Defendants in a high-profile case in Surgut. December 2023

Unjust Verdicts

A Court in Surgut Ruled in a High-Profile Case of 18 Jehovah's Witnesses, Some of Whom Had Previously Been Tortured

Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area

On December 5, 2023, the high-profile trial against Jehovah's Witnesses from Surgut came to an end. Dmitriy Lupin, a judge of the Surgut City Court, found 18 believers guilty of extremism and sentenced all to suspended sentences ranging from 4 to 7 years.

Sergey Loginov and Timofey Zhukov received the longest suspended sentence — 7 years. Yevgeniy Kayryak received 6 years and 10 months; Leonid Rysikov — 6 years and 9 months; Pavel Romashov — 6 years and 7 months; Vyacheslav Boronos, Saveliy Gargalyk, Artem Kim, Igor Trifonov, Yevgeniy Fedin — 6 years and 6 months; Igor Petrov — 6 years and 5 months; Vasiliy Burenesku, Sergey Volosnikov, Igor Kobotov and Viktor Fefilov — 6 years and 4 months; Aleksey Plekhov and Artur Severinchik — 6 years and 3 months.

The only woman in the case, Viola Shepel, received a 3-year and 3-month suspended sentence.

All defendants were placed on probation for 2 to 4 years.

The Surgut trial became one of the most resonant after the decision of the Supreme Court to liquidate the legal entities of Jehovah's Witnesses: believers faced unprecedented cruel treatment by the security forces. A criminal case against 17 men and 1 woman aged 31 to 71 years was initiated by the Investigative Department for the city of Surgut of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. In February 2019, after a series of searches in the homes of believers, at least 40 people were detained for interrogation, 7 of them were tortured. The security officials applied beatings, electric shocks and suffocation until they lost consciousness.

The victims appealed to the Investigative Committee of Russia, the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation and the ECHR with calls to bring law enforcement officers to justice for criminal actions. Human rights activists actively spoke out. Despite this, no criminal case on the fact of torture was ever initiated, and two months after the incident, the head of the investigative department of the Investigative Committee, where Jehovah's Witnesses were tortured, Vladimir Yermolayev and his subordinate Sergey Bogoderov received awards, and the soldiers of the Russian Guard who participated in the operation received encouragement.

Believers from Surgut who peacefully practiced their religion were accused of organizing the activities of an extremist organization, participating in it and financing it. A man mistaken for one of Jehovah's Witnesses was also prosecuted. During the investigation, several defendants were searched again, three men spent from one to two months in a pre-trial detention center, and Timofey Zhukov underwent a compulsory psychiatric examination, which the court later declared illegal.

Friends who came to support believers in the 30-degree frost
Friends who came to support believers in the 30-degree frost

The materials of the case at the time of its receipt by the court amounted to 222 volumes. However, as the defense emphasized, they do not list specific illegal actions, and the evidence collected only indicates that the defendants continued to practice the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses after the liquidation of legal entities which is not against the law. The court considered the case of believers for two years. In recent months, meetings have been held behind closed doors every business day. It is known that the prosecution was witnessed by a secret agent of the special services, who feigned interest in the Bible and kept secret recordings of conversations with believers.

One of the convicts, Timofey Zhukov, a lawyer with many years of experience, called what was happening "legal absurdity and physical lawlessness." He added: "At first, to be honest, I did not believe that in a secular state governed by the rule of law, in which the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, there could be repression for faith, and even more so that believers would actually be imprisoned ... From a legal point of view, the ban on legal entities should in no way affect regular believers."

Most believers faced financial difficulties due to criminal prosecution. Many lost their jobs, some had their accounts blocked. At the same time, seven convicts have minor children. Aleksey Plekhov, who was out of work for about a year, recalls: "The judge made a schedule of court hearings 2-3 times a week. For many of us, such a schedule meant a possible loss of work." Leonid Rysikov, a 73-year-old pensioner who was on the Rosfinmonitoring list, said: "Every month I had to write applications, wait for how much this time they would be allowed to withdraw funds. Basically, this is 10 thousand, but once they were allowed to withdraw only 670 rubles."

Yevgeniy Fedin, who spent almost 2 months in a pre-trial detention center, faced another difficulty: "When the investigation was going on, my father was very ill and it was necessary to be next to him. I wrote a petition detailing the reason for the trip, but the investigator did not let me go. A few days later, my father died. About six months later, my sister died, and the investigator again did not let me go to her funeral. Mom had to bury her daughter alone. It was a lot of stress for her."

All this time, the victims of the Surgut case felt the support of their fellow believers from different cities and countries. Igor Kobotov said: "After the stress [due to the home raid], my wife did not want to return home, and we stayed overnight with friends. Literally the next day, brothers and sisters began to come to us and support us and strengthen us. They brought money and food, assured of their love and support." Yevgeniy Fedin related: "In the pre-trial detention center, I received about 800 letters in two months. It was a great encouragement and support."

Shortly before Judge Lupin began his consideration of the case of Jehovah's Witnesses from Surgut, the association of former prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp (Lagergemeinschaft Dachau) sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Not a day passes on which there is no report of state repression against Jehovah’s Witnesses," the letter says. "The homes of members of the religious denomination are searched and ravaged by the Russian secret service, FSB, and the police. Violent assaults and mistreatment occur. Women and men are condemned to long-term prison sentences. Requests to ease detention conditions or for parole are regularly refused. " The letter concludes: “We urge you to grant every resident of the Russian Federation the constitutional right to free exercise of religion. Please end this injustice!”

Case of Loginov and Others in Surgut

Case History
In February 2019, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against 18 men and 1 woman from Surgut (among them was a man mistaken for a Jehovah’s Witness). Their homes were searched. During the interrogations, 7 believers were subjected to violence. Artur Severinchik was sent to a pre-trial detention center for 29 days, and Yevgeny Fedin and Sergey Loginov - for 56. Timofey Zhukov was illegally placed in a psychiatric hospital for 14 days. Believers complained about the use of torture to the Investigative Committee, the ECHR and the Commissioner for Human Rights, a press conference was held with the participation of human rights defenders, but none of the security forces was ever brought to justice. In October 2021, the case materials were submitted to the court. The prosecutor requested imprisonment for the defendants for a term of 3 years and 3 months to 8.5 years in prison, and for Loginov - 9.5 years, which was the most severe request for punishment for believing in Jehovah God in modern Russia.
Timeline

Persons in case

Criminal case

Region:
Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area
Locality:
Surgut
Suspected of:
delivering speeches, engaging in the Witnesses' public preaching activity with local members, meeting with Bible education volunteers and appointed congregation assistants, and having as one objective the organizing of appointed men in the Vzlyotnove Congregation
Court case number:
42002007709000023
Initiated:
February 11, 2019
Current case stage:
Appeal
Investigating:
Investigative Department of the city of Surgut of the Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for the Khanty-Mansi Region
Articles of Criminal Code of Russian Federation:
282.2 (1), 282.3 (1), 282.2 (2)
Court case number:
№ 1-27/2023 (1-130/2022; 1-1348/2021)
Court:
Сургутский городской суд
Judge:
Дмитрий Люпин
Case History