RUSSIA: Two US Mormons released from custody return home

– RFE/RL (21.03.2019) –– Two Mormons who were detained in Russia and accused of violating immigration laws have been released and are returning home to the United States.

Americans Kole Brodowski, 20, and David Gaag, 19, “have been released” and were returning to the United States, Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in an e-mail to RFE/RL on March 20.

Russian media reports said the two men had been deported. The regional news site Novaya Kuban quoted unnamed sources as saying they took a predawn flight from the southern city of Krasnodar to Istanbul and would travel from there to New York.

Brodowski and Gaag, described by the church as “volunteers,” were detained by the authorities on March 1 “while engaged in a meeting at a local meetinghouse” in the Black Sea coastal city Novorossiisk, Hawkins told RFE/RL in a previous statement.

A court in Novorossiisk ruled on March 7 that the two U.S. citizens must be deported for what it called violations of immigration laws.

The detentions come with growing scrutiny within Russia on religious groups that don’t qualify as one of the four formally recognized religions.

Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia, but the Russian government and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church frown on proselytizing by foreign-based religious communities.

Russian law sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four traditional religions, and other faiths — including U.S.-based Christian communities — often face discrimination or restrictive action by state authorities.

Russia outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, declaring it “extremist,” and the group says that seven of its members in Russia were tortured by law enforcement officers in the Siberian city of Surgut in mid-February.

A Danish Jehovah’s Witness, Dennis Christensen, was convicted on February 6 of “organizing the activity of an extremist organization” and sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the western city of Oryol.

In its annual report on human rights around the world, issued on March 13, the U.S. State Department said that human rights abuses in Russia included “severe restrictions on religious freedom.”

While in custody, Brodowski and Gaag “were treated very well and maintained regular contact with their families and mission president,” Hawkins said in the March 20 e-mail.

“The church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law,” he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, has long been a presence in Russia, with members teaching English classes and proselytizing.

According to church figures, registered Mormons grew from 300 in 1991 — the year the Soviet Union collapsed — to more than 14,000 a decade later. Today, the church claims 23,000 adherents in Russia.

Brodowski was “nearing the end of his service” and would return home to the state of California, Hawkins said.

Gaag “will return to the United States for a short time, receive any needed support, and then continue his service in a new mission,” he said.

RUSSIA: 150 Jehovah’s Witnesses under investigation

– JW Headquarters (19.03.2019) – Almost two years after the ban of their movement in Russia, 150 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently under investigation.Already in 2019 Russian law enforcement has conducted raids on JWs in 10 cities in 6 regions (in 2018 Russian agents conducted 280 searches in about 40 regions throughout the Federation).

Latest figures regarding JWs facing criminal charges throughout Russia:

Pretrial Detention: 24

House arrest: 26

Ban on activities: 5

Recognizance: 55

Wanted: 4

Another EU citizen detained in Russia: Andrzej Oniszczuk from Poland

Andrzej Oniszczuk, 50, has been kept in solitary confinement for over five months, and is not permitted to lie down from 06:00 to 21:00. He is only allowed to take a shower with hot water once a week for 15 minutes. The administration of the detention center in Kirov refuses to allow Andrzej to have a Bible.

For the five months Andrzej has been detained, his wife, Anna, has not been allowed to visit him and has only communicated with him by letter. She has submitted several requests to visit Andrzej in prison; however the investigator in Kirov has repeatedly denied her requests. Typically prisoners in Russia can have visits from close family members, so it is unclear why such extreme action has been taken to keep Anna from seeing her husband.

You may recall that Andrzej was arrested on Oct 9, 2018, when local police and masked special-forces raided 19 homes and one former place of worship for JWs in Kirov, Russia. Andrzej is being accused of “extremist” activity for simply singing biblical songs, improving the skills of missionary work, and studying religious literature.

At the outset, Andrzej Oniszczuk was forced to sign a document under duress wherein he agreed to refuse visits by the Poland Embassy, so the embassy was initially unable to contact/assist. However, after several requests by the embassy, they have finally been allowed to visit/assist Andrzej. The address where Andrzej is being held:  FKU SIZO-1, UFSIN of Russia, Kirov Region, ul. Mopra, d. 1, Kirov, 610004. Andrzej’s pretrial detention has been extended twice (now through April 2, 2019).

