JW.ORG (01.09.2019) – https://bit.ly/2q7YEqK – Russian authorities are intensifying their attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses by conducting a campaign of terror reminiscent of the Soviet era. As of August 19, 2019, there are 38 Witnesses in prison, 24 under house arrest, and 88 who are not allowed to leave their hometown. All have been charged with organizing, participating in, or financing the activity of an “extremist” organization. At least 248 Witnesses are currently under investigation, ranging in age from 20 to 85 years old.
Officials attempt to justify their actions by citing the April 2017 ban on the Witnesses’ legal entities and misapplying Article 282 of the Criminal Code. In reality, they are prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses for peaceful worship. If convicted, some of those who have been arrested face prison terms of up to ten years.
Since February 2018, law enforcement officers have followed a general pattern when arresting and detaining Jehovah’s Witnesses. Heavily armed police forcibly enter Witnesses’ homes, often pointing guns at the heads of the residents—including children and the elderly—and forcing them to the floor. While officers search the premises, they confiscate personal belongings and take some Witnesses into custody for further interrogation. Investigators initiate criminal charges against selected Witnesses for alleged extremist activity and petition the courts to order their pretrial detention. Once the Witnesses are jailed, prosecutors petition the courts to extend the pretrial detentions, and the courts typically grant their requests.
On February 15, 2019, a particularly egregious incident took place in the city of Surgut, where law enforcement officers tortured seven male Witnesses after conducting searches of the homes of Witnesses in the area. The victims were stripped naked, suffocated, doused with water, beaten, and shocked with stun guns. The torture occurred on the first floor of the Russian Investigative Committee’s office in Surgut. Nineteen Witnesses (including one female) are under investigation for ‘organizing the activity of an extremist organization.’ Three of the men who were tortured are in pretrial detention.
Dennis Christensen’s unjust conviction upheld
After nearly a year-long criminal trial with over 50 court appearances, Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old Danish citizen, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for practicing his faith as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 6, 2019, Judge Aleksey Rudnev of the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol read the verdict convicting Mr. Christensen on the false charge of ‘organizing the activity of an extremist organization,’ under Article 282.2(1) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. On May 23, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Oryol Regional Court denied Dennis Christensen’s appeal and upheld the six-year prison sentence.
Mr. Christensen was arrested in Oryol on May 25, 2017, when heavily armed police officers and agents of the Federal Security Services disrupted a peaceful weekly religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses that he was attending. He is jailed in Penal Colony No. 3 in the Kursk Region.
Continued efforts to end unjust imprisonments
The marked increase in the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia shows that authorities intend not merely to shut down the legal entities of the Witnesses but to deny them the right to worship. Attorneys for these innocent Witnesses have so far been unsuccessful in ending the unjust imprisonments and have submitted complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) and have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights.
In a decision adopted on April 26, 2019, the WGAD denounced Russia’s systemic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a case involving Mr. Dmitriy Mikhailov from the city of Shuya. He was arrested and charged with “extremism” in the spring of 2018, merely for practicing his faith. The authorities placed him in pretrial detention, where he remained for 171 days. Although he is no longer jailed, Mr. Mikhailov is not allowed to leave his hometown and still faces criminal charges.
The WGAD found that Mr. Mikhailov’s arrest and detention violated rights and prohibitions guaranteed by international law—the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, the prohibition on unlawful detention, and the prohibition on religious discrimination. In its conclusion, the WGAD directed Russia to discontinue any criminal proceedings against Mr. Mikhailov and accord him just compensation.
In its decision, the WGAD noted: “[T]he actions of Mr. Mikhaylov have always been entirely peaceful, and there is no evidence that he or indeed Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have ever been violent or incident [incite] others to violence.” The WGAD concluded that his arrest and pretrial detention was based on religious discrimination and acknowledged that his case is “only one of the now ever-growing number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who have been arrested, detained and charged with criminal activity on the basis of mere exercise of freedom of religion.”
“[N]umerous other such cases have been raised . . . All these cases concerned the branding of peaceful religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist activities’ which has led to arrest and detention of individuals belonging to this religion. Therefore, although the present opinion concerns the particular circumstances of Mr. Mikhaylov, the Working Group wishes to emphasize that its findings in this opinion apply to all others in situations similar to that of Mr. Mikhaylov.”—UN Human Rights Council, Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its 84th session: No. 11/2019, Russia, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/WGAD/2019 (April 26, 2019), par. 77.
With no ambiguity, the WGAD stressed that its findings apply to all cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been charged with “extremism.” If Russia will not respect human rights standards, Jehovah’s Witnesses hope that international tribunals will take further action to stem Russia’s attack on their religious freedom.