Russian authorities continue their aggressive attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses by conducting a campaign of terror reminiscent of the Soviet era. As of June 17, 2021, there are 53 Witnesses who are in pretrial detention or sentenced to prison, 36 who are under house arrest, and 224 who are not allowed to leave their hometown. All have been charged with organizing, participating in, or financing the activity of an “extremist” organization. At least 418 Witnesses are currently under investigation, ranging in age from 20 to 90 years old.
Officials attempt to justify their actions by citing the April 2017 ban on the Witnesses’ legal entities and misapplying Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code (RFCC) concerning extremist activity. In reality, they are prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses for peaceful worship. If convicted, some of those who have been arrested face prison terms of up to ten years.
Russia’s Pattern of Arrest, Detention, and Imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Since February 2018, law enforcement officers have followed a general pattern when arresting and detaining Jehovah’s Witnesses. Heavily armed police forcibly enter Witnesses’ homes, often pointing guns at the heads of the residents—including children and the elderly—and forcing them to the floor. While officers search the premises, they confiscate personal belongings and take some Witnesses into custody for further interrogation. Investigators initiate criminal charges against selected Witnesses for alleged extremist activity and petition the courts to order their pretrial detention. Once the Witnesses are jailed, prosecutors petition the courts to extend the pretrial detentions, and the courts typically grant their requests. The following is an overview of events concerning 11 Witnesses who have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison on extremism charges. *
Valentina Baranovskaya was arrested on April 10, 2019, after armed law enforcement officers in Abakan raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including her own. Her son, Roman Baranovskiy, was also arrested. Officers confiscated their Bibles, electronic devices, and personal records. As a result, a criminal case was initiated against them. On February 24, 2021, the Abakan City Court of the Republic of Khakassia sentenced Ms. Baranovskaya to two years in prison. This is the first time that a female Witness has been sentenced to prison for practicing her faith. Ms. Baranovskaya is 70 years old and suffered a stroke in July 2020. The court also sentenced Mr. Baranovskiy to six years in prison.
Aleksandr Ivshin is 63 years old and was criminally charged on April 23, 2020. Among his “crimes” are the organizing of religious services by videoconference and the singing of religious songs. When authorities searched Mr. Ivshin’s house, the stress of the search caused him to suffer a hypertensive emergency. Several months after the search, his car was seized. On February 10, 2021, Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory convicted Mr. Ivshin. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, making this the longest, harshest sentence imposed on one Jehovah’s Witnesses since the 2017 Supreme Court ban.
Dennis Christensen was granted early release after serving over three years of a six-year prison sentence. On June 23, 2020, the Lgovskiy District Court in the Kursk Region mitigated the remainder of Mr. Christensen’s sentence to a fine of 400,000 rubles ($5,759, U.S.). However, Mr. Aleksei Shatunov of the Kursk Regional Public Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal demanding that the court ruling be canceled. The appeal is based on false reports that Mr. Christensen did not have a favorable prison record. Mr. Christensen will now remain in prison pending the outcome of the new hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. In the meantime, the prison authorities placed him in a punishment cell for ten days despite his poor health for alleged minor violations of prison rules.
Mr. Christensen is a 46-year-old Danish citizen who was arrested in Oryol on May 25, 2017, when heavily armed police officers and agents of the Federal Security Services disrupted a peaceful weekly religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses that he was attending. After nearly a year-long criminal trial with over 50 court appearances, Mr. Christensen was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment merely for practicing his faith as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 6, 2019, Judge Aleksey Rudnev of the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol read the verdict convicting Mr. Christensen on the false charge of ‘organizing the activity of an extremist organization,’ under Article 282.2(1) of the RFCC. On May 23, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Oryol Regional Court denied Mr. Christensen’s appeal and upheld the six-year prison sentence.
Sergey Klimov was arrested on June 3, 2018, after law enforcement officers and special police forces invaded two homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some 30 Witnesses, including an 83-year-old woman, were taken for questioning. All except Mr. Klimov were released. Local authorities initiated criminal charges against him, placing him in pretrial detention for two months. This detention was extended seven times, separating him from his wife and family for a year and five months before he was finally tried and sentenced. On November 5, 2019, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Tomsk sentenced Mr. Klimov to six years in prison for allegedly ‘organizing extremist activity.’ Mr. Klimov will be released in July 2023.
Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, Feliks Makhammadiyev, Roman Gridasov, Gennadiy German, and Aleksey Miretskiy were criminally charged after Russian authorities raided seven homes of Witnesses in Saratov on June 12, 2018. On that day, police broke down apartment doors, seized personal belongings and, in some cases, planted banned religious publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They took more than ten Witnesses for interrogation and held them until nearly midnight. Three of the men were taken into custody and spent nearly a year in pretrial detention.
On September 19, 2019, Judge Dmitry Larin of the Leninskiy District Court of Saratov sentenced the six men to lengthy prison terms for allegedly ‘organizing extremist activity.’ Two of the men received a three-and-a-half-year sentence, one received a three-year sentence, and three others received a two-year sentence. Additionally, the ruling states that after serving their time in prison, all of them will be banned from holding leadership positions in public organizations for a period of five years. These men have also suffered abuse in prison. On February 6, 2020, prison guards at Russia’s Penal Colony No. 1 used clubs to violently assault Aleksey Budenchuk, Gennadiy German, Roman Gridasov, Feliks Makhammadiyev, and Aleksey Miretskiy. Mr. Makhammadiyev was so badly beaten that he was hospitalized with a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys.
