June 25th, 2021 | Forum18

Courts have handed 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses suspended sentences of up to seven years as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity. One Muslim who met other Muslims to study theologian Said Nursi’s works was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2018. Although those sentenced remain free, they must live under restrictions imposed by the courts and report regularly to probation authorities. If they are found guilty of another crime or repeated administrative offences – including any unrelated to their earlier convictions – they risk being sent to prison.

Suspended sentences are now the most common form of punishment handed down to Jehovah’s Witnesses found guilty of “organising” or “participating” in allegedly “extremist” activity such as continuing to meet for worship. No Muslim readers of the works of theologian Said Nursi – who face similar “extremism” prosecutions – are known to be serving suspended sentences (see below).

On 12 May 2021, the same trial – at Industrial District Court in Perm – resulted in both the oldest person so far given a suspended sentence, and the longest suspended sentence so far. Eighty-year-old Boris Burylov received a suspended sentence of two years and six months, while 52-year-old Igor Turik received a seven-year suspended sentence (see below).

Both Burylov and Turik also received a four-year probationary period, during which a further offence may result in their imprisonment.

Since 2017, courts have handed fines to 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and two Muslims who met other Muslims to read Nursi’s works. Ten of the Jehovah’s Witness fines were imposed following the 2017 nationwide ban, and one fine as a consequence of the 2016 ban on the Jehovah’s Witness community in Oryol.

The fines imposed have so far been towards the lower end of the range stipulated by the Criminal Code. They still represent a serious financial penalty, in some cases amounting to more than 10 times the average Russian monthly salary. Other financial problems are caused when people are placed on the Rosfinmonitoring “List of Terrorists and Extremists” while under investigation or after conviction.

(A list of the 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses with suspended sentences currently in force, and the 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses and two Muslims who have been fined since 2017 is at the foot of this article. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief are listed in a separate article.)

The longest probationary period – during which another offence may lead to imprisonment – is five years, imposed on four Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow, Smolensk, and Primorye Regions. The largest known fine is 700,000 Roubles, received by Yevgeny Spirin from Ivanovo Region on 28 July 2020.

Consequences of suspended sentences

If the convicted person commits another crime or repeated administrative offences while a suspended sentence is in force, they might be jailed.

Jehovah’s Witnesses already serving suspended sentences have described the consequences of suspended sentences, including being unable to see relatives living in other regions, and finding it impossible to secure jobs. They must also register regularly with probation authorities, and police may visit their homes at any time to check that they are obeying night-time curfews and travel restrictions.

Further trials to come of Muslims who met to read Nursi’s works?

Muslims who meet to study the writings of Said Nursi may also be prosecuted under the Extremism Law for organising or participating in the activities of “Nurdzhular”. This organisation was banned as “extremist” in 2008, but Muslims in Russia deny it ever existed. Typically, such Muslims meet in homes to study Islam, with one or more expounding on Nursi’s works. They also pray, eat, and drink tea together, and do not seek state permission to meet.

No trials are currently underway of Muslims who met to study Nursi’s works. This may change, as four people are facing prosecution in the Tatarstan and Dagestan Republics.

There have been no convictions for such meetings since a Krasnoyarsk court fined 24-year-old Andrei Rekst three months’ average wages in October 2018.

No Muslims who met other Muslims to read Nursi’s works are currently known to be serving a suspended sentence. The last such sentence was a two-year suspended sentence handed down on 14 August 2018 to 27-year-old Sabirzhon Kabirzoda.

More than 470 Jehovah’s Witnesses under investigation, on trial, or convicted

More than 470 Jehovah’s Witnesses remain under investigation, are on trial, or have been convicted for continuing to meet for prayer and Bible study after the 2017 Supreme Court ban. They argue that the ban applies to the activities of the Administrative Centre and its subsidiary local congregations as legal entities, not to Jehovah’s Witness beliefs or to their expression, whether individual or collective.

A total of 107 people have now received sentences, including 10 fines, 69 suspended sentences, and 28 prison terms. Several court decisions have not yet come into force, as appeals are still pending.

Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses have been convicted of “continuing the activities” of the local Jehovah’s Witness religious organisation in Oryol, which was liquidated as “extremist” in 2016, before the nationwide ban. One of them – Danish citizen Dennis Christensen – was given a six-year prison term in February 2019. The other, Sergey Skrynnikov, was fined about 18 months’ average local wages in April 2019.

Courts in Crimea and Sevastopol, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, have also sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims to imprisonment for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief.

In the last four years, only one Jehovah’s Witness – Yury Zalipayev from the Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya – has been acquitted of an extremism-related offence. His case was unconnected to the 2017 ban.

Charges against a further nine have been dropped. Eight of them were being prosecuted as a consequence of the 2017 ban, the other on unrelated “extremism” charges.

Variety of sentences, no one acquitted

Despite the similarities in the activities being prosecuted, trials have so far ended in a variety of sentences – from prison terms of several years, to suspended sentences of varying lengths, to a range of fines. There has also been one sentence of assigned labour, later changed to a fine.

No one prosecuted in cases relating to the 2017 nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses has been acquitted. Judges have returned some cases to prosecutors who later resubmit them. Defendants have sometimes succeeded in getting sentences reduced (most recently, Krasnodar Regional Court reduced Aleksandr Shcherbina’s three-year prison sentence to two years on appeal on 24 June), or having cases sent for retrial on appeal, though no conviction has yet been overturned.

Six Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been charged or named as suspects in criminal cases are known to have died – four while under investigation, one shortly before his trial began, and one after investigators had closed the case against her, but before she had received any compensation.

Raids on homes continue

The Investigative Committee, police, the FSB security service, and National Guard troops continue to raid Jehovah’s Witness homes. Some of the raids have included torture, with no arrests or trials of suspect torturers. The most recent known raids were in Krasnoyarsk Region on 11 June, Kemerovo Region on 8 June, and Khabarovsk Region on 5 June. Prosecutions are currently underway in 65 of Russia’s 83 federal subjects.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in May 2020 adopted a wide-ranging Opinion condemning the “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”.

Prisoners of conscience

Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who met to study the works of theologian Said Nursi have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to eight years.

At present, only one Muslim who met with other Muslims to read Nursi’s works remains imprisoned – Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev (born 16 February 1977). A court in Dagestan sentenced him in May 2018 to eight years’ imprisonment plus two years of restrictions on freedom for alleged involvement in “Nurdzhular”.

Another Muslim, Yevgeny Kim, who met others to study Nursi’s writings, was sentenced to three years and nine months’ imprisonment in June 2017. In January 2019, he was stripped of his Russian citizenship, and was immediately placed in a detention centre for foreign and stateless persons upon his release in April 2019. He has remained there ever since, as his birthplace of Uzbekistan refuses to accept him.

Read the full list Forum18