June 9th 2021 Victoria Arnold | Forum 18
Since November 2020, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims convicted on extremism-related criminal charges and serving jail terms or awaiting appeals has almost doubled, from 11 to 21. Of these, 20 are Jehovah’s Witnesses and one is a Muslim who met with others to study theologian Said Nursi’s works. All were sentenced to terms in general-regime labour camps (ispravitelniye kolonii, “correctional colonies”).
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 (see full list of all 24 prisoners of conscience at the end of this article).
Among recent convictions, in February 2021, Abakan City Court jailed 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya for two years to punish her for meeting fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses for worship, a verdict her lawyer described as “devoid of all sympathy and compassion”. Her 46-year-old son Roman Baranovsky was jailed for six years. Baranovskaya is the oldest – and first female – Jehovah’s Witness to be sentenced to imprisonment since the 2017 ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity.
Recent convictions bring to 29 the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses (and one Muslim who met others to read theologian Said Nursi’s works) sentenced to imprisonment since May 2018 for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief. All but one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced as a direct consequence of the Supreme Court’s 2017 liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre, and the consequent prohibition of Jehovah’s Witness activities nationwide.
In November 2020, 8 Jehovah’s Witnesses and one Muslim who met with others to study Nursi’s works were serving terms in general-regime labour camps, and another two Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained awaiting appeal. Another Muslim who met other Muslims to study Nursi’s writings had been stripped of his Russian citizenship, and was awaiting deportation in a detention centre for foreigners and stateless persons.
Currently serving prison terms or detained
Of the 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses (10 more than in November 2020) and two Muslim readers of Nursi’s works currently on 9 June 2021 serving prison terms or in detention:
– 15 are already serving their terms in general-regime labour camps across the country, usually hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from their home regions;
– 6 are being held in detention centres while their appeals are pending;
– and 1 is awaiting deportation in a detention centre for foreigners and stateless persons.
One other Jehovah’s Witness – Alevtina Bagratyan – remains under house arrest awaiting her appeal. The three Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted with her in Kursk on 3 June are among the six being held in detention centres while their appeals are pending.
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were previously in prison have been released and deported from Russia to Uzbekistan and Ukraine. They were deprived of their Russian citizenship in 2020 as a direct result of their convictions.
Six of the 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted and jailed since May 2018 were released upon (or shortly after) conviction. This was because they had already served equivalent terms in detention while under investigation and on trial.
Over 470 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 their expression by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
No trials are currently underway of Muslims who met to study Nursi’s works, but three people are facing prosecution in the Tatarstan and Dagestan Republics.
A total of 104 people have now received sentences, including 10 fines, 66 suspended sentences (see forthcoming article), 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 – has been imprisoned.
At present, only one Muslim who met with others 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”.
Courts in Russia’s illegally annexed territories of Crimea and Sevastopol have also sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims to imprisonment for exercising their freedom of religion and belief.
Acquitted, charges dropped
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.
Raids on Jehovah’s Witness 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 Kemerovo Region on 8 June, Khabarovsk Region on 5 June, Lipetsk Region on 1 June, and Altay Region on 27 May. Prosecutions are currently underway in 64 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”.
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.
Despite the similarities in the manifestations of freedom of religion and belief being prosecuted, including meeting in each other’s homes to pray and sing together, study sacred texts, and to discuss shared beliefs, trials have so far ended in a variety of sentences. These have ranged from prison terms of several years, to suspended sentences of varying lengths, to a range of fines. 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, though judges have returned some cases to prosecutors who later resubmit them. Defendants have sometimes succeeded in getting sentences reduced, or having cases sent for retrial on appeal, though no conviction has yet been overturned.