Two Jehovah’s Witnesses have been convicted of extremism in Russia’s Far East, the group said Tuesday amid what activists say is an escalating crackdown on the religious group, The Moscow Times reports.
The ruling to hand the two worshippers in the Khabarovsk region a two-year suspended sentence comes after Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist” organization in 2017. A court found Jehovah’s Witnesses Nikolai Polevodov and Stanislav Kim guilty of membership in an extremist organization, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia group said.
Polevodov and Kim are also among six fellow believers currently awaiting a verdict on charges of organizing an extremist organization. They were detained during a raid on what the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia called a non-religious gathering at a cafe in 2018.
Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Polevodov and Kim to three years in prison. The court database withholds the defendants’ names but notes that Tuesday’s verdict is guilty.
Two more Jehovah’s Witnesses in northern Russia have been charged with extremism at the end of January, law enforcement authorities. At least 14 people were detained in the town of Pechora during raids across 10 addresses, the severrealii.org news website reported. It named Gennady Skutelts, 43, and Gennady Polyakevich, 60, among the four people held in detention for more than 24 hours.
Russia’s Investigative Committee in the republic of Komi said it accused an unidentified 60-year-old worshipper of “continuing the organization’s illegal activities in 2018-2019” despite the ban.
“The 43-year-old defendant and other unidentified persons took part in the activities of the aforementioned extremist organization,” it said in a statement.
If found guilty, the two face up to 12 years in prison.
The republic of Komi is the 52nd region where authorities have opened criminal cases against local Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the religious organization’s database. It estimates that 313 people have been charged or convicted since the Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization in 2017.
The April 2017 ban forced 395 branches across Russia to shut down and at least 5,000 worshippers to flee the country, according to media reports. The Jehovah’s Witnesses group estimates that it has about 170,000 followers in Russia. Rights groups have condemned the crackdown against the Christian denomination as a violation of religious freedom.
Human Rights Watch said 2019 marked an escalation in the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, with nearly 500 raids and 18 convictions, including nine real prison sentences.
President Vladimir Putin called the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses under anti-extremism law “complete nonsense” in 2018.