A total of seven men in Kirov are facing criminal charges for practicing their faith. Four men (44-yr-old Maksim Khalturin, 66-yr-old Vladimir Korobeynikov, 26-yr-old Andrey Suvorkov, and 41-yr-old Yevgeniy Suvorkov) had been arrested in October 2018 and held in pretrial along with Andrzej. Yevgeniy continues in pretrial detention, however the three others have been released to house arrest. Two other men (63-yr-old Vladimir Vasilyev and 25-yr-old Vladislav Grigorenko) from Kirov have been under investigation since January 21, 2019 but are not yet under any restrictions.

BIO: Andrzej was born October 3, 1968 in the city of Białystok in northeastern Poland. After graduating from school, he became a lathe operator. Andrzej enjoys reading Russian literature, especially Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Pasternak. In 1997, he moved to Russia and worked for himself in the city of Kirov. There he met Anna, and they married in 2002.

Anna, Andrzej Oniszczuk’s wife, has agreed to talk to journalists (Polish or Russian only). Her phone number +7(961) 748 2088 (via Telegram or Signal).

Sergey Skrynnikov under threat of three years in prison

On the heels of the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol sentencing Dennis Christensen to six years in prison, another one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sergey Skrynnikov, also from Oryol is being criminally tried at the same court for his peaceful worship as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a verdict is expected on April 1, 2019.

On 18 March, prosecutor Nadezhda Naumova recommended that the Court sentence 56-yr-old Sergey to three years in prison followed by one year of additional restrictions for so-called extremist activity. Closing statements by the defense will be next Thursday March 28, with the court’s verdict will be at 10am on Monday April 1.

For more information, please contact Yaroslav Sivulskiy in Russia: (; call or WhatsApp +7 985 359 34 10+371 2 0044105).

RUSSIA/ AZERBAIJAN: Moscow signals a not-so-subtle tilt towards Baku

– Paul Goble –

Eurasia Daily Monitor (14.03.2019) – – Moscow’s recent decision to extradite a Talysh activist to Azerbaijan was a not-so-subtle sign that reinforced previous impressions the Russian government is tilting away from Armenia and toward Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin is anything but happy with Yerevan’s new government (see EDM, May 3, 2018; October 1, 2018). Moreover, the final piece of the North-South transit corridor between Russia and Iran has just fallen into place (see EDM, November 9, 2017; February 26, 2019), which makes Azerbaijan far more strategically important to Russia than ever before. Against that geopolitical background, Moscow’s move against the Talysh leader is reverberating in both Yerevan and Baku, and each is likely to act in the coming months on the basis of that understanding. Still, no one’s position has crystallized quite yet. It is entirely possible Moscow could again tack in another direction to maintain the tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh, an unresolved conflict that has been critical to the maintenance of Russian influence in the region.

Two weeks ago (February 28), Russian authorities extradited Fakhraddin Abozoda(Abbasov) to Baku at Azerbaijan’s request (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 1;, March 8;, March 10). For 25 years, Abozoda has been one of the most prominent leaders of the Talysh movement in Azerbaijan. Notably, he was involved with the short-lived Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic in 1994, and has had a role in all succeeding efforts to achieve autonomy for the members of this 600,000-strong minority inside Azerbaijan. Some of those endeavors were supported by Russia, and all of them had the backing of Armenia. Both countries viewed the Talysh movement as a check on Azerbaijani power (, October 21, 2018;, April 4, 2016;, October 22, 2018 and April 5, 2016). In 2018, the Azerbaijani authorities issued an arrest warrant for Abozoda, accusing him of having visited Armenia, allegedly meeting with Armenian special services, and having made “statements online against Azerbaijan and its territorial integrity” (, March 2).

Now, however, Moscow has decided to agree to one of Baku’s long-standing requests – to extradite Abozoda – which the Talysh as well as their backers in Russia and Armenian view as a betrayal. They say, the Talysh and the Armenians will be weakened and Moscow will receive nothing in return for fulfilling the request. Specifically, Alakram Gummatzoda, another prominent Talysh leader, says that anyone who thinks Azerbaijan will change its foreign policy because of this is being “naïve” (, March 13;, March 2). Instead, the argument goes, Baku will simply pocket the successful extradition and continue to press for its own goals with no regard for the rights of this ethnic minority or any change in direction vis-à-vis Moscow or Yerevan.

