RELIGION

9 Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted of extremism for practicing faith in Russia

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(RNS) — Nine Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of extremism by a Russian court on Tuesday (March 5), receiving sentences of up to seven years in a penal colony for practicing their faith. Of those convicted, eight had already served more than two years in pretrial detention, often in solitary confinement, according to a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They plan to appeal the decision.

“Either I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or I am an extremist. It is impossible to be both at the same time,” Aleksey Solnechny said in Russian at court on Jan. 24, where he received a seven-year sentence. “And I declare: I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I am not an extremist!”

In the fall of 2021, Russian officers raided more than a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes in Irkutsk and the Irkutsk region, subjecting two families — Anatoly and Greta Razdobarov and Nikolay and Liliya Merinov — to beatings and torture. The two men were later called to be witnesses in the cases against their Jehovah’s Witness peers.

The officers suspected the Jehovah’s Witnesses of violating the Russian Federation’s ban on organizing the activities of an extremist group. In 2017, the Russian Federation’s Supreme Court banned the Witnesses’ activities and liquidated their legal entities. Since then, almost 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been criminally charged, according to the spokesperson, Jarrod Lopes.

The men charged in the case include Yaroslav Kalin, Sergey Kosteyev, Nikolay Martynov, Mikhail Moysh, Igor Popov, Denis Sarazhakov, Aleksey Solnechny, Andrey Tolmachev and Sergey Vasiliyev. They have reported receiving hundreds of letters of support while in detainment, during which, several said, they experienced cold temperatures, isolation, dim lighting and smells from dead rodents. The conditions have contributed to their poor health, they said.

Top row, from left: Nikolay Martynov, Sergey Kosteyev, Yaroslav Kalin, and Mikhail Moysh. Bottom row, from left: Igor Popov, Denis Sarazhakov, Aleksey Solnechniy, Andrey Tolmachev, and Sergey Vasiliyev. (Photos courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Top row, from left: Nikolay Martynov, Sergey Kosteyev, Yaroslav Kalin and Mikhail Moysh. Bottom row, from left: Igor Popov, Denis Sarazhakov, Aleksey Solnechny, Andrey Tolmachev and Sergey Vasiliyev. (Photos courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses)



At the trial at the Oktyabrsky District Court of Irkutsk between December 2022 and March 2024, the state prosecutor showed books said to be confiscated during the raids as well as secret recordings of worship services. Those charged contended that they did not violate any laws and denied they had promoted extremism. Their religious beliefs, they claimed, are separate from Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities, which were shut down in 2017.

 “The charges were largely based on secret audio recordings of worship services, where the men were praying, singing Christian songs and reading from the Bible. Ironically, one of the passages read was Psalm 34:14: ‘Seek peace and pursue it,’” said Lopes, referring to the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

“What does it say about a legal system that convicts people of extremist activity for reading a Bible verse that promotes peace? … We implore Russian officials to reconsider its misconceptions about Jehovah’s Witnesses and allow these peace-loving men and women to worship freely in their beloved homeland as Witnesses do in some 240 other lands.”



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