NOVEMBER 6, 2020
“An egregious miscarriage of justice.”—USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin
Officials from Europe and the United States continue to decry the ongoing persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
“USCIRF is appalled by Russia’s treatment of Dennis Christensen,” says Chair Gayle Manchin, in a statement released on October 27, 2020. “There is clearly an official vendetta against this poor man, who is guilty only of peacefully practicing his faith. Instead of showing mercy, the state is treating him like a dangerous criminal. This is an egregious miscarriage of justice.”
Chair Manchin advocates for Brother Christensen through USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project. USCIRF has strongly condemned Brother Christensen’s six-year prison sentence on multiple occasions.
In their statement, USCIRF also condemns Russia for denying Brother Christensen early release. USCIRF reports that he was “granted parole on June 23, [2020,] but the decision was quickly challenged by a state prosecutor. Rather than being released, Christensen was instead placed in a poorly ventilated punishment cell for allegedly violating prison rules.”
USCIRF’s statement concludes by referring to its 2020 Annual Report. The report condemns the Russian government “for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” and recommends that the U.S. government penalize Russia by designating it a “country of particular concern.”
United Nations Human Rights Council
Similarly, in a joint letter to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office, eight high-ranking officials mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council express dismay over “the continued persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation, the liquidation of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, and the banning of religious activities of all of its 395 branches in the country.” The officials also criticize Russia for ignoring the international community’s repeated calls to end the persecution.
The UN officials explain that Russia’s vague extremism laws have “been invoked to prohibit any religious activity by Jehovah’s Witnesses, instill fear among them, interfere with their privacy through police interventions and searches at their homes, to take some of their members into custody for the purpose of interrogation, and in some cases to convict and imprison them.”
“The right of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to religious practices and manifestations is provided by article 18 (1) of the ICCPR,” * assert the officials. Thus, they call on the Russian Federation “to ensure that the 2002 Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity does not unduly infringe upon the constitutional rights of individuals to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”
The letter also exposes some of the cruel treatment against our brothers. For example, it cites the five Witnesses from Saratov who were brutalized on February 6, 2020. The letter expounds: “Detained Jehovah’s Witnesses often suffer harsh detention conditions, ill-treatment, and other physical and psychological violence that may amount to torture, due to their religious beliefs.”
The officials’ letter refers to another tragic example of persecution—Russian officers tortured Brother Vadim Kutsenko on February 10, 2020. The Russian authorities deny torturing Brother Kutsenko. Unconvinced, the UN officials maintain “serious concerns at what appears to be a pattern of nationwide repression against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ communities through the criminalization of their peaceful activities.”
Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers
The 2017 ban and ensuing persecution have triggered the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers * to enhance its monitoring of Russia’s compliance with two rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that found Russia guilty of violating the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. * Therefore, the Committee issued a decision dated October 1, 2020, in which they express ongoing “serious concern about the 2017 blanket ban and alarming reports from different sources . . . that, as a consequence of this ban, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned merely for peacefully manifesting their religious beliefs.”
To prevent similar violations, the Committee recommends that Russia should explore ways to improve its “current anti-extremism legislation which had served as a ground for the new ban and for subsequent criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Additionally, Russia should consider “the lifting of the blanket ban and discontinuing the criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses which were opened for having participated in peaceful religious activities only.” Russia’s compliance will be reviewed again in 2021.
Since 2017, over 400 of our brothers and sisters in Russia and Crimea have been accused of so-called extremism. More than 210 Witnesses have been imprisoned in over 70 cities across Russia.