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Armed Russian FSB violently arrest peaceful Jehovah’s Witness in occupied Crimea

24.05.2023   
Halya Coynash

Photo of one of the armed raids on Yalta believers posted by the Russian ’Investigative Committee’

Photo of one of the armed raids on Yalta believers posted by the Russian ’Investigative Committee’

Russia’s FSB have arrested 31-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Maksym Zynchenko in occupied Feodosia bringing to 23 the number of Ukrainians in occupied Crimea either serving sentences or facing ‘trial’ purely for practising their faith. 

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website reports that an armed search was carried out at the home of Zynchenko and his wife in the early morning of 22 May.  Five of the ten officers who burst into the family’s home were armed, although the family were clearly targeted as Jehovah’s Witnesses who reject any form of violence and could not possibly have been expected to show resistance.  Despite this, the officers ordered both the Zynchenkos and another couple who were staying with them to lie on the floor.  The ‘investigator, Nikolai Pogorelov, told Zynchenko’s wife that she should ‘cooperate’ with the investigation, threatening that her husband would receive a long prison sentence and that she would be prevented from visiting him. 

All electronic devices were taken away, and Zynchenko himself was detained, and taken to Sevastopol.  The JW website reports that he had been followed for a long time.

Russia has been arresting believers since soon Russia’s increasingly political Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a so-called ‘extremist organization’ on 20 April 2017.  If in Russia, courts show some degree of flexibility, with suspended sentences fairly common, in occupied Crimea almost all of those whose ‘trials’ have ended, have received real sentences.  13 criminal proceedings had been initiated before Zynchenko’s arrest, with some of these including several defendants.  12 Ukrainian believers have been sentenced to real terms of imprisonment.

Any such prosecutions, whether in Russia or in occupied Crimea, violate Russia’s own constitution, as well as its commitments under international law to respect religious freedom.  With respect to occupied Crimea or other Ukrainian territory, Russia is in further violation of international law which strictly prohibits it from applying its laws on occupied territory.

In 2017 Russia still confined itself to administrative prosecutions against Jehovah’s Witnesses in occupied Crimea.  The first arrest on ‘criminal’ charges was of Serhiy Filatov (b. 1972), who was charged after a mass operation against believers in Dzhankoi during the night from 15-16 November 2018.  During Filatov’s ‘trial’ at the occupation ‘Dzhankoi District Court’, the prosecution claimed that the Jehovah’s Witness had “undermined the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of the state”, by being the leader of a religious organization.  On 5 March 2020, he was sentenced by ‘judge’ Maria Yermakova to six years’ imprisonment in a medium security prison colony.  That sentence against the 47-year-old father of four was then upheld by ‘judge’ Edward Belousov of the Crimean High Court on 26 May 2020.   Beloysov is one of eight ‘judges’ and enforcement officers recently placed on the EU’s sanctions list.  All those implicated in such illegal ‘trials’ should also be placed under such sanctions.

Artem Gerasimov (b. 1985) from Yalta was arrested during a second wave of armed raids on 20 March 2019.  The initial verdict against him coincided with the sentence against Filatov, and it is possible that this was the reason that ‘judge’ Vladimir Romanenko from the occupation ‘Yalta municipal court’  initially ‘only’ imposed a massive fine, unlike the 6.5 year real sentence demanded by prosecutor Oksana Chuchuyeva.  The fine was challenged by the prosecutor, and it was that appeal which the ‘High Court’ on 4 June allowed, imposing instead a six-year sentence.

Viktor Stashevsky (b. 1966) was sentenced by ‘judge’ Pavel Krylo from the occupation ‘Gagarin district court’ on 23 March 2021 to six and a half years’ imprisonment on the same ‘organizing extremist activities’ (Article 282.2 § 1 ) charge, and taken into custody in the courtroom. The sentence was upheld on 10 August 2021 by ‘judge’ Vladimir Avkhimov from the ‘Sevastopol municipal court’. 

Igor Schmidt (b. 1972) was sentenced by ‘judge’ Liudmyla Tumaikina from the same ‘Gagarin district court’ to six years, with this upheld on 17 January 2022.  During the original ‘trial’, Schmidt pointed out that the so-called ‘investigators’, the prosecution and the ‘expert assessments’ had all been aimed at proving that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, something he had never denied.  On the contrary, he said, he was proud to be a believer.

