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Imprisoned for Their Faith​—Russia

Imprisoned for Their Faith​—Russia

The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern-day Russia is an account of oppression and persecution. For much of the 20th century, Russian authorities have abused and mistreated the Witnesses, although they were known to be peaceful, law-abiding citizens. The aim of the government of the Soviet Union was to convert them, either by persuasion or by force to Soviet ideology. Thousands were exiled to Siberia. They were forbidden to possess Bibles or religious literature. They were under constant surveillance and had to hold their religious meetings in secret. If discovered, they were subjected to beatings and long prison sentences.

That began to change in 1991 when the Russian government granted legal recognition to Jehovah’s Witnesses and allowed freedom of worship without interference from the authorities. However, the period of peace did not last long.

In 2009, opposition and restrictions began to escalate when the Russian Supreme Court upheld a decision of a lower court to label a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist.” After years of legal battles, in April 2017 the Russian Supreme Court ruled to liquidate the Witnesses’ legal entities for alleged extremist activity. Immediately the Russian authorities took steps to confiscate their property, close down their places of worship, and declare their religious literature to be “extremist material.”

Not stopping with their attack against the Witnesses’ legal entities, Russian authorities have chosen to target Jehovah’s Witnesses individually. Overreaching, they associate private worship of individual Witnesses with the banned organization. Police raids of the Witnesses’ homes bring abusive treatment and harsh interrogation. Both male and female Witnesses of all ages have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison or house arrest.

Since the April 2017 ban, hundreds of Witnesses have been sentenced to pretrial detention or imprisonment under the charge of extremism. As of November 17, 2022, a total of 104 Witnesses are imprisoned.

Outcries Against Russia’s Harsh Treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Russian authorities continue to convict Witnesses of extremist activity despite an international outcry for Russia to stop its relentless persecution. In fairness, a few Russian courts have boldly disagreed with applying the label of “extremists” to Jehovah’s Witnesses and have acquitted Witnesses charged under Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code regarding extremist activity. These court rulings are in harmony with a recent amended resolution of the Russian Supreme Court Plenum. In October 2021, this body clarified that worship carried on in a private setting should not be viewed as participation in the activities of a banned religious organization.

Informed observers and courts outside of Russia have condemned the Russian government for their relentless persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “The harsh sentence imposed on [a Witness prisoner] 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.”

Statement from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Permanent Council: “The European Union continues to be deeply concerned about the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who continue to face systemic persecution, including home raids, arbitrary detentions, criminal investigations and sentences up to seven years of prison time. . . . We call upon the Russian Federation to live up to its international human rights commitments, to respect the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, religion or belief, as well as the rights of persons belonging to minorities and to guarantee a fair trial.”

European Court of Human Rights: On June 7, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights released a landmark judgment against Russia, condemning their persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia, nos. 32401/10 and 19 others). The Court declared that it was unlawful for Russia to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017. Russia was ordered to “take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . and release . . . [imprisoned] Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Further, it was ordered to return all confiscated properties or pay over 60 million dollars in compensation and to pay the applicants over 3 million dollars in nonpecuniary damages.

Shocking Incidents of Abuse and Imprisonment

  • In June 2018, law enforcement officers raided the home of 42-year-old Aleksey Berchuk and his wife. Aleksey was accused of organizing “extremist” activity, although in reality he was a circuit overseer, a full-time minister serving the spiritual needs of many fellow believers. On June 30, 2021, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, the longest prison sentence issued since the 2017 ban. Aleksey appealed the conviction, but on September 2, 2021, the Amur Regional Court upheld the verdict. He remains in Penal Colony No. 3 in the Republic of Mari El.

  • On February 6, 2019, authorities in Saransk in the Russian republic of Mordovia raided the homes of Witness families and took several people into custody. They were accused of organizing and financing the activities of an extremist organization simply because they spoke about the Bible. At the criminal trial held on August 25, 2022, the six Witnesses (including a woman) received sentences ranging from two to six years in a penal colony. One of the men, Vladimir Atryakhin, is a father to two young children under six years of age. All six Witnesses were immediately taken into custody from the courtroom.

  • On February 15, 2019, Russian authorities in the western Siberian city of Surgut arrested 17 Witness men and one woman for alleged extremist activity. Some of the men were taken to the Investigative Committee offices, where they were interrogated. When they refused to disclose details of their fellow worshippers, the men were tortured with suffocation, stun guns, and beatings. One Witness, Timofey Zhukov, was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks to undergo an examination because he refused to provide information during the interrogation. The arrested Witnesses have filed appeals against this unlawful treatment, which includes torture, falsifying evidence, and use of biased experts during trial. They are awaiting the court’s verdict.

  • In May 2021, Russian authorities initiated a criminal case against 55-year-old Anna Safronova, accusing her of “extremist” activity. They placed Anna, the primary caregiver for her elderly mother, under house arrest and froze her bank accounts. On January 25, 2022, she was sentenced to six years in a penal colony, the longest sentence imposed on a female since the 2017 ban. She was immediately taken into custody. Anna appealed her conviction, but on April 14, 2022, the Astrakhan Regional Court denied her appeal. She remains in the Penal Colony No. 7 of the Stavropol Territory.

