Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia Have Property Seized by the Government Amid Ongoing Crackdown

The Jehovah's Witnesses religious group lost control over a $31.8 million real estate complex in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday after the city's court upheld a lower court's decision that the property should be seized by the government.

The ruling that will allow the Russian government to appropriate the religious group's property was made exactly one year after the Russian government branded the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization and launched an ongoing crackdown against its members. The Jehovah's Witnesses had appealed the lower court's decision to confiscate the sprawling administrative complex, arguing that one of the group's U.S. corporations is the legal owner.

"The original ruling by the Sestroretskiy District Court in December 2017 ignored evidence that the Witnesses' office is owned by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (WTPA), a nonprofit corporation based in the United States," the organization said in a statement.

"Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia transferred the property to WTPA in 2000, and WTPA has since paid some $3 million in property taxes to the Russian Federation," the statement continued.

This argument did not sway the St. Petersburg Court, however. Russian judges have repeatedly upheld rulings that argue the Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian denomination with more than 8 million members worldwide, is an extremist sect. It was so widely assumed that the St. Petersburg court would uphold the lower court's ruling that Russian media reported that the Almazova medical research center had requested permission to take over the center from the Russian government a week before the final decision on the appeal was made.

"This represents an unlawful influence by a third-party on a court that has yet to render its decision," Jarrod Lopes, a U.S. representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Newsweek.

Meanwhile, people attending the court hearing said the judge took just a few minutes to make a decision.

"The atmosphere in the court wasn't bad, but when you are there you have the feeling that it's a theater. It looks like the decision was already made, like it's not a real court," Yaroslav Sivulsky, a Jehovah's Witness from Russia, told Newsweek.

"We tried to fight for our interests and our lawyers were brilliant, but the prosecutor's side did nothing. She only said she supported a written statement she already made, and then the court deliberated for five minutes before they made their decision," Sivulsky described.

Advocates for the Jehovah's Witnesses said they have reached out to foreign embassies in Russia in an attempt to garner support for their cause. Nevertheless, hundreds of Jehovah's Witnesses centers have been shuttered around Russia and the roughly 150,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the country have gone into hiding.