JULY 31, 2014
On July 30, 2014, the Taganrog City Court convicted and sentenced 7 of 16 Witnesses on trial for attending and organizing their peaceful religious meetings. They were prosecuted merely for carrying out the same religious activity that Jehovah’s Witnesses perform around the world. This verdict sets a dangerous precedent in restricting religious freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia.
The judge had scheduled to announce the verdict on July 28, 2014, but he adjourned to the following day. On July 29, the judge read the 100-page decision all day and continued on the morning of July 30. He sentenced four congregation elders to prison terms of five to five and a half years and to pay a 100,000 ruble ($2,800 U.S.) fine. He sentenced three other Witnesses to pay fines of 50,000 to 60,000 rubles ($1,400 to $1,700 U.S.) each. The judge waived all of the fines because the investigation and trial exceeded the statute of limitations, and he suspended the prison sentences. The remaining nine Witnesses were acquitted.
In reaching his decision, the judge relied on the September 2009 ruling of the Rostov Regional Court to liquidate the Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog. Although the 2009 ruling targeted only the legal entity, the judge determined that the religious activity of all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taganrog and surrounding districts was banned.
During the 15-month-long trial, those accused testified that they would not renounce their faith and would continue their worship as Jehovah’s Witnesses. For those sentenced, their resolve to continue their religious activity means that they face the possibility of imprisonment as repeat offenders.
Victor Zhenkov, one of the attorneys in the case, stated: “I fear what the decision portends for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Law enforcement authorities in Taganrog and throughout Russia can use this decision in a propaganda campaign to continue harassing and persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses with the real threat of imprisonment merely for practicing their faith.”
The Witnesses in Taganrog are appealing the decision to the Rostov Regional Court.