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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 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 coerce them into accepting Soviet ideology. 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. The government exiled thousands to Siberia.

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, that period of peace did not last long.

In 2009, opposition and restrictions began to escalate when the Russian Supreme Court upheld the 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 April 17, 2024, a total of 123 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. Informed observers and courts outside of Russia have censured the Russian government for its unyielding oppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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.

Letter from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe: In a letter dated December 9, 2022, addressed to the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marija Pejčinović Burić stated: “In the cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others and Krupko and Others, concerning the dissolution of the applicant religious community entailing a ban on its activities, dispersal of a peaceful religious ceremony and the subsequent deprivation of liberty of some of its participants, the Committee strongly urged the authorities to reverse the ban imposed on the activities of all Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations and to discontinue all criminal proceedings against them.”

Decision of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe: At their September 2023 meeting, the Committee of Ministers [CoM] noted “with the gravest concern that the [European Court of Human Rights’] unequivocal indications under Article 46 of the Convention and in the operative part of the judgment Taganrog LRO and Others were fully and deliberately ignored by the Russian authorities, particularly as regards . . . releasing the imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In view of Russia’s noncompliance, the CoM “decided to bring this group of cases to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Human Rights Council, and other relevant international bodies dealing with the problem of persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation, with the aim of ensuring compliance with the requirements of the judgments concerned.”

Examples of Recent Harsh Judgments

  • On January 25, 2024, Sona Olopova, a 37-year-old married woman, was sentenced to two years of forced labor in a correctional facility. She is required to live at a correctional facility in the Samara Region for the duration of her sentence.

  • In July 2018, armed law enforcement officials broke into an apartment where Dmitriy and Yelena Barmakin had been staying to care for Yelena’s 90-year-old grandmother. Dmitriy and Yelena were both taken back to their home city, Vladivostok, where Dmitriy was arrested. A criminal case against him was initiated the following year under the charge of “organizing the activities of an extremist organization.” On February 6, 2024, an appeal court upheld his conviction, and he was taken into custody from the courtroom to complete serving his eight-year sentence. Yelena is also on trial for her faith.

  • Aleksandr Chagan, a 53-year-old married man, was convicted by the Tsentralniy District Court of Tolyatti in the Samara Region. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, one of the longest prison terms given to Witness men in Russia. On February 29, 2024, at the conclusion of his trial, he was taken into custody from the courtroom. He is currently held in Detention Center No. 4 in the Samara Region.

  • A court in the Irkutsk Region in eastern Siberia found nine Witness men guilty of extremism. On March 5, 2024, the nine men, the oldest of whom is 72, were sentenced to various prison terms of up to seven years. Their convictions were the culmination of criminal cases that began in October 2021 following home searches by law enforcement officials. At the time of sentencing, one of the men, Yaroslav Kalin, had already spent more than two years in pretrial detention. He described his imprisonment as a bitter experience in the “worst cells and conditions we could have.”

Continued Efforts to End Unjust Imprisonments

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

Time Line

  1. April 17, 2024

    Total of 123 Witnesses imprisoned.

  2. October 24, 2023

    UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) released two Views involving the Elista and Abinsk Local Religious Organizations. In both cases, the CCPR concluded that Russia violated the Witnesses’ rights under Articles 18.1 (“right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”) and 22.1 (“right to freedom of association”) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The decisions confirm that there is nothing in their religious literature that incites hatred or violence.

  3. June 7, 2022

    ECHR releases landmark judgment, Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia, condemning Russia for their mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.