEED