There are Already 700 Victims of a Legal Collision. Men, Women, and Disabled Persecuted for Peaceful Religious BeliefMoscow
Already more than 700 Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have become victims of law enforcement following the 2017 Supreme Court decision. That is how many believers are being prosecuted for their religious beliefs and in the absence of an actual crime.
As of March 30, 2023, a total of 333 criminal cases have been filed against Russian Jehovah's Witnesses for their faith. There were 702 persons involved in these cases (one case may involve one or more accused persons). A total of 311 believers have already been sentenced, including 105 who received actual imprisonment, 32 who were fined, and 173 who received suspended sentences. At the moment 122 people are in penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers, and 16 are under house arrest.
Last year and this year were marked by new harsh sentences for Jehovah's Witnesses, who receive the same sentences for peaceful religious activities as real criminals receive for murder. For example, on March 27, 2023, believer Aleksey Ukhov received six and a half years in prison in Sovetskaya Gavan in Khabarovsk territory; prior to that, he spent over eight months in a pre-trial detention center. The investigation charged the believer with such activities as "reading prayers ... reading and quoting texts of the Holy Scriptures ... and psalm songs."
In early 2022, Yevgeny Korotun of Seversk, Tomsk Region, was sentenced to 7 years in prison. This sentence has already passed all instances, including the court of cassation.
In December 2022, a court in Crimea sentenced Aleksandr Litvinyuk and Aleksandr Dubovenko to 6 years in prison. In Chita, three believers will spend from 6 to 6.5 years behind bars, father of four children Konstantin Sannikov from Kazan - 6.5 years, and Dmitriy Malevany from Primorye Territory - 7 years. These are just some of the most recent examples of the multitude.
Russian courts continue to send not only men but also women to prison. On March 27, 2023, the court of cassation finalized the case of Lyudmila Shchekoldina from the Krasnodar Territory. The woman received four years and one month in prison for "describing the attractiveness of serving Jehovah" (!). Lyudmila is one of four women currently serving time in a penal colony for believing in Jehovah's God.
Russian courts continue to send seriously ill people with disabilities, including those who cannot be there for medical reasons, to prison. For example, Andrey Vlasov, who suffers from a complex of serious illnesses, can barely move and has difficulty maintaining himself, received a 7-year prison sentence. Courts of all instances ignored the fact that his illnesses are on the government-approved list of illnesses that prohibit a convicted person from being in a penal colony.
Against the background of what is happening, the position of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation looks ironic. In 2021, the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that worship services by Jehovah's Witnesses do not constitute a crime by itself, but that the court must in each specific case identify the actual unlawful acts of the defendants. Despite this, on March 14, 2023, the same court reversed the acquittal verdict against three believers from Sverdlovsk region, in whose actions three courts had found no evidence of extremism.
A similar decision was made by the Supreme Court in the case of three believers from Kamchatka, in the presence of the media and diplomats from six countries.
On June 7, 2022 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a historic ruling that completely acquitted Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. The ruling was handed down simultaneously on 20 complaints filed by Russian believers. The court ruled that liquidating their legal entities, seizing their property, and banning their publications was illegal; it also ruled that the believers be discharged from prison and that they be paid compensation ranging from 1,000 to 15,000 euros each.
Although the Russian authorities are in no hurry to comply with the ECHR's demands, the court's lengthy ruling (the Russian translation is 208 pages long) has once again made it clear that persecution of believers has no legal basis. "The courts have not found [in the cases of the two dissolved religious organisations] a single word, act or deed of the applicants motivated by violence, hatred or discrimination against others or tinged with violence, hatred or discrimination," reads the ECtHR judgment (§ 271).
"The decisions to declare the publications 'extremist' and to liquidate the religious organisations of Jehovah's Witnesses were based on an unpredictable application of anti-extremism legislation," the court concluded (§ 282).