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29 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses declared political prisoners amid mounting persecution in Russia & occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash


Russia’s authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre has recognized as political prisoners 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses, imprisoned for their faith.  It warns that the number of people already facing persecution is higher and rising rapidly.  Armed searches and arrests have so far been in parts of the Russian Federation, but it is only a question of time before they begin in Russian-occupied Crimea.


The methods used against law-abiding and peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses are increasingly brutal, with masked men brandishing machine guns bursting into people’s homes/

On 27 July this year, there were armed searches of at least three homes in the Kemerov oblast, with two believers  - Sergei Brytvin and Vadim Levchuk - arrested and remanded in custody.  In one of the flats, the FSB began storming the premises from the balcony, even though the woman in the flat had already opened the door to another group of FSB officers.  She was then injured by the glass they broke to burst in a second time.

On July 6, a couple from Omsk - Sergei Polyakov and his wife, Anastasiawere arrested and remanded in custody.  For the moment,  Anastasia Polyakova appears to be the only woman in custody for being a Jehovah’s Witness, but given the wave of repression unleashed since April 2018, there will certainly soon be others.

Russia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it  espouses many other rights and freedoms which effectively exist only on paper.  The constitutional norm was certainly ignored by the Russian Supreme Court which, on 20 April 2017. Banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The ruling declared this faith and its adherents to be ‘extremist’, though Memorial HRC stresses that the Court did not provide even one example where believers had breach public order, shown aggression or violence, or in any way indicated that their activities were a threat to the security of the Russian Federation. 

The only activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that the Court cited as ‘extremist’ were that they circulated religious literature which other Russian courts had already banned.  However such bans were based solely on the claim that the Jehovah’s Witnesses incite religious enmity and denigrate other religions by virtue of their confidence that their faith is the right one.  One of the ‘expert assessments’ used to justify the Supreme Court ban pointed to the conviction that the path taken by the Witnesses makes them the chosen of God.  As Memorial points out, this is essentially a feature of all religious faiths.

As of 3 August 2018, at least 23 Witnesses are in custody, with no less than six others under house arrest.  Memorial HRC is aware of ten others who are facing prosecution, but not as yet deprived of their liberty, however warns that the list may not be comprehensive, and certainly likely to increase.

Virtually all of them are charged under Article 282.2 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code (with organizing activities of a religious organization which has been banned as ‘extremist’).  This absurd charge can carry a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.  10 believers are facing the slightly less serious charge of ‘taking part’ in such activities, with this potentially resulting in a sentence of up to six years’.

Two people have also been charged under Article 282 § 1 (inciting enmity, and denigrating a group of people’s dignity on religious grounds, with this carrying a sentence of up to 5 years’ imprisonment.

Memorial had earlier declared Dennis Christensen, a 46-year old Danish citizen and a Jehovah’s Witness Elder, to be a political prisoner, He was arrested on May 25, 2017 and has been in custody ever since, with his ‘trial’ continuing since April this year.  He faces a sentence of up to 10 years’ under Article 282.2 § 1.  Memorial called the charges discriminatory, and in violation both of Russia’s Constitution and of international legal documents, particularly those enshrining the right to freedom of conscience and religion.

As reported earlier, the Russian state is also using the ban as a pretext for plundering and appropriating Jehovah’s Witness places of worship.

In occupied Crimea, there have been a large number of administrative prosecutions against Jehovah’s Witnesses, but this could change any day.

In June 2017 it was also learned that a young Crimean Witness had been ordered to provide ‘proof of change of faith’ in order to be eligible for alternative civilian service.  This is in addition to Russia’s grave violation of international humanitarian law by conscripting young men on illegally occupied Ukrainian territory. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed by the Nazi regime for refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht, and imprisoned on similar and other grounds in the Soviet Union.  It is a very dark legacy that Russia is now embracing with mounting repressive force.

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