Artem Shabliy (b. 1990) was initially arrested on 26 May 2020 after armed men burst into his home and caused injuries to one of his two small children by quite unnecessarily breaking a window during the raid.  He did, at least, face the lesser charge of so-called ‘participation in an extremist organization’ (under Article 282.2 § 2)  and was, on 16 February 2022, given a two-year suspended sentence by ‘judge’ Iryna Altanets from the ‘Kerch municipal court’.

The following sentences are still subject to appeal.

Volodymr Maladyka (b. 1963), Volodymyr Sakada  (b. 1970) and Yevhen Zhukov (b. 1969) from Sevastopol were sentenced on 6 October 2022 to six years’ imprisonment, with it claimed that they had ‘threatened the constitutional order and state security’ by reading and discussing religious literature. While the three men were all charged with ‘organizing the activities of an extremist organization’ (Article 282.2 § 1 ), ‘judge’ Olga Berdnikova from the ‘Nakhimovsky district court in Sevastopol cannot have been in any doubt that she was imprisoning them for refusing to renounce or conceal their faith.  

Oleksandr Dubovenko (b. 1973) and Oleksandr Lytvyniak (b. 1960) were sentenced on 1 December 2022 to six years’ imprisonment, with the main ‘evidence’ against them being a Zoom conversation about the Bible.  This was claimed to constitute ‘‘organizing the activities of an extremist organization’ (Article 282.2 § 1).  Both men had been held under house arrest for over a year, and were taken into custody after the 6-year sentence, demanded earlier by prosecutor Minigul Saldykova and passed by ‘judge’ Tatiana Fiedievna from the ‘Armiansk municipal court’.

Taras and Daria Kuzio, Serhiy Liulin and Petro Zhiltsov

Taras Kuzio (b. 1978) is facing a sentence of 6.5 years’ imprisonment;  Petro Zhiltsov (b. 1987) and Serhiy Liulin (b. 1984) 6.1 years; and Daria Kuzio (b. 1982, and Taras’ wife) – a 3.5-year suspended sentence.  The sentences were passed by ‘judge’ Vladimir Romanenko from the ‘Yalta municipal court’ on 27 February 2023.

This was the first time in occupied Crimea that a new charge was laid with two of the men: Taras Kuzio and Petro Zhiltsov accused of ‘financing an extremist organization’ under Article 282.3 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, as well as of ‘organizing’ such an ‘organization’ (Article 282.2 § 1).  It is indicative of its meaningless that the extra charge did not result in any difference between the sentences against Liulin and Zhiltsov. 

It is worth stressing here that any suspended sentence can become real if a person is deemed to have ‘offended’ again.  In all cases involving believers in occupied Crimea, there is no offence, only faith which the victims of this religious persecution have no intention of renouncing.

Other prosecutions

Tadevos Manukian (b. 1981)  was initially charged (with ‘organizing a so-called extremist organization’ under Article 282.2 § 1 together with Taras Kuzio and the others.  His prosecution was, however, made into a separate ‘case’.

Viktor Kudinov (b. 1969) and Serhiy Zhyhalov (b. 1971)

The two men from Sevastopol were arrested after the latest armed searches of believers’ homes.  Both were subsequently placed under house arrest, although this was replaced in March 2023 by restrictions on certain activities.  The two men are also accused of ‘organizing a so-called extremist organization’ under Article 282.2 § 1 for holding services online. 

Serhiy Parfenovych (b. 1972) was arrested in September 2022 after an armed search of his home lasting six hours.  Parfenovych was taken away and held for two days in a police holding unit, then for a month and a half in SIZO [remand prison] before being placed under house arrest.  In March 2023, Yury Herashchenko (b. 1979) was arrested on the same charges.  The ‘investigator’ is V.A. Novikov, who was also involved in the Yalta cases of persecution, with the charges here also the more serious ones of ‘organizing’ (Article 282.2 § 1)

Dmytro Naukhatsky (b. 1969) has been under house arrest since December 2022, when he was arrested after the FSB carried out mass armed raids of at least 16 homes of believers in Simferopol.  He was initially charged with ‘organizing the activities of a so-called extremist organization’ (under Article 282.2 § 1), however on 24 March 2023, the same ‘investigator’, V.A. Novikov added a charge of ‘financing the activities of an extremist organization’ (Article 282.3 § 1).  

Oleksandr Voronchykhin (b. 1963) was only interrogated, not detained, and is under a signed undertaking not to leave the city.  He appears to be facing the ‘organizing’ charge under Article 282.3 § 1.

Oleksandr Kostenko from Sevastopol has been mentioned as facing charges since September 2020,  It is possible that he had left occupied Crimea before the FSB’s repressive machine got to him. 

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