Russia continues to lay trumped-up charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses and jailing some as an apparent warnings to others. I have no love for that faith or any other, but this is dark, disturbing stuff:
A court in Pskov in northern European Russia handed 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovsky the longest jail sentence given to a Jehovah’s Witness after the 2017 Supreme Court ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity — six and a half years’ imprisonment in a general-regime labour camp (“correctional colony”). This is the second-longest jail term yet handed down on “extremism”-related charges for meeting with others to pray and study beliefs.
Well, I guess that, formally, Shpakovsky did more than gather with others to pray and study. The man was found to possess two small jars of donations to the church. According to his lawyer, Arly Chimirov, they contained the equivalent of about six dollars. The prosecutors considered that evidence of “conspiracy and financing.” The allegation was supported by the FSB (the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB). Its agents claimed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are building a “world theocratic state.”
One jar of pocket change at a time, apparently.
In April 2017, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned by Russia’s Supreme Court, with the justices ruling that the Watchtower tribe promotes “extremism.” Citizens found to be belong to the organization face six to ten years in jail.
[T]he United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted a wide-ranging opinion condemning the raids, arrests, detention and trials of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, stating it “wishes to emphasize that none of them should have been arrested and held in pre-trial detention and no trial of any of them should take or should have taken place.”
Human Rights Watch reported in January that
At least 313 people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal “extremism” for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases. About two-thirds of them found out about their status as suspect or accused in 2019. Authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in more than 70 towns and cities across Russia, more than half of them in 2019. Courts convicted 18 people in 2019, nine of whom received prison sentences ranging from two to six years, for such activities as leading or participating in prayer meetings.
I can’t say I get it. If individual Witnesses are guilty of actual crimes and misdemeanors — child molestation, fraud, sedition, refusal to serve, what have you — then why not prosecute and punish them under the same laws that apply to everyone else?
By the way, Russia’s population is 144 million. Before the 2017 ban, the country had about 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s just over 0.12 percent of the total populace. As a result of the state’s crackdown, that number must have decreased, in part because some JWs have fled the country. Can a handful of people meeting peacefully to read their in(s)ane holy texts really undermine a state as mighty as Vladimir Putin‘s?
I can maybe see cracking down on open proselytizing (though I’m pleased that that would never fly in the U.S., where we are all protected by the First Amendment), but wholesale repression of the sort the Russian state has been pursuing for the last three years sure looks like an awful, completely condemnable human-rights violation to me.
As I noted two years ago,
Other countries where Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and China — collectively, a rogues’ gallery of illiberalism and oppression.
One bright point is that convicted Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have some legal recourse, at least in scattered cases. In March, a court in Penza, about 340 miles southeast of Moscow, overturned the verdicts against six JWs who’d been jailed on charges of extremism.