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US calls on Russia to release all jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses

Prison Bars (Michael Coghlan/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. State Department has called on Russia to release all jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, saying “they pose no threat” and that Russian authorities should “respect their right to worship in peace.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus issued the call on Twitter, saying Washington was “disturbed and dismayed” by a 6-year prison sentence given recently to Sergei Klimov, a Russian member of the religious group.

Ortagus said in the November 7 tweet that Klimov was “the 8th #JehovahsWitness jailed in Russia for peaceful religious practice.”

Russia banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 2017 and deemed it an “extremist organization,” a designation the U.S. State Department says is “wrong.”

Klimov was found guilty on November 5 by a court in the Siberian city of Tomsk of being an “extremist” leader.

Klimov admitted at his trial that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, but he denied that he was a leader of the group. His lawyer said the court’s ruling will be appealed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the court rendered its verdict based solely on Russian law and would not comment further on Klimov’s case.

In September, two high-ranking regional officers in Russia’s Investigative Committee were banned from entering the United States for allegedly torturing seven Jehovah’s Witness believers.

The religious group said in September that 251 of its members faced criminal charges. Of those, 41 were either in pretrial detention or prison, 23 were under house arrest, and more than 100 had their freedom restricted.

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses charged with or convicted of extremism as political prisoners.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion by Russia authorities for decades over the views of its members about military service, voting, and government authority in general.