JULY 10, 2015
Motivated by religious hatred, armed groups in eastern Ukraine have abducted and mistreated 26 of Jehovah’s Witnesses since August 2014. Many Witnesses live in the region, and they are well-known for their public ministry and political neutrality. Some members of armed groups have capitalized on the recent lack of law and order in the region and have singled out the Witnesses for brutal treatment. *
Incidents of Violence
On May 21, 2015, police officers in the town of Stakhanov detained two male Witnesses, both over the age of 60, because of their religious activity. They were charged with “disturbing the peace” and given a 15-day sentence. While in police custody, the two Witnesses were accused of espionage and were repeatedly interrogated about the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Congregation members pleaded with the local prosecutor to release the men, but he refused to grant their request. Family and fellow Witnesses were initially denied access to the two men but were later allowed to provide food, clothing, and medicine three times a week. One of the Witnesses was released on June 2, 2015, and the other the next day—with an order to leave the region.
On May 17, 2015, armed men in the Novoazovsk area detained four of Jehovah’s Witnesses, blindfolded them, and took them at gunpoint to the local military headquarters. For two hours they viciously beat the Witnesses and subjected them to mock executions. They demanded that the youngest Witness join their army and that all of the Witnesses confess the Orthodox faith as the only true religion. The Witnesses were released after spending a night in a cramped, makeshift jail.
On January 22, 2015, three armed men kidnapped a Witness from his workplace in Donetsk. His family was unable to confirm where he had been taken or under what pretext. While detained, he repeatedly explained his politically neutral position and was released after nine days.
On August 9, 2014, an armed member of the local militia abducted two Witnesses in Stakhanov, Luhansk region. Held captive for six days, they were beaten repeatedly and subjected to mock mutilation and staged executions. They were also denied adequate food, water, clothing, and medical care. Their abductors attempted to force them to renounce their faith, repeat Orthodox creeds, and venerate icons, making it clear that religion was the issue. Despite this cruel treatment, the Witnesses refused to compromise.
Jehovah’s Witnesses live by their religious beliefs and refuse to fight, campaign, or provide monetary support for either side of the military conflict in Ukraine. Armed groups have attacked the Witnesses because of their neutral stand and because they do not adhere to Orthodox beliefs. The assaults are a brutal attempt to force them to renounce their faith.
Perseverance in Spite of Persecution
Since control of this region is still in dispute, no legal remedies are currently available to the Witnesses. They have reported these and similar incidents to the international community, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Despite the difficulties that Jehovah’s Witnesses may endure in eastern Ukraine, they are determined to remain neutral, and they continue to worship discreetly. They remain hopeful that local authorities will uphold the fundamental human right to freedom of religion.
^ Armed men attacked Yuriy, pictured at the outset, because he is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On one occasion, they stopped him on the street when he was returning from religious services, and on two other occasions, they attacked him at his home. They demanded that he renounce his religious beliefs and stop his activity as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.