One way or the other, Armenians are reading the situation as a major shift in Moscow’s position toward their country and their nation. Andzhela Elibegova, a Yerevan-based specialist on Azerbaijan says the extradition of Abozoda shows that Baku intends to intensify its pressure against anyone in Azerbaijan with even a hint of pro-Armenian sympathies-and that Azerbaijan is willing to go after such people anywhere in the post-Soviet space. Specifically, she tells that Abozoda’s extradition represents “a precedent” and that “Armenians no longer are safe in the post-Soviet countries” (, March 11).

To the extent other Armenians draw the same conclusion, it will make the new Yerevan government even more likely to move away from Russia on the assumption that Russia is moving away from them and toward Azerbaijan. This further complicates Moscow’s efforts to play Armenia and Azerbaijan off against one another by leading one side to conclude that the Russians are on its side and not the other’s.

Why then did Moscow take this step? Possibly, some in the Russian elite were paid off, Gummatzoda suggests; in which case, the handover does not in fact represent a major shift in Russian policy (, March 13). But three other explanations are more likely. First, sacrificing someone Yerevan has long supported is yet another way for Moscow to show Armenia how unhappy it is with that South Caucasus country’s new course under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. And it is a reminder that Moscow could do even more against Armenian interests if Yerevan does not change direction.

Second, it could be an effort by the Kremlin to recover some of the standing it had lost with Baku as a result of Moscow’s restrictions on Azerbaijani diaspora activities in Russia. Thus, it is part of reasserting what the Kremlin views as a winning strategy of promoting Slavic-Turkic unity in small and large ways (, December 2, 2018). Extraditing the Talysh leader helps to soothe some of the anger over Russian pressure against the Azerbaijani diaspora while calling attention to good relations between the two countries’ leaders, Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, it may simply be a product of Azerbaijan’s new importance to Moscow as a transit route to Iran. The planned North-South Corridor has become more important to the Russian Federation given Western sanctions, and it is becoming more of a reality with the recent opening of a key rail section between Kazvin and Resht, in Iran. Moscow has long promoted this connection; and since the rail lines between Iran and Russia pass through Azerbaijan, Baku naturally now has more leverage. Russia’s extradition of a domestic opponent of the Aliyev government is a small contribution to enhancing this Russian-Azerbaijani cooperation (, March 6).

Again, this Russian action does not necessarily mean Moscow is about to abandon its positions on Karabakh or that Baku is about to fall permanently into the Russian column. In each case, too many factors work against such outcomes. But in the complex geopolitical environment of the Caucasus, such small moves often cast a large shadow; and the extradition of Abozoda may come to be seen as one such turning point.

RUSSIA: Dennis Christensen behind bars for 6 years: Outcry of the international community

– Human Rights Without Frontiers calls upon the European Parliament to adopt a resolution denouncing the egregious violations of religious freedom in Russia and to ask for the release of Dennis Christensen

HRWF (11.02.2019) – HRWF joins the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Union in demanding Mr Christensen to be released immediately and unconditionally and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Additionally, HRWF urges the European Parliament to adopt a resolution denouncing the egregious violations of religious freedom in Russia.

Council of Europe: Russia monitors express concern at sentencing of Jehovah’s Witness for ‘extremism’

CoE (07.02.2019) -The co-rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for the monitoring of Russia, Telmo Correia (Portugal, EPP/CD) and Angela Smith (United Kingdom, SOC), have expressed serious concern at the conviction and sentencing to six years imprisonment, by the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, of Dennis Christensen for “organising the activity of an extremist organisation” on the grounds that he is a practising Jehovah’s Witness.

“Mr Christensen’s conviction and imprisonment for nothing more than peacefully practising his faith is an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of religion,” said the co-rapporteurs. They emphasised that the European Court of Human Rights has already, on previous occasions, ruled in favour of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to worship without interference from the Russian authorities.

