Accusation Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured in Siberia rejected

Russia’s investigative committee said it found no evidence staff used unlawful force

Jehovah’s Witnesses have come under intense pressure in Russia since the country’s supreme court banned the US-based Christian evangelical movement. Photograph: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty

Jehovah’s Witnesses have come under intense pressure in Russia since the country’s supreme court banned the US-based Christian evangelical movement. Photograph: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty

 

Russia’s investigative committee has rejected charges that a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured while under detention in Siberia last month.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused investigators in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk region of subjecting several of its followers to beatings and electric shocks to obtain confessions during an official crackdown on the Christian evangelical movement in the city of Surgut in February.

The Russian investigative committee’s Khanty-Mansiysk division said on Wednesday that it had conducted an internal investigation after receiving complaints of physical abuse from nine citizens, but had found no evidence that its staff had used unlawful force.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut were disseminating complaints on social media to influence the outcome of the investigation and “discredit law enforcement agencies”, the committee said in a statement. Investigators frequently met this kind of “active line of defence” from defendants in criminal cases.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have come under intense pressure in Russia since the country’s supreme court banned the US-based Christian evangelical movement in 2017, branding it as an “extremist organisation”.

Police in Surgut swooped on the homes of suspected Jehovah’s Witness followers in February, rounding up at least 40 people. Rights groups say the detainees were taken to a police precinct and submitted to torture including cruel beatings, stun guns, suffocation and electric shocks.

Police onslaught

The police onslaught on Surgut came one week after a court in western Russia sentenced a Danish citizen, Dennis Christiansen, to six years in prison for organising Jehovah’s Witness prayer meetings. Mr Christiansen became the first person to be jailed for practising his faith, but scores more Jehovah’s Witnesses are awaiting trial in Russian courts.

Detailing the results of its probe on Wednesday, the investigative committee said some Jehovah’s Witnesses had suffered “minor bruising and abrasions” to the legs after provoking a confrontation with police searching their homes in Surgut last month. Law enforcers had not exceeded their legal powers in the scuffle, it said.

A forensic medical examination had ruled out the possibility of electric shock torture after establishing that what appeared to be burn marks on the skin of complainants were caused after the time of the Surgut interrogations. In some cases doctors were unable to find evidence that complainants had suffered any physical harm at all.

The Committee Against Torture said law enforcement agencies rarely respond to complaints about the physical abuse of detainees, let alone bring perpetrators of torture to justice. Even in cases where torture charges are held up in court, the victims receive miserly compensation, the Russian rights group said.

However, the investigative committee said on Wednesday it always conducted “thorough investigations” when faced with complaints of rights abuse by its staff.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have an estimated 170,000 followers in Russia, a country of 144 million people where the majority are Christian Orthodox.

The right to religious freedom is enshrined in the Russian constitution and in international human rights treaties to which Russia is a party.