Russian authorities continue their aggressive attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses by conducting a campaign of terror reminiscent of the Soviet era. Since 2017, hundreds of Witnesses have been targets of home raids, interrogations, arrests, and imprisonment. As of April 18, 2022, there are 85 Witnesses who are in pretrial detention or sentenced to prison, 25 who are under house arrest, and 218 who are not allowed to leave their hometown. All have been charged with organizing, participating in, or financing the activity of an “extremist” organization. At least 437 Witnesses are currently under investigation, ranging in age from 21 to 91 years old.
Russia’s Application of Law on Extremist Activity
Officials attempt to justify their actions by citing the April 2017 ban on the Witnesses’ legal entities and by misapplying Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code (RFCC) concerning extremist activity. In reality, they are prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses for peaceful worship. If convicted, some of those who have been arrested face prison terms of up to ten years.
One month after the ban, Dennis Christensen, a 48-year-old Danish citizen, was arrested in Oryol. On May 25, 2017, heavily armed police officers and agents of the Federal Security Services disrupted a peaceful weekly religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses and took Mr. Christensen into custody. He was charged with ‘organizing the activity of an extremist organization,’ under Article 282.2(1) of the RFCC. After nearly a year-long criminal trial with over 50 court appearances, Mr. Christensen was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment merely for practicing his faith as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is scheduled to be released in May 2022.
In the hundreds of home raids since 2017, authorities follow a general pattern. Heavily armed police forcibly enter Witnesses’ homes, often pointing guns at the heads of the residents—including children and the elderly—and forcing them to the floor. While officers search the premises, they confiscate personal belongings and take some Witnesses into custody for further interrogation. Investigators charge Witnesses with alleged extremist activity and petition the courts to order them into pretrial detention. A series of court trials follow in which the Witnesses are convicted, fined, and sentenced to prison.
Home raids, interrogations, and arrests have continued to the present despite an October 28, 2021, amendment of a resolution regarding extremist activity issued by the Russian Supreme Court Plenum. The amendment indicates that individual or collective worship should not be considered as participation in the activities of a banned religious organization. However, Russian authorities are still applying the extremist law to Jehovah’s Witnesses to justify their relentless persecution of Witnesses, young and old, male and female.
Continued Efforts to End Unjust Imprisonments
Attorneys for imprisoned Witnesses have submitted complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). They have also filed 64 applications with the European Court of Human Rights. Thus far, efforts to end the unjust imprisonments have been unsuccessful.
International organizations have spoken out against Russia’s application of the extremist law to Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, on March 12, 2020, the OSCE Permanent Council and the European Union issued a joint statement condemning Russian authorities for their treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “The European Union continues to be deeply concerned about the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who continue to face systemic persecution . . . We are deeply concerned about recent specific reports of torture and other ill-treatment of several members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in detention.” The statement continued: “Torture breaches international human rights law, in particular the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, all of which the Russian Federation is a state party to.”
More recently, Neil Bush, UK ambassador to the OSCE, expressed concern in a statement to the OSCE Permanent Council on March 4, 2021:
Since [Russia’s Supreme Court] 2017 ruling, we have witnessed an increasing number of detentions, criminal investigations and prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses across Russia, including the arrest and sentencing of Valentina Baranovskaya and Roman Baranovskiy on 24 February, and the sentencing of Aleksandr Ivshin on 10 February. Such cases reinforce the impression of an organised campaign of persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses. . . . We remind Russia that as an OSCE participating State, they have freely signed up to a series of commitments in the OSCE’s human dimension which they must uphold.
April 18, 2022
Total of 85 Witnesses imprisoned.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 10, 2021
Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Aleksandr Ivshin to seven and a half years in prison.
September 2, 2020
Berezovsky City Court of the Kemerovo Region sentences Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years in prison.
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.
July 13, 2020
Mass searches of at least 100 Witness homes in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions.
June 9, 2020
Pskov City Court convicts 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovskiy and sentences him to six and a half years in prison.
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.
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.’
May 23, 2019
Oryol Regional Court denies Dennis Christensen’s appeal and upholds the six-year prison sentence.
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.
February 6, 2019
The Zheleznodorozhniy District Court finds Dennis Christensen guilty and sentences him to six years of imprisonment.
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.
July 15, 2018
Police search the homes of several Witnesses in Penza. Vladimir Alushkin is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
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 imprisoned on charges of extremism.
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.
June 3, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Tomsk and Pskov. Sergey Klimov is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
February 19, 2018
Criminal trial of Dennis Christensen begins in the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, with Judge Aleksey Rudnev presiding.
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.
May 26, 2017
Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.
May 25, 2017
Police raid religious services in Oryol and arrest Dennis Christensen.
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.