In addition, the co-rapporteurs reiterated concerns expressed by PACE about the abuse and arbitrary application of the so-called “extremism law” by the Russian authorities. They expressed their hope that Mr Christensen’s conviction would be overturned without delay by the appeals court and called on the Russian authorities to release him pending an appeal.


EU: Statement by the Spokesperson of Federica Mogherini on the sentencing of Dennis Christensen

EEAS (06.02.2019) -Today, a Russian court in the city of Oryol sentenced Mr Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, to 6 years of imprisonment.

Mr Christensen was arrested in 2017 when Federal Security Service agents raided a peaceful religious meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol. He has been convicted on grounds of ‘organising extremist activity’, which amounts to exercising his right to freedom of religion as a Jehovah’s Witness. A number of other criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses are also currently pending. No one should be imprisoned for peaceful acts of worship in the expression of their religious beliefs.

The European Union expects Mr Christensen to be released immediately and unconditionally. Jehovah’s Witnesses, as with all other religious groups, must be able to peacefully enjoy freedom of assembly without interference, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, as well as by Russia’s international commitments and international human rights standards.


USA: USCIRF condemns Russian conviction of Danish prisoner of conscience Dennis Christensen

USCIRF (07.02.2019) – Kristina Arriaga, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), today condemned the decision by a Russian court to convict and sentence Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah’s Witness, to six years imprisonment on charges of “organizing the activity of an extremist organization.

“Dennis Christensen’s conviction represents the continued deterioration of religious freedom in Putin’s Russia,” said Arriaga, who advocates on behalf of Mr. Christensen as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project. “Evidently, it’s not enough for the state to brand peaceful groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘extremist’; it must also imprison their members. Russia must enter the 21st century and respect religious freedom as a fundamental human right.”

In June 2016, following a trend of repression of religious minority communities throughout Russia, a regional court in Oryol, where Mr. Christensen resides, branded the local Jehovah’s Witnesses branch an “extremist” group. On May 25, 2017, state security forces disrupted a Jehovah’s Witness prayer service, detaining some 70-80 people for several hours and arresting Mr. Christensen, alongside 15 Russian citizens. Mr. Christensen had appeared in court more than 50 times before being convicted on February 6. He has already spent more than 622 days in Detention Facility No. 1 in the Oryol Region.

In 2018, USCIRF again recommended that Russia be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. In November 2018, the U.S. State Department placed Russia on a Special Watch list for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”


HRWF Database of FORB Prisoners contains documented cases of

  • 29 JW who were in prison last year (some were afterwards put under house arrest but most of them are still detained)
  • 7 cases of Said Nursi Followers (Muslim) and 4 cases of Tabligh Jamaat Muslims
  • 5 Scientologists

In all, more than 40 peaceful believers were in prison in Russia in 2018.Russia is Nr 3 after China and Iran in Tier 1.


RUSSIA: President Putin mitigates punishment for extremism

– By Alexei Druzhinyn –
– RAPSI (28.12.2018) – -Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law mitigating punishment for extremism and incitement of hatred and enmity.
The Federation Council approved the document on December 21. The State Duma passed it on December 19.
Under the legislative initiative submitted by Putin in October, criminal punishment would be imposed for extremist acts in public, on the Internet or media committed repeatedly within a year. They would be punished with prison terms ranging from 2 to 5 years.
The first extremist violation is to be punishable in accordance with the Code of Administrative Offences by fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($7,500) for companies; and fines of up to 20,000 rubles, community service for up to 100 hours or detention for up to 15 days for individuals.
These cases are to be launched by prosecutors and reviewed by courts. Statute of limitations for administrative liability is to be set for one year, instead of three months as of now. If a person commits an extremist crime within a year after being brought to administrative liability, he or she faces criminal punishment.
Amendments don’t apply to cases committed by an organized group or with the use of violence, threats of violence or abuse of office. In these cases, criminal liability is immediate and punishment may reach up to 6 years.
In September, the Supreme Court of Russia in its Plenum resolution explained that courts considering extremism cases should proceed from a level of public danger and hazard mode.
The Criminal Code of Russia attracts a criminal sentence for incitement of enmity but not for reposts on social networks. If a publication is extremist, malice of the repost must be proven, the Supreme Court’s Judge Vladimir Davydov said during the Plenum’s session.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova in turn stated that criminal sentence including imprisonment is disproportionately tough punishment for unintentional “likes” and reposts.

