Source: Forum 18 News
By Victoria Arnold, Forum 18
At least 26 Jehovah’s Witnesses are in pre-trial detention, 28 under house arrest, and 42 under travel restrictions as more than 100 face “extremism”-related criminal charges. If convicted they could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Memorial human rights group condemned Dennis Christensen’s “shameful and anti-legal” six-year jail term.
The charges against them derive directly from the Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity throughout the country, and its decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre and all 395 local communities “extremist organisations”.
Of the more than 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses known to be facing criminal cases, as of 18 February, 26 are in pre-trial detention, 28 are under house arrest, and 42 are under travel restrictions.
The latest raids, early on 15 February, took place in several towns and villages across the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region in western Siberia and resulted in at least 15 people being taken away for interrogation.
As well as raids, detentions and criminal prosecutions, Jehovah’s Witnesses also face the loss of property and other problems. Young Jehovah’s Witness men have been denied their right to perform alternative civilian service rather than military service, and Jehovah’s Witness employees have been fired or forced to resign from their jobs. The children of Jehovah’s Witnesses have also faced threats and bullying by the authorities.
Such raids “turn the lives of innocent people into a nightmare, undermine their health, cause deep emotional trauma, and cast a shadow on their reputation in the eyes of neighbours, employers, and other people”, Jehovah’s Witnesses commented. Detentions especially can be difficult for relatives to cope with, both practically and emotionally. “For the first week I couldn’t sleep at all,” said Olga Korobeynikova, whose husband Vladimir is in detention in Kirov. “When I wake up, there’s just pain” (see below).
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses are challenging their criminal convictions for “extremism” offences allegedly committed before the 2017 nationwide ban.
Danish citizen Dennis Ole Christensen was jailed on 6 February for “continuing the activities” of the Oryol Jehovah’s Witness congregation, which was banned in 2016. This has brought renewed international condemnation of the Russian authorities’ treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and of the Extremism Law (see below)
Christensen’s lawyers are planning to lodge his appeal at Oryol Regional Court within the next few days.
The appeal hearing of Jehovah’s Witnesses Arkadya Akopovich Akopyan, who was in December 2018 found guilty of “inciting hatred and enmity” and sentenced to community service, will be on 1 March 2019 at the Supreme Court of Kabardino-Balkariya (see below).
Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently on trial:
– Sergei Vladimirovich Skrynnikov is charged with “continuing the activities” of the Oryol community (see below):
– and Yury Viktorovich Zalipayev from Kabardino-Balkariya is accused of issuing “Public calls for extremist activity” (see below).
“Shameful and anti-legal decision”
Russian human rights group Memorial on 8 February called the judge’s verdict in a “shameful and anti-legal decision” which has “brought Russia into line with countries with the most odious regimes”.
Christensen’s six-year prison term is also comparable to the sentences Jehovah’s Witnesses received in Soviet times, Memorial notes. “It is an absurd situation, when Jehovah’s Witnesses who were convicted by the Soviet regime .. are recognised as victims of political repressions in accordance with Russia’s Law on Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions, and at the same time, present-day Jehovah’s Witnesses are sent to prison.”
Memorial added: “This verdict shows once again the flawed nature of Russian ‘anti-extremist’ legislation, which allows almost anybody to be counted as an extremist. We demand that the unconstitutional ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses be lifted.”
International organisations have also expressed their concern at Christensen’s conviction and jailing, including the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent, and effectively criminalises the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia – in contravention of the State’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a 7 February statement. She noted similar concerns various UN human rights bodies have raised in recent years.
“We urge the Government of Russia to revise the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity with a view to clarifying the vague and open-ended definition of ‘extremist activity’, and ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred,” Bachelet added. “We also call on the authorities to drop charges against and to release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of religion or belief, the freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Muslims also targeted
Muslim readers of works by the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi are also prosecuted under “anti-extremism” legislation and have frequently been imprisoned or fined for involvement in the alleged banned “extremist” organisation “Nurdzhular”, which Muslims in Russia deny exists. Typically, such Muslims meet in private 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.
Between June 2017 and July 2018, six Muslim men were jailed for periods of between two and eight years for meeting together to study Nursi’s works. All were convicted under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1 (“Organisation of”), or Part 2 (“Participation in”) (“the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”). Three have begun serving their jail sentences (one of them of eight years), one received a suspended sentence, and two received fines.
The prisoners of conscience jailed in labour camps (“correctional colonies”) are:
1) Yevgeny Lvovich Kim, jailed by a Blagoveshchensk court for three years and nine months in June 2017;
2, 3, 4) Ziyavdin Badirsoltanovich Dapayev, jailed for four years, and brothers Sukhrab Abdulgamidovich Kaltuyev and Artur Abdulgamidovich Kaltuyev, jailed for three years each, by a Makhachkala court in November 2017;
5) Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev, jailed by Izberbash court for eight years in June 2018;
6) Imam Komil Olimovich Odilov, jailed by a Novosibirsk court for two years in June 2018.
All six prisoners of conscience are also on the Rosfinmonitoring “List of Terrorists and Extremists”, whose assets banks are obliged to freeze (although small transactions are permitted). Aliyev’s name was added on 30 August 2018, a month after his unsuccessful appeal against his conviction.
Two further Muslims accused of alleged involvement in “”Nurdzhular” also face trials.
Yevgeny Igoryevich Sukharev (born 9 April 1990) is still on trial at Sharypovo City Court (Krasnoyarsk Region), charged under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 2 (“Participation in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”).
Sukharev has been on trial and under travel restrictions since April 2018, and has undergone 21 hearings so far. He is next due to appear before Judge Inna Gavritskaya in the morning of 27 February 2019.
Denis Vladimirovich Zhukov (born 22 February 1988) remains under house arrest in Krasnoyarsk as the Investigative Committee’s investigation continues. He was also charged in August 2018 under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 2. It is unknown when his case might come to trial.