Why did Putin's comments not help Jehovah's Witnesses?


by Viktor Vladimirov

GolosAmeriki, 6 October 2019


Russian experts on why the prosecutions of the religious minority are continuing despite the Russian president's statement


The Russian rights advocacy organization Memorial has recognized several more representatives of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses as political prisoners who are being persecuted for political reasons. The total number of adherents of this religious denomination who are being prosecuted in Russia for their convictions has exceeded 200 persons.


As representatives of Memorial note, the declaration that organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses are extremist is baseless and is a violation of the right to freedom of conscience and to freedom of association, and the criminal prosecution of followers of this peaceful religious teaching is illegal and discriminatory.


The rights advocates are calling for the immediate release of all Jehovah's Witnesses who are in custody or under house arrest and for the termination of their criminal prosecution.


We recall that in Russia Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to criminal prosecution for their religious convictions after the decision of the Supreme Court of 2017 that ruled them to be an "extremist organization."


In December of last year, at a session of the Council on Human Rights under the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, commenting on the situation of Jehovah's Witnesses, called it "complete nonsense" and he agreed that it is necessary to deal with this, promising to discuss this topic with the head of the Supreme Court, Viacheslav Lebedev.


"Jehovah's Witnesses also are Christians, and I also do not really understand what they are being prosecuted for," Putin said at the time.


After the president's statement, the repressions abated somewhat, but then they were revived with new force. In the Siberian city of Surgut, rights advocates identified the use of tortures against believers, which received widespread public resonance both in Russia and throughout the world.


The U.S.A. imposed sanctions against officers of Russian investigative agencies who are suspected of torture of Jehovah's Witnesses who were in custody. The State Department declared that interrogations were conducted under the supervision of these officers, during which at least seven believers were subjected to suffocation, electric shock, and brutal beatings.


The chief editor of the magazine "Religiia i Pravo," Anatoly Pchelintsev, in an interview with a correspondent of the Russian Service of Voice of America, noted that when believers are tortured, as happened in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses, and are imprisoned, it becomes clear that freedom of conscience in Russia has finally become a myth. Pchelintsev said this constitutional norm of the law has been forgotten in the country.


"Of course, such circumstances require solidarity with the international rights advocacy community," he added. "And if this topic is insufficiently covered in our news media due to certain reasons, then it must be widely presented abroad. Continual pressure should be exerted on Russian authorities so that they will reconsider their position."


If it is impossible in practice to organize pressure on the inside, then it is necessary to do this from abroad, Pchelintsev thinks.


As regards Putin's words about Jehovah's Witnesses, in Pchelintsev's opinion they "just hung in the air." "Hence the question arises: who is managing the government today, the president or law enforcement agencies?" the expert summed up.


The announcer of the religious section Daily Journal, Svetlana Solodovnik, in a commentary for the Russian Service of Voice of America, emphasized that repressions of the Jehovah's Witnesses have been ratcheted up, and now it is difficult to restrain the law enforcement system. "This is happening throughout the country, mainly in the provinces and not in the capitals. And some time must pass in order to rein in extremely zealous officials and to reduce everything to a more or less normal framework," Solodovnik notes.


According to the newswoman, in order for Putin's remark to take effect it was necessary to reinforce it with appropriate decisions and documents, but this was not done.


"It is possible that Putin does not fully control the process. On the other hand, he is not trying to do so. It seems to me that the president is satisfied with what the investigative bodies and the F.S.B. are doing and he thinks that they have the right. In any case, it is not evident that he has corrected their work in any way," Svetlana Solodovnik concludes. (tr. by PDS, posted 7 October 2019)



Website of Rights Advocacy Center Memorial, 1 October 2019


The total number of Jehovah's Witnesses being prosecuted for faith at the present time has reached 206.


In May, when we last updated the list of Jehovah's Witnesses who are being prosecuted, it included 154 names. Memorial knows of 25 new defendants who are being held in custody. A measure of restriction in the form of house arrest has been chosen for 4 believers. We know of another 24 Jehovah's Witnesses who are at liberty, but are being subjected to criminal prosecution for the peaceful profession of their religion.


The total number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia who are political prisoners as of 1 October 2019 is at least 66, of whom 38 persons are in custody and 28 are under house arrest. Besides this, at least 140 believers are being prosecuted for political reasons while they are not in custody and the prosecution of three believers has concluded with amnesty or suspension of sentences not connected with imprisonment. Thus, since the start of widespread repressions in April 2018, at least 209 Jehovah's Witnesses have been held criminally accountable, and this number is growing without interruption.


A trend of a relative decrease in the rate of the growth of the number of those in custody, that was noticed in the spring of 2019, was reversed by the beginning of autumn. At the same time, it has become rarer for political prisoners under house arrest to be released on their own recognizance, which allows one to speak about an intensification of the repressive policy with respect to Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities.


The list of those prosecuted on a charge of belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses, which is regularly updated, has come to our website.


Since May, seven defendants in cases against Jehovah's Witnesses have received sentences in two judicial proceedings:


On 4 July, the Ordzhonikidze district court of Perm sentenced Alexander Soloviev, indicted on the basis of part 2 of article 282.2 of the CC RF (participation in the activity of an extremist organization), was fined 300,000 rubles;


On 19 September, the Lenin district court of Saratov sentenced 6 Jehovah's Witnesses, indicted on the basis of part 1 of article 282.2 of the CC RF (arranging the activity of an extremist organization) to imprisonment for terms of from 2 to 3.5 years. Konstantin Bazhenov and Aleksei Budenchuk were sentenced to 3 years 6 months in a penal colony of general regime, Feliks Makhammadiev was sentenced to 3 years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Aleksei Miretsky were sentenced to 2 years in a penal colony of general regime. All of the convicts were given an additional punishment in the form of prohibition of holding office in public organizations for a period of 5 years and of limitation of freedom for one year, after which the defendants were placed in custody in the courtroom.


The position of Memorial with respect to the prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses:


We still consider the declaration of the organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses to be extremist to be baseless and a violation of the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freedom of association and we consider the criminal prosecution of adherents of this peaceful religious teaching to be illegal and discriminatory.


We continue to consider all of those Jehovah's Witnesses who are in custody or under house arrest to be political prisoners and we call for them to be released immediately.


We also demand the termination of criminal prosecution of those believers who are under other measures of restriction.


Recognition of a person as a political prisoner does not mean either that the rights advocacy center Memorial agrees with the views and statements of persons recognized as political prisoners or approves of their statements or actions. (tr. by PDS, posted 7 October 2019)


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