RUSSIA: Amendment of law may affect Jehovah’s Witnesses

Kavkazskii Uzel / Russia Religion News (28.12.2018) – – The sentence of Jehovah’s Witness* Arkady Akopian should be cancelled because of the decriminalization of the article concerning extremism, his attorney declared. Akopian became the first follower of Jehovah’s Witnesses* to be convicted of arousing religious strife.
As Kavkazskii Uzel reported, on 27 December a court found Arkady Akopian, an adherent of the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses* from Prokhladnyi, guilty on the basis of part 1 of article 282 of the Criminal Code of the RF (arousing hatred and enmity) and sentenced him to 120 hours of compulsory labor. Akopian’s defense insists on his complete innocence.
On 27 December, the Russian president signed a law amending article 282 of the Criminal Code, and these amendments make the sentence of Akopian baseless even from the position of the prosecution, Anton Omelchenko, the attorney of the defendant, declared. He intends to appeal the sentence in the Supreme Court of Kabardino-Balkaria by 29 December. After the mitigation of part 1 of article 282, it is now impossible to convict adherents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses* based upon it, agrees a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses,* Yaroslav Sivulsky.
After the partial decriminalization of article 282, criminal cases based upon it may be opened only in the event of a repeated violation. The only remaining exceptions are crimes posing a serious threat to the foundations of the constitutional order or to the security of the state. The article was mitigated after a number of cases that were opened for reposting on social networks, Pravo reported today. The amendments will have retroactive force: after the law takes effect, sentences that were in effect on the basis of this article will be cancelled and cases that have been opened will be suspended, Interfax reported today.
The case of Arkady Akopian is unique: only six followers of the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses* have been tried on the basis of part 1 of article 282 of the CC, and only Akopian’s case culminated in a conviction, noted Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center for News and Analysis. “The overwhelming majority of criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses* were opened on the basis of article 282.2 (participation in an extremist organization). Akopian was accused of inciting religious hatred,” he told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.
At the same time, Arkady Akopian became the first adherent of Jehovah’s Witnesses* to be convicted after the total ban of this organization in Russia, Verkhovsky pointed out. This was confirmed also by Yaroslav Sivulsky. “There are now 90 Jehovah’s Witnesses* in a SIZO. Not a single case begun after the total ban has reached trial. At the same time, many cases that were considered after regional bans led to sentences,” Alexander Verkhovsky said.
Sivulsky thinks that Akopian’s sentence will not affect other cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses.* He noted that the investigation has managed to persuade the court on only one point of an accusation: mass distribution of forbidden literature.
“In April 2017, back before the liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses,* searches were conducted in Akopian’s home. But law enforcement agents did not manage to find anything forbidden and they went silent for a year. And suddenly the case was revived and there appeared witnesses of a speech by Akopian that insulted Christians and Muslims. Among other things, people suddenly appeared who were inspired by Akopian and who began distributing forbidden publications. In all, five publications were distributed, which was regarded as ‘mass distribution.’ All this-from beginning to end-was fabricated; there was nothing to it,” the representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses* declared.
During punishment, Akopian’s freedom of movement is limited
This kind of punishment as corrective labor is considered in legal circles as lenient, noted Evgeny Chernousov, an attorney and retired colonel of the MVD. He explained that the convict is supposed to be given a time for conducting such public work like cleaning up an area. The convict’s start of labor and its completion should be noted. In addition, while serving the punishment, the convict may not leave the region of his residence unless it is necessary for doing the public labor, Chernousov told a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.
Since Akopian’s sentence still has not taken effect, no restrictions have been imposed on him, attorney Anton Omelchenko noted. “Conviction on article 282 of the CC of the RF places a person on the list of extremists, which makes it impossible to use bank accounts for a long time and difficult to get insurance and use a vehicle. This does not affect the retired Akopian, but it is worth defending his good name,” he added.
Arkady Akopian himself refused to comment on the court’s decision for a Kavkazskii Uzel correspondent.
*The organization was ruled to be extremist and its activity is prohibited in Russia by court decision.
(tr. by PDS, posted 31 December 2018)