A Russian court sentenced three Jehovah’s Witnesses to as much as six and a half years in prison Thursday for “extremism,” a spokesman for the religious group said.
Vilen Avanesov, 68, was sentenced to six years in prison, the spokesman said. His son, Arsen, 37, and a third defendant, Aleksandr Parkov, 53, were each sentenced to six and a half years, the group reported.
Advocates say their convictions are an injustice, especially after more than two years in pretrial detention. Six other Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in pretrial detention in the Rostov region, the group reported.
The Witnesses were outlawed in Russia in 2017 when the nation’s supreme court declared the movement “extremist,” in the same category as the Islamic State terrorist organization. The religious group is apolitical and is noted for its pacifism and refusal of military service.
The three were “wrongly convicted and harshly sentenced to lengthy prison terms,” said Jarrod Lopes, a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman.
“Russian officials have not been inconspicuous about persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Mr. Lopes added. “Arrogantly and barbarically, Russian officers record themselves raiding the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forcibly arresting them. The footage is all over the internet and social media.”
Mr. Lopes said some Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have been “severely beaten” during arrests or under interrogation.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses want nothing more than to freely worship in their home country as their fellow believers do in over 200 other lands,” Mr. Lopes said. He put the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia at about 170,000.
According to statistics compiled by the Witnesses, there have been 246 criminal cases filed against their members in Russia and Crimea, involving 517 believers. So far, 51 have been sent to prison, while 34 are under house arrest. More than 1,500 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been raided since the 2017 supreme court ruling, which also liquidated the group’s legal entities.
“These men should never, ever have had to spend a minute in prison, and yet they’ve been locked up for two years,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “It is never too late for Russian authorities to stop these arrests, release Jehovah’s Witnesses who are behind bars, stop these criminal proceedings, and quash the convictions that have already taken place.”
Sir Andrew Wood, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, said in a statement, “Two years plus in pretrial detention before a verdict on extremism for three Jehovah’s Witnesses is already an injustice. ‘Extremism’ in Russia is an indictment delivered by diktat labeling a number of organizations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has no credible definition. … Its purpose is repression, not the exercise of justice.”
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