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‘Unconscionable’: Jehovah’s Witness sentenced to six years in Russian prison for ‘extremism’

A judge advocate office gavel. (Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Boutte/U.S. Air Force)

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

A Siberian member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been sentenced to six years for organizing activities of the religious group that Russia has labeled as extremist and banned in 2017.

Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States, told RFE/RL that the Lenin district court in the city of Novosibirsk sentenced 66-year-old Yury Savelyev on December 16 after finding him guilty of involvement in organizing of “activities of a banned group” in the city.

“[Savelyev’s sentencing] defies international human rights norms, which is why the European Union, Britain, the United States, and the United Nations have repeatedly called on Russia to stop its systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Lopes said in an e-mailed statement to RFE/RL.

“Yet, Russian authorities have persisted, raiding over 440 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses so far this year. Undeterred even by COVID-19, Russian authorities continue to unconscionably subject harmless believers, including older men like Yury, to the unsanitary and potentially deadly confines of prison.”

Savelyev, who was arrested and charged in November 2018, said in a statement in court last week that he is being prosecuted “simply for being a follower of the religious teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Savelyev’s sentencing comes less than three weeks after a court in another Siberian city, Omsk, sentenced another member of the religious group, 48-year-old Sergei Polyakov, to three years in prison on the same charge.

Polyakov’s wife, Anastasia Polyakova, and two other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dinara Dyusekeyeva and Gaukhar Bektemirova, were convicted of “taking part in the activities of an extremist group” and handed suspended two-year prison terms each.

For decades, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, rejection of military service, and not celebrating national and religious holidays or birthdays.

Since the faith was outlawed in Russia, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia and the Russia-annexed Ukrainian Black Sea Crimean Peninsula.

According to the group, 45 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in prison, of whom 10 were convicted of extremism and 35 are in pretrial detention.

In September 2019, Washington banned two high-ranking regional officers from Russia’s Investigative Committee from entering the United States over the alleged torture of seven detainees who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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