Hostile press coverage of Siberian Jehovah's Witnesses


Court sent Jehovah's Witnesses leader of Urai to SIZO

by Bogdan Budnik

Infopressa, 8 February 2019


The staff of the administration of Urai—the company Uraiteploenergiia—is used to the close attention of representatives of the regional directorates of the S.K.R., the F.S.B., and the M.V.D. However, the occasion for arrests and searches was not the work of a society specializing in the heat supply of the LUKOIL municipality, but the affiliation of one of its key figures in an extremist organization. Security forces established that the first deputy head of the heat supply enterprise, Andrei Sazonov, is at the same time coordinating the activity of a cell of the para-Christian sect of Jehovah's Witnesses, which was banned in 2017 by decision of the Russia Supreme Court. Under his leadership, the pastor gathered several dozen adherents, including (according to the words of this publication's sources) persons occupying rather significant offices in the city. At the same time, as sources note, the mayor's office was quite well informed about the adherence of Sazonov and his followers to the extremist organization, but they did not take any action. It is quite likely that inconvenient questions will be directed by the security agents to the head of Urai, Anatoly Ivanov, the chairman of the interagency commission for combating extremism. While officials are seeking excuses for their negligence, representatives of traditional confessions are reporting numerous complaints by parishioners against the adherents of the forbidden cult, and a court has approved initial arrests.


The Khanty-Mansi regional court has considered the petition by investigators concerning the selection of pretrial measures of restriction in the form of detention in custody with respect to the deputy director and chief engineer of the Uraiteploenergiia company, Andrei Sazonov. The manager was imprisoned for two months. The chief energy engineer of the city is accused of organizing and participating in the activity of an extremist community, a cell of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" that has been prohibited by decision of the Russian Supreme Court.


Yesterday in Urai, large scale searches were conducted in the places of residence and work of members of the religious movement that has been ruled to be extremist. With the participation of representatives of the Investigation Department of the S.K.R. for KhMAO-Yugra, the directorate of the Russian F.S.B. for Tiumen oblast, the Russian Guard, and the regional office of the M.V.D., a total of several dozen persons were arrested, although in the end most of them were released, as this publication's sources in the security agencies explain.


Only the pastor, Andrei Sazonov, remained under the supervision of law enforcement agents, who functioned in the structure as the leader and organizer. A criminal case was opened against him and an indictment has already been issued. According to article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF, he faces incarceration for a term of up to ten years.


During the searches in the homes and at the location of conspiratorial meetings, forbidden literature, mobile communication devices, computers, and other items having to do with the investigation of the criminal case were seized. The siloviki believe that members of the organization were engaged in, among other things, recruitment of new converts and also encouraging them to disrupt familial ties and to refuse to submit to bodies of governmental authority.


In this regard, it is noteworthy that the pastor of the Urai congregation, Andrei Sazonov, occupies one of the key offices in the city hierarchy. Moreover, the news agency's sources in the administrative apparatus of city hall express the opinion that he took advantage of the position of the current head of the municipality, Anatoly Ivanov, and "highly placed officials were able" to become adherents of the para-Christian sect.


"Sazonov was one of the leaders of the strategic enterprise that provides heat for all residences and industrial buildings of the reference point of LUKOIL. How did it turn out that the organizer of an extremist organization that is forbidden in Russia worked as a top manager for many years? The main shareholder of Uraiteploenergiia is the mayor's office and all the heads of the city in recent years, beginning from Aleksei Zabozlaev and ending with Ivanov, knew very well about such an interesting man. It should be noted that the chairman of the interagency commission of Urai for combating extremism is Mayor Ivanov. Is this criminal negligence or general patronage on his part?" the manager asks.


According to the official, Andrei Sazonov enjoyed the attention of the authorities of the municipality. In particular he was awarded a certificate of honor by the mayor of the city of Urai and other high honors. His activity as head of the para-Christian extremist organization was never considered at sessions of the standing commission. Moreover, Sazonov was unofficially considered to be the chief candidate for the post of general director of Uraiteploenergiia to replace Viktor Zhevlkov, who is supposed to retire soon. The news agency's source suggests that other highly placed persons of the municipality could be in the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.


Let's note that Uraiteploenergiia (75% belongs to the administration of the city and 25% to the holding company YuKEK) is the largest organization of housing and utilities of the municipality. Its portfolio includes 708.5 million rubles of government orders. This includes contracts for supplying heating service for most of the infrastructural buildings of the city, including those having strategic significance and also schools, child care centers, and medical institutions.


