The Russian authorities hold 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in custody on charges of organizing, participating or financing the activities of an “extremist organization” exclusively for their religious activities. Many others face the same charges and are under house arrest or subject to travel restrictions. The charges have a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are simply peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion,” said Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. “The faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not an extremist organization and the authorities should stop this religious persecution of its faithful now.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed four lawyers who defend Jehovah’s Witnesses in five regions and a representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Human Rights Watch also examined court documents, media reports, statements by the Russian government and photos and videos of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that aimed to show the raids.
Russia and Jehovah’s Witnesses
The raids and arrests stem from a ruling by the Russian Supreme Court of April 2017 that banned all Jehovah’s Witness organizations throughout Russia. The ruling declared the administrative center of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the head office for 395 branches of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia as an extremist organization and decided that all 395 would be closed. The sentence, which affects more than 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia, clearly violates Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom and freedom of association.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered persecution in the past in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, they were arrested and imprisoned in labor camps, including Siberia. In the last decade, the faithful throughout Russia have faced persecution, intrusive searches and arrests, and have been deprived of the rights to freedom of assembly, association and religion.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia for closing the Moscow branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses and refusing to allow the group to register again. The court found violations of articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which respectively protect freedom of religion and association. In addition to granting monetary damages, the court stated that Russia should review the internal decisions that led to the violations. Russia has refused to execute judgments in that case and many others brought by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the contrary, Russia continued to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses, seeking the complete dissolution of the group in Russia.
From April to June 2018, law enforcement raids targeted Jehovah’s Witness communities in at least 11 regions across Russia, from the Saratov region in South-Western Russia to the Primorsky Coast, in the Far East of Russia. The police carried out the raids, often accompanied by a combination of FSB officials wearing masks, armed personnel of the Special Forces of Police of the Ministry of the Interior or of the National Guard and representatives of the Investigative Committee, the investigative service of Russia.
Authorities, who have obtained search warrants or entry permits in most cases, have confiscated personal computers, cell phones, bank cards, passports, religious literature and, in some cases, house deeds. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including at least one child, have been taken to the local investigative offices for questioning. Others have been arrested and subsequently indicted.
A lawyer representing a Jehovah’s Witness who is in pre-trial detention in the Murmansk region told Human Rights Watch that the actions of the authorities contradict the guarantees of religious freedom in the Russian Constitution.
In at least two regions, armed officers threatened the faithful with guns, in one case pointing a gun at a person’s head, a lawyer familiar with the incident told Human Rights Watch.
A representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that about 160 Jehovah’s Witnesses fled Russia to seek refuge abroad.
On 20 June, the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights announced that it had asked the attorney general’s office to verify the legality of criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses practicing their faith. A week before, many of the men’s spouses in pre-trial detention had sent a letter to the prime minister, Mikhail Fedotov, asking him to ask President Vladimir Putin to end the raids and arrests and to restore freedom of religion in Russia.
Over 150 Russian activists, journalists and academics – including several members of Memorial, the leading Russian human rights group – have signed and published an open letter urging authorities to immediately release those in custody and revoke the Court’s decision Supreme to liquidate the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Under international law, freedom of religion includes the freedom to practice one’s religion or belief either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, and through worship, practice, and teaching. Russia already has many adverse judgments for its failure to respect the religious freedom of religious communities and minority religious groups, such as the Church of Scientology, the Salvation Army and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Russia should make its own with its national and international obligations to respect freedom of religion,” Denber said. “The Russian leadership should ensure that the police honor and protect this right, not trample it”.
Raids aimed at intimidation
In most regions, authorities have arrested people who have been identified as leaders and organizers of the local community of Jehovah’s Witnesses for actions that authorities label as “extremists” such as recruiting new members and distributing religious literature.
On May 16th, in the Orenburg region (South-West of Russia), law enforcement personnel searched 18 houses in four cities and charged nine people. Two are in custody and another is under house arrest.
On May 17th in Birobidzhan, in South-Eastern Russia, representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that about 150 law enforcement officers raided the homes of at least nine Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscating photos, bank cards, money and computers . One official reported that the operation was called “Judgment Day”. One person was arrested and charged with organizing activities of an “extremist organization” but was released from pre-trial detention eight days later.
On April 18, in the town of Polyarny, in the Murmansk region of North-West Russia, armed police officers broke into at least seven houses and arrested two men. They took many others into custody to question them and later released them. The police also arrested a 16-year-old girl and interrogated her at the local detective unit for several hours. A video posted on the Murmansk Investigative Committee website shows men wearing camouflage uniforms and helmets that force open a door to an apartment.
The campaign of arrest and raid took place while the trial against a Jehovah’s Witness, a Danish citizen, Dennis Christensen, continues in Orel, a city in Western Russia. Christensen, who was arrested in May 2017, is being tried on charges of organizing “extremist organization” activities and risks a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years. He filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, among other things, arguing that his arrest constituted an illicit interference with his right to freedom of religion.
Another Jehovah’s Witness in Orel, 55-year-old Sergei Skrynnikov, was charged on May 8, 2018, with participation in the activities of an “extremist organization”.
A lawyer who defends three Jehovah’s Witnesses in two regions said that in the last eight months FSB agents in the Orenburg region and the Bashkortostan Republic have conducted wiretaps, video tapes and other activities to monitor the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – for who said they had warrants – as part of the investigation. In some cases, the lawyer said, authorities have placed registration devices in the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In early 2018, police broke into over two dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses homes in Belgorod and Kemerovo. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgorod are facing extremism charges.