Mass Searches and Raids in July 2020
On July 12, 2020, FSB officers raided at least three homes of Witnesses in Prokopievsk, Kemerovo Region. A number of Witnesses were taken to the FSB headquarters for questioning and then subsequently released. However, Andrey Vlasov, a disabled Witness who walks with a cane, was detained for two days. Authorities initiated a criminal case against him and on July 14 he was sentenced to house arrest for two months.
On July 13, over 100 homes of Witnesses were searched in several villages in the Voronezh Region and in the city of Stariy Oskol, Belgorod Region. Criminal cases were initiated and ten Witness men were sentenced to pretrial detention until September 3. At least two Witnesses were severely beaten by officers of the Special Rapid Response Unit who forcibly entered the home of Alexander Bokov. Mr. Bokov was punched in the stomach, hit on the head, and then forced to squat while the officers interrogated him. Dmitrii Katirov was also pushed to the floor, hit, and kicked until he cried out in pain.
Continued Efforts to End Unjust Imprisonments
Attorneys for imprisoned Witnesses have submitted complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). They have also filed 57 applications with the European Court of Human Rights. Thus far their efforts to end the unjust imprisonments have been unsuccessful.
Some international tribunals have openly condemned Russia for its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, in a decision adopted on April 26, 2019, the WGAD denounced Russia’s systemic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a case involving Mr. Dmitriy Mikhailov from the city of Shuya. The WGAD concluded that Mr. Mikhailov’s arrest and pretrial detention was based on religious discrimination and acknowledged that his case is “only one of the now ever-growing number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who have been arrested, detained and charged with criminal activity on the basis of mere exercise of freedom of religion.”
On March 12, 2020, the OSCE Permanent Council and the European Union issued a joint statement condemning Russian authorities for their treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “The European Union continues to be deeply concerned about the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who continue to face systemic persecution . . . We are deeply concerned about recent specific reports of torture and other ill-treatment of several members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in detention.” The statement continued: “Torture breaches international human rights law, in particular the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, all of which the Russian Federation is a state party to.”
June 17, 2021
Total of 53 Witnesses imprisoned.
February 24, 2021
Abakan City Court of the Republic of Khakassia sentences Valentina Baranovskaya to two years in prison and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, to six years in prison.
February 10, 2021
Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Aleksandr Ivshin to seven and a half years in prison.
September 2, 2020
Berezovsky City Court of the Kemerovo Region sentences Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years in prison.
August 3, 2020
Pskov Regional Court rules to release Gennady Shpakovskiy from prison. It upholds his conviction but changes his six-and-a-half-year prison sentence to probation for the same term.
July 13, 2020
Mass searches of at least 100 Witness homes in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions.
June 9, 2020
Pskov City Court convicts 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovskiy and sentences him to six and a half years in prison.
February 6, 2020
Five of the six Witnesses convicted on September 19, 2019, are transferred to Penal Colony No. 1 in Orenburg. When they arrive, prison guards beat them severely—kicking them repeatedly and hitting them with clubs. Mr. Makhammadiyev suffers a broken rib, a collapsed lung, and kidney damage.
September 19, 2019
Judge Dmitry Larin of the Leninskiy District Court of Saratov sentences six male Witnesses to prison—Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, Feliks Makhammadiyev, Roman Gridasov, Gennadiy German, and Aleksey Miretskiy—for allegedly ‘organizing extremist activity.’
May 23, 2019
Oryol Regional Court denies Dennis Christensen’s appeal and upholds the six-year prison sentence.
April 26, 2019
UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds that the rights of Dimtriy Mikhailov have been violated and denounces Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
February 6, 2019
The Zheleznodorozhniy District Court finds Dennis Christensen guilty and sentences him to six years of imprisonment.
October 9, 2018
Police and special forces raid homes in Kirov. Several male Witnesses, including Andrzej Oniszczuk, who is a Polish citizen, are arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
July 15, 2018
Police search the homes of several Witnesses in Penza. Vladimir Alushkin is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
July 4, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Omsk. Sergey and Anastasiya Polyakov are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Mrs. Polyakova is the first female Witness in the Russian Federation to be imprisoned on charges of extremism.
June 12, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Saratov. Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, and Feliks Makhammadiyev are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Three other Witnesses, Gennadiy German, Roman Gridasov, and Aleksey Miretskiy are ordered to sign an agreement not to leave the city.
June 3, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Tomsk and Pskov. Sergey Klimov is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
February 19, 2018
Criminal trial of Dennis Christensen begins in the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, with Judge Aleksey Rudnev presiding.
July 20, 2017–November 2018
Dennis Christensen’s pretrial detention is extended several times, first by the Sovietskiy District Court and then by the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court.
May 26, 2017
Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.
May 25, 2017
Police raid religious services in Oryol and arrest Dennis Christensen.
April 20, 2017
The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rules to liquidate the national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 395 Local Religious Organizations.