Russia continues its crackdown on religious liberty, especially targeting minority religious sects and organizations. Jehovah's Witnesses have been singled out for particular persecution by authorities.
Recently, a Russian court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Aleksandr Ivshin to seven and a half years in prison for his religious practice. It is the harshest sentence handed down since the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling in 2017 that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, calling the faith group “extremist.” The so-called extremist behavior of Mr. Ivshin included organizing online Bible studies with other members of the group.
On February 10, police in Moscow and the surrounding region searched 15 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and detained several members for questioning. Three of them remain in custody. On the same day, a regional court in Kursk again denied the early release of a jailed Danish member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who has been serving a six-year prison term since 2017.
This is part of a pattern that has been escalating in recent years. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Russian government in 2019 “continued to target ‘nontraditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism. Russian legislation criminalizes ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.”
The situation worsened last year, according to press reports and human rights NGOs. Russian police have reportedly raided 1,296 private homes, initiated 197 criminal cases against 435 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 42 Jehovah's Witnesses are currently in prison, and 27 are currently under house arrest. Church property was confiscated, and between 5,000 and 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are thought to have fled the country since 2017 as a result of persecution.
“The United States condemns Russia’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities in the strongest possible terms,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement. “The United States affirms that as a matter of human rights, all people are entitled to believe or not to believe according to the dictates of their own conscience.”