Criminal courts in Russia on Monday sentenced six Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms ranging up to 7 years, the group’s world headquarters reported. Trials were held in Gukovo, a mining town near the Ukrainian border, and Kursk, in central Russia, the organization said.
Witnesses Aleksey Dyadkin, Aleksey Goreliy, Nikita Moiseyev, Vladimir Popov, Yevgeniy Razumov, and Oleg Shidlovskiy had spent more than two years in pre-trial detention, spokesman Jarrod Lopes said via email. The individual sentences of each member were not disclosed.
The Russian Federation banned the Witnesses — who operated underground during the Soviet era but flourished after restrictions were lifted in the early post-Communist years — in 2017, labeling them a “subversive” organization.
In June, the European Court of Human Rights imposed a $67 million fine on Russia for violating the Witnesses’ rights, and ordered the nation to drop the ban. The Russian Federation dropped its membership in the Council of Europe and no longer sees itself under the ECHR’s jurisdiction, however.
Mr. Lopes asserted that the Russian members were charged “with holding meetings with fellow believers, praying and singing songs to Jehovah God.”
Mr. Lopes said, “It remains cruel, yet sadly not so unusual, that Russia continues to imprison peaceful family men, separating them from their wives and children. Including these six men, Russian courts have convicted and sentenced to prison a total of 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses this year, simply for the peaceful practice of their Christian beliefs.”
Since the 2017 ban, Mr. Lopes reported, 642 Witnesses have been criminally investigated, prosecuted or convicted by authorities in Russia. A total of 99 have been jailed: 32 in prison colonies, and 67 of that number either in pretrial detention awaiting conviction or an appeal). Eighteen are under house arrest, and nearly 1,800 members’ homes have been raided.
Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told The Washington Times via email that the panel was “disappointed” by the sentences.
“With this latest decision, Russia has unfortunately demonstrated that it will continue its inexplicable and relentless targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities,” she said.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is closely allied to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Witnesses have clashed with the Kremlin over some of the faith’s practices, including a strong tradition of proselytizing, the rejection of military service for members and a refusal to observe national holidays.