New wave of persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses


Rights advocates doubt validity of judicial cases against followers of the religious teaching

by Milena Faustova

Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 16 February 2021


Another wave of the struggle of law enforcements with the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, which is banned in Russia and ruled to be extremist, has rolled across various regions. On 10 February, the Abinsk district court of Krasnodar territory sentenced 63-year-old Alexander Ivshin to 7.5 years in a penal colony. He received such a long prison term because he discussed the Bible and teachings of the Jehovists with friends by means of a video link and he also performed religious songs. On these same days believers in Moscow, Birobidzhan, and Kyzyl were arrested and charged with participating in extremist activity. In all, since 2017, when the organizations were ruled to be extremist and banned on the territory of the R.F., more than 220 persons have been prosecuted, including as criminals, according to information of law enforcement.


A case based on the article "Arranging the activity of an extremist organization" (part 1 of article 282.2 of the CC RF) was opened against Alexander Ivshin back in April. However at the time, after a search, the elderly man was sent home under his own recognizance. In court, the state prosecutor demanded eight years incarceration for the believer, despite the fact that there were no victims in the case. Ivshin did not admit guilt and he intends to file an appeal. "One gets the feeling that I am being tried not for extremism but for the fact that I simply continue to profess a peaceful religion. In my final statement I want to assure you that throughout the course of my life I did not display aggression and hatred toward anybody," he declared before the announcement of the verdict.


"The prison term given Ivshin by the court is clearly disproportionate," a member of the Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the president of the R.F., Vladimir Riakhovsky, noted in an interview with NGR [Nezavisimaia Gazeta Religii]. "The court, in assigning a measure of punishment, is supposed to take into account, inter alia, not only the public danger that the case poses but also the personality and age of the convict. The present sentence is extremely harsh, even if the crime committed were to be correctly identified. However, in the dozens of cases that have passed through the courts against Jehovah's Witnesses and in which sentences were pronounced, the defendants were charged with participating in the activity of an extremist organization with respect to which a court had issued a decision for its liquidation. The legal entity of this organization—the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses—was ruled to be extremist in 2017 and liquidated. Also liquidated were 395 local religious organizations that were members of its structure. That is, the decision pertained only to specific legal entities. According to the letter of the law, based on article 282.2 of the Criminal Code, they should talk about participating in or arranging the activity of these forbidden religious organizations only. But as far as I know, from the very first trial against Jehovah's Witnesses they have maintained that they do not have anything to do with the prohibited organization and they are simply adherents of the teaching. We have the right of religious confession in our country, including a collective one, which is enshrined in the constitution. The religious teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses has not been prohibited in our country. It turns out that if the adherents of some religious teaching gather in a home or online, then must we be talking about participating in the activity of a forbidden organization? No." "And the biggest problem comes down to this, that as of the present the investigation has not established nor proven that it is participating in a forbidden organization of a specific legal entity that we are talking about," Riakhovsky explained.

As of now, Ivshin's sentence is an unprecedented harsh decision against a Jehovah's Witness. In June 2020, the 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovsky from Pskov was sentenced to 6.5 years in a penal colony. But in August the punishment was changed to a suspended prison term.


On 10 February of this year, a criminal case also was opened against the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses for creating a cell in the north of Moscow. Two days later the Savyolov court of the capital sent two members of that organization—Alexander Serebiakov and Yury Temirbudatov—to a SIZO. It was decided they will be in jail until 10 April. On 12 February, the Birobidzhan district court ruled a follower of the teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses, Igor Tarev, guilty on the basis of part 2 of article 282.2 of the CC (participation in the activity of an extremist organization) and sentenced him to a suspended two-and-a-half-year prison term, with restricted liberty for one year and two years of probation. His colleague in the faith Larisa Artamonova also underwent this article, but she received a milder punishment, a fine of ten thousand rubles.


We recall that the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Birobidzhan was ruled to be extremist in October 2016. Criminal cases were opened against about 20 adherents of the organization in late 2019. Most of the accused are still under investigation. Now under house arrest are two Jehovah's Witnesses from the city of Kyzyl in the republic of Tyva—39-year-old Vitaly Manzyrykchi and 41-year-old Anatoly Senin.


In an interview with NGR, the director of the Sova Center for News and Analysis and member of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the Russian president, Alexander Verkhovsky, declared that it is impossible to understand the logic of these punishments. "Criminal cases against Jehovah's Witnesses have been going on in a continuous stream since 2018," the expert recalled. "They started then, and now they are gradually reaching verdicts. The process goes slowly. In the past year, by our reckoning, 46 persons were convicted. That's a lot. It's likely that no single campaign of persecution has unfolded with such rapidity recently. Now the punishments are gradually becoming more severe. Originally we all were very impressed with the sentence of 6 years for Dennis Christensen, but that was a clear exception, untypical for that time. But now, look, both 6.5 years and 7.5! In different regions. And there is no logic for why here it is suspended and there it is real time, here a lot, and there a little." "It seems to me that it depends on some personal attitudes of a local prosecutor or judge and also the F.S.B., which is involved in all of this," Verkhovsky noted. "The ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses is essentially illegal, since it is based on the fact that they distribute their brochures which are forbidden because they affirm the superiority of their faith and of the followers of the teaching. But this is the generally accepted opinion among believing people, that it is their faith that is most true and that it is not clear how it could ever enter anyone's mind to persecute anyone for this," the expert concluded. (tr. by PDS, posted 17 February 2021)



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