Continued Efforts to End Unjust Imprisonments

Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are greatly distressed by the harsh treatment of their fellow believers in Russia. Millions of Witnesses all over the world have sent letters to government officials in Russia, appealing to them in behalf of imprisoned Witnesses. Attorneys for imprisoned Witnesses have submitted complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and have filed appeals to every level of Russian courts. Scores of applications have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights. Official reports have been submitted to international organizations that monitor human rights abuses. Jehovah’s Witnesses will continue to pursue these efforts and to raise awareness of the plight of their fellow believers in Russia in order to end this grave religious persecution.

Time Line

  1. November 17, 2022

    Total of 104 Witnesses imprisoned.

  2. May 24, 2022

    After spending over five years in prison, Dennis Christensen is released.

  3. May 4, 2022

    After spending over a year in prison, Valentina Baranovskaya is released.

  4. January 12, 2022

    The Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation adds the JW Library application to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. This is the first and only app to be banned in Russia as extremist.

  5. October 25, 2021

    Trusovskiy District Court of Astrakhan sentences Rustam Diarov, Yevgeniy Ivanov, and Sergey Klikunov to eight years in prison. Olga Ivanova is sentenced to three years and six months in prison.

  6. September 27, 2021

    Saint Petersburg City Court rejects the appeal against the decision of March 31, 2021, which declared the JW Library app extremist and banned its use throughout the Russian Federation and Crimea. The court’s original decision goes into effect immediately.

  7. September 23, 2021

    Volgograd Traktorozavodsky District Court sentences Sergey Melnik and Igor Yegozaryan to six years in prison and Valeriy Rogozin to six years and five months in prison.

  8. August 11, 2021

    After two days of court hearings, the Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Vasiliy Meleshko to three years in prison.

  9. June 30, 2021

    Blagoveshchensk City Court of the Amur Region sentences Aleksey Berchuk and Dmitriy Golik to eight years and seven years in prison respectively.

  10. February 24, 2021

    Abakan City Court of the Republic of Khakassia sentences Valentina Baranovskaya to two years in prison and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, to six years in prison.

  11. February 10, 2021

    Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Aleksandr Ivshin to seven and a half years in prison.

  12. September 2, 2020

    Berezovsky City Court of the Kemerovo Region sentences Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years in prison.

  13. August 3, 2020

    Pskov Regional Court rules to release Gennady Shpakovskiy from prison. It upholds his conviction but changes his six-and-a-half-year prison sentence to probation for the same term.

  14. July 13, 2020

    Mass searches of at least 100 Witness homes in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions.

  15. June 9, 2020

    Pskov City Court convicts 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovskiy and sentences him to six and a half years in prison.

  16. February 6, 2020

    Five of the six Witnesses convicted on September 19, 2019, are transferred to Penal Colony No. 1 in Orenburg. When they arrive, prison guards beat them severely—kicking them repeatedly and hitting them with clubs. Mr. Makhammadiyev suffers a broken rib, a collapsed lung, and kidney damage.

  17. September 19, 2019

    Judge Dmitry Larin of the Leninskiy District Court of Saratov sentences six male Witnesses to prison—Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, Feliks Makhammadiyev, Roman Gridasov, Gennadiy German, and Aleksey Miretskiy—for allegedly ‘organizing extremist activity.’

  18. May 23, 2019

    Oryol Regional Court denies Dennis Christensen’s appeal and upholds the six-year prison sentence.

  19. April 26, 2019

    UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds that the rights of Dimtriy Mikhailov have been violated and denounces Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  20. February 6, 2019

    The Zheleznodorozhniy District Court finds Dennis Christensen guilty and sentences him to six years of imprisonment.

  21. October 9, 2018

    Police and special forces raid homes in Kirov. Several male Witnesses, including Andrzej Oniszczuk, who is a Polish citizen, are arrested and placed in pretrial detention.

  22. July 15, 2018

    Police search the homes of several Witnesses in Penza. Vladimir Alushkin is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.

  23. July 4, 2018

    Police forces raid homes in Omsk. Sergey and Anastasiya Polyakov are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Mrs. Polyakova is the first female Witness in the Russian Federation to be arrested and held in pretrial detention on charges of extremism.

  24. June 12, 2018

    Police forces raid homes in Saratov. Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, and Feliks Makhammadiyev are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Three other Witnesses, Gennadiy German, Roman Gridasov, and Aleksey Miretskiy are ordered to sign an agreement not to leave the city.

  25. June 3, 2018

    Police forces raid homes in Tomsk and Pskov. Sergey Klimov is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.

  26. February 19, 2018

    Criminal trial of Dennis Christensen begins in the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, with Judge Aleksey Rudnev presiding.

  27. July 20, 2017–November 2018

    Dennis Christensen’s pretrial detention is extended several times, first by the Sovietskiy District Court and then by the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court.

  28. May 26, 2017

    Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.

  29. May 25, 2017

    Police raid religious services in Oryol and arrest Dennis Christensen.

  30. April 20, 2017

    The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rules to liquidate the national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 395 Local Religious Organizations.