The chief engineer of the enterprise had previously found himself in the epicenter of conflict in 2016, connected, however, not with religious activity but with an attempt to prevent single pickets whose participants demanded lowering of fees. At the time, as citizens told the publication, despite appeals to the constitutional right of citizens to conduct peaceful demonstrations, he went out to the picketers and rudely demanded that they leave and then he called the police.


However, questions did not arise for city authorities immediately regarding the work of the chief energy engineer. This publication did not manage to get comments from Anatoly Ivanov, but his deputy, Igor Kozlov, spoke of Sazonov as a "qualified specialist." The manager said that no information about illegal religious activity of the deputy chief of Uraiteploenergiia reached the mayor's office.


"From the point of view of work, Andrei Sazonov is a technically qualified specialist, and there have been no complaints about his fulfilling the tasks of Uraiteploenergiia. In recent years he has not demonstrated his religious convictions and it was difficult to conclude that he was engaged in forbidden activity. Actually we received some such information earlier, but when the organization was prohibited, he stopped discussing these questions. We will now proceed from the court decision and then take measures. I stress that we unequivocally do not support this activity," the chief overseer of the city housing and utilities explained for the news agency.


We note that the direct responsibility for suppressing the activity of extremist communities in the city is borne by the chairman of the appropriate interagency commission of city hall, Anatoly Ivanov. Meanwhile, the city portal of civil society contains information about the existence of a cell of Jehovah's Witnesses in Urai, in the "Ethno-confessional passport" section. According to the information presented, the congregation consists of 40 persons who meet twice a week in an apartment of the pastor, Andrei Sazonov, and they also "distribute the Watchtower magazine and other religious literature on the streets of the city, through postal boxes of citizens, and by visiting apartments of city residents."


For some reason, this information did not attract Anatoly Ivanov's attention back in 2017, and now not only the relevant agencies but also the residents of Urai are interested in it. The sources of Pravda Urai on the whole point to the extremely low quality of personnel work in city hall.


"One can say that work with personnel in the administration of the city of Urai is frankly weak. Almost all leaders of the administration of capital construction in recent years were convicted; recently the chief editor of the city newspaper Znamia, which was founded by the municipality, was brought to criminal justice under articles concerning embezzlement and corruption. One should now not be surprised that among the leaders of an enterprise under the administration's control an extremist appears, who rejects the state and governmental bodies. The failed policy of the head, Anatoly Ivanov, has already brought the city of Urai to outsider status among all cities and districts of KhMAO-Yugra, and I consider that the government of the region should now give consideration before it becomes worse," a local politician, Leonard Nasibullin, shared his assessment.


We add that adherents of traditional confessions have regularly complained about the activity of the cell of Jehovah's Witnesses. The rector of the church of the Most Holy Mother of God, Archpriest Ioann Yurtsun, assessed the methods of the work of the movement harshly negatively.


"This activity, which has now been conducted for long years, first of all is directed to the destruction of the institution of the family and state. The sect is a real weapon. How many representatives of this organization there are in the city is not a question for me but for the administration and for the competent agencies, but complaints have come in over the course of many years. When I spoke about this, I was answered that this is emotion," the mitered archpriest shared his judgment with this publication.


Against the backdrop of events in Urai, a number of this publication's sources, including some close to law enforcement structures, point out that the operation "could have been completely aligned with the federal center." In any case, according to informed sources, the conduct of the operation on site was personally supervised by the acting director of the S.K.R. for KhMAO-Yugdra, Dmitry Sherman, and the chief of the criminal police of the region, Andrei Shabashov.


We note that on 20 April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled the activity of the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" and all 395 of its congregations in the regions to be extremist, and shortly thereafter the Ministry of Justice included them in the list of forbidden organizations. All of them continuously received financial and other support from abroad, primarily from the U.S.A. (the headquarters of the Jehovists are located in Warwick, New York).


Among the elements of the activity of the organization that are especially criticized from the point of view of society appear the aggressive recruitment of adherents, including in places not designated by law, calls for refusing family and submission to state agencies, prohibition of blood transfusion, which is especially dangerous for children, and also the establishment of total control over the personal life of members of each congregation.


Despite cautious assessment on the part of federal authorities, including Vladimir Putin, of the activity of the Jehovah's Witnesses, security agencies are governed primarily by existing legislation that explicitly connects them with extremists


"I would not rule out that events involving the large scale, practically simultaneous, arrests according to an identical pattern of adherents of Jehovah's Witnesses in Yugra and in Saransk on 7 February, and also the first real sentence in Orel (the leader of the local cell, Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, received six years incarceration, and this decision already has been quickly criticized in the West—ed. note) are links in the same chain. And in the near future one can expect similar actions in other regions also, and also the appearance of protectors of sectarians among highly placed officials," an insider suggested. (tr. by PDS, posted 28 February 2019)

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