Russia Is Arresting Jehovah's Witnesses and Holding Them in Lengthy Pre-trial Detention, Group Says

At least 26 members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group are being charged under Russia's draconian anti-extremism law, and seven are being held in pre-trial detention, according to members of the group.

Russia's government labeled the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist sect in April 2017 and has been targeting the estimated 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who live in the country ever since. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have had their places of worship raided and shuttered, and many have started worshiping in secret in their homes. Nevertheless, the Russian government has arrested numerous members of the group and charged them under article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits extremist activities and can lead to a jail sentence of around a decade. Arrests have taken place across the country, from Belgorod near the country's border with Ukraine to Vladivostok near the border with China and North Korea.

"In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that Russian authorities are not satisfied with banning our legal entity, they are determined to deny individual Witnesses their right to basic religious freedoms as guaranteed by the Russian constitution," David Semonian, international spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses, told Newsweek.

In mid-May, nine people were charged and two were in pre-trial detention in Orenburg, Russia. The most recent arrest took place on May 27, when members of the Russian security service, the FSB, launched another raid in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, located in the northeastern part of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, members of the group said.

"On May 27, 2018, searches were conducted on 10 homes of Jehovah's Witnesses in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. The searches were conducted by FSB officers. They seized electronic devices, mobile telephones, and international travel passports. The searches began in the evening and lasted until the early morning. Mr. Ilham Karimov and Mr. Vladimir Myakushin remain in FSB custody," Jarrod Lopes, a representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Newsweek.

"In the near future, a court will rule on whether to keep the Witnesses in pre-trial detention. Preliminary reports indicate that a criminal investigation has been initiated," he added.

International human rights experts argue that Russia's persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses is in violation of international human rights agreements.

"Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe [the continent's organization that upholds human rights] and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, is obligated to protect the rights to freedom of religion and association. The government has previously been found to be in violation of the European Convention for actions taken through the courts to dissolve communities of Jehovah's Witnesses," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Most of the Jehovah's Witnesses charged are Russian citizens, but one Danish citizen has been held in pre-trial detention for almost a year.