Moscow – Russian authorities have carried out dozens of raids and detained several people in a new criminal trial in which Jehovah’s Witnesses are being accused of extremism, the National Commission of Inquiry said on Tuesday. The Christian denomination is suspected of continuing to work illegally in Russia despite an official ban.
The country’s Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that a group founded in the United States that claims nearly 9 million followers globally is an “extreme” organization and ordered it to be dissolved. As a result of the decision, a large number of followers were judged across the country.
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Investigators said on Tuesday that the case is being investigated in more than 20 different Russian regions. A video of one of the raids, published by the Committee of Inquiry (below) on the Internet, shows men in black balaclava breaking through the door of an apartment, and later bundles of Russian and Western banknotes can be seen lying inside the bag.
“Many of the organizers and participants in the movement have been identified and detained,” investigators say without elaboration.
The committee claimed that “the administrative center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” had reopened despite knowledge of the court’s decision. According to the announcement, an unnamed group of people set up a new branch in northeastern Moscow in June 2019. The group is accused of holding “secret gatherings”, studying “religious literature” and “recruiting new members” in the capital and other regions.
Criminal proceedings in the case will result in a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, told CBS News on Tuesday that police had detained at least four people during the raids. He denied that the group had continued its work in Russia.
“Currently, there is no” administrative center “in Russian,” Sivulskiy said in a Finnish telephone interview.
Since the ban, more than 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have been targeted by law enforcement, who have been charged and convicted dozens, the organization’s Russian branch said on its website earlier this month. Access to the site is prohibited in Russia.
Russian and international human rights defenders have widely criticized the 2017 court ruling as unlawful discrimination against a religious minority.
According to Sivulskiy, thousands of the country’s 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses have left the country since the decision was made.
“We are going back to Soviet times,” he said, adding that his parents had been exiled to Siberia by the Soviet authorities because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A provincial court recently refused to release Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen who was a member of the group and sentenced to six years in prison on charges of extremism.
“Russia is of no use in the senseless, cruel, and abusive persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” New York-based Human Rights Watch Christensen said of the July case.
In February 2019, seven Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses said they were tortured during interrogations by security agents. Following these reports, the United States blacklisted two regional officials in Russia’s Committee of Inquiry.
The Foreign Ministry, which has repeatedly condemned Russia’s treatment of the group, said officials in the West Siberian city of Surgut oversaw the interrogations, during which at least seven Jehovah’s Witnesses were allegedly subjected to drowning, electric shock and beatings.
The arrest of members of the group continued even after Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected the Kremlin’s own human rights council’s questions about the 2018 destruction as “complete nonsense.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians, so I don’t quite understand why I’m persecuting them,” Putin said at the time.
Putin is an Orthodox Christian, the Russian Orthodox Church is considered the most politically powerful religious organization in the country.
Russian law enforcement agencies have often used the country’s broadly defined anti-extremism legislation to target dissenting opinions, often through politically motivated criminal proceedings.
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