Six Jehovah's Witnesses Jailed in Russia for 'Extremism'

Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from the U.S. State Department.

Six more Jehovah's Witnesses have been jailed in Russia, the latest members of the religion to be detained for what the government deems "extremist" activity, but which church leaders insist is just expressing their faith.

Six men—Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky—were arrested in raids on their homes in in the southwestern city of Saratov on June 12, 2018. The men were charged under Part 1 of Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, which bans "organization of activities of an extremist organization."

Imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia
From top left: Jehovah's Witnesses Aleksey Budenchuk, Aleksey Miretskiy, Roman Gridasov, Konstantin Bazhenov, Gennadiy German and Feliks Makhammadiyev have been imprisoned in Russia for "extremist" activities. Jehovah's Witnesses

On Thursday, Judge Dmitry Larin of the Leninsky District Court of Saratov found all six guilty, sentencing them to between two years and 3.5 years each. Larin's ruling also prohibits the men from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years, and restricts their freedom of movement for an additional year after they're released.

In their final words, the men quoted from the Bible, thanked the court and insisted they didn't harbor any animosity, according to a press release from the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses, which claimed the men were jailed "for their peaceful Christian worship."

"The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is 'a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization,' said spokesperson Jarrod Lopes. "Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia."

"Having proved the religion of the defendants, which they did not hide, the court automatically interpreted this fact as the activity of a prohibited legal entity," Lopes added.

The men are appealing the convictions, which have been decried by both religious rights advocates and human rights groups.

"Six Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia just sentenced to prison... for 'extremism.' In other words, for nothing," Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. "They should be freed."

While Russia ostensibly affords freedom of religion, Jehovah's Witnesses were classified as an "extremist organization" in 2017, the same designation used for the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

In February 2019, another Jehovah's Witness, Danish national Dennis Christensen, was sentenced him to six years. That same month, officials in northwestern Siberia claimed to have arrested a group of Jehovah's Witnesses for preaching their superiority over other religious groups. It's unclear how many people were detained, but police said in a statement the group was "propagating extremist ideas and recruiting new members to the banned religious group."

Jehovah's Witnesses have also reportedly been subject to torture, including beatings and electric shocks.

"The agents stripped the men naked, put a bag over each suspect's head, and wrapped it with tape. Agents then tied each suspect's hands behind his back, smashed his fingers, and beat him on his neck, feet and kidney area," the church said in a statement to Newsweek in February. "The agents poured water over the men, shocked them with a stun gun in the anus area—gradually increasing the strength of the shock." While being tortured, the men were reportedly asked to identify where Jehovah's Witnesses' meetings took place and who their leaders were.

Russian authorities maintain the injuries were self-inflicted as a play for sympathy.

In 2011, the U.S. State Department issued sanctions against two Russian intelligence operatives, Vladimir Yermolayev and Stepan Tkach, for suspected involvement in torture and human rights violations against Jehovah's Witnesses.

There are approximately 170,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. In December, Vladimir Putin dismissed allegations the religion had been classified as a terrorist organization as "complete nonsense."

"Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, too. I don't quite understand why they are persecuted," he added. "So this should be looked into.."

Anatoly Pchelintsev of the Christian-based Slavic Center for Law and Justice told the BBC authorities are going for the easiest targets.

"The security forces are measured by results. And they give special value to cases of terror or extremism," he said. "So who else can they catch? They go after the pacifist Jehovah's Witnesses, to make up their statistics and justify their own existence."

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department decried the conviction.

"[We are] deeply concerned by Russian court decision to jail six Jehovah's Witnesses in Saratov for peaceful religious practice," tweeted State Department spokesperson Mrgan Ortagus. "We urge Russia to respect its citizens' rights to religious freedom and stop falsely accusing Jehovah's Witnesses of extremism."

Deeply concerned by Russian court decision to jail six Jehovah's Witnesses in Saratov for peaceful religious practice. We urge #Russia to respect its citizens' rights to religious freedom and stop falsely accusing Jehovah's Witnesses of extremism.

— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) September 21, 2019