Russians increasingly cracking down on Jehovah’s Witnesses; 115 in prison

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Russia kept cracking down on Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2022, the group said, sentencing 45 members of the movement to prison, a 40% increase over the 32 sentenced in 2021. A total of 115 Witnesses are in Russian prisons, the highest number since a 2017 Supreme Court of Russia decision that effectively banned the organization.

Nineteen of those prisoners are over age 60, with 71-year-old Borid Andreev from Primorye territory the oldest. A disabled Jehovah’s Witness, Andrey Vlasov, received a seven-year sentence, despite struggling “to manage daily activities without assistance,” the group said.

Police conducted searches of 200 homes of members in 39 Russian localities, the Witnesses reported. More than 1,800 residences have been searched in the past five years, with over 670 Witnesses facing charges or criminal investigations.

The trials and imprisonment continue despite a June 7 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that ordered Russia to end its ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, release all jailed group members and drop further prosecutions.

The ECHR also ordered Russia to pay $67.3 million in damages for seized property and nonpecuniary damages. Russia quit the Council of Europe in March and severed its relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights in September.

However, Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric on Dec. 9 wrote to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stating Russia “remains under a binding international law obligation” to implement the ECHR rulings.

Russia remains on the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern in part because of its treatment of the Witnesses.

Other international observers have slammed the Russian attacks on the group.

Russia is now marking a new milestone of disgrace,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, said in a statement. “No one should spend a second being prosecuted, let alone in prison, for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs.”

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have noted the situation of the Witnesses in Russia, with Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum saying there is no possible justification for their imprisonment.

“This year, Russia has continued its inexplicable and expanding persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with more Witnesses than ever behind bars and facing long prison sentences for the mere practice of their beliefs,” Ms. Kleinbaum said. “The Russian government must end its practice of falsely labeling religious groups ‘extremist’ and permit freedom of religion or belief for all.”

Jehovah’s Witness spokesman Jarrod Lopes said via email: “Russia is misemploying its anti-extremist legislation to ban, imprison and at times beat and torture Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s hard to believe this poorly veiled crackdown has continued